Reviewed March 26, 2008 by Tong Zhang, Senior Editor
For the last couple of years, the US carriers have put on a good show for PDA phone power users with selections of Windows Mobile, Palm, BlackBerry and Apple smartphones. Although each US carrier has something to offer in the Windows Mobile Professional (Pocket PC phone with touch screen) camp, the devices are very similar in form factor. Namely the AT&T Tilt, the T-Mobile Wing, the HTC Mogul from Sprint and the Verizon VX6800, all have a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, relatively bulky body and a 2.8” display. They look similar for a good reason: they are all designed and manufactured by HTC. Mobile users who crave variety look to unlocked GSM PDA phones such as the E-TEN Glofiish line. With the launch of the P527, ASUS has officially entered the North America market for unlocked smartphones (we’ll use that term to describe both touch screen and non-touch screen devices), and it offers up a different form factor from the US mainstream.
The ASUS P527 Windows Mobile 6 Professional Pocket PC phone doesn’t have a slide-out keyboard, in fact it doesn’t have a QWERTY keyboard at all. Instead it has a number pad along with two columns of dedicated menu buttons. The phone looks like a wide candy bar feature phone (feature phone grande if you will) with a 2.6” display. Though horsepower-wise the ASUS occupies the lower-end of the WinMo PDA phone spectrum, feature-wise it’s loaded with Windows Mobile applications, business tools, triple wireless radios and a built-in GPS. ASUS will sell the P527 unlocked through authorized dealers in North America for $499 and $599 if you choose the North America map bundle on a 2GB microSD card.
Features at a Glance
The ASUS P527 is a quad band GSM world phone with EDGE/GPRS for data. Sorry no 3G. It’s sold unlocked for use with any GSM carrier. The PDA phone is powered by a 200MHz TI OMAP processor, with 64MB of RAM and 128MB of flash ROM. The smartphone runs the Windows Mobile 6 Professional operating system and has integrated Bluetooth v2.0 +EDR and Wi-Fi 802.11b/g. The ASUS has an integrated 2-megapixel camera with auto-focus lens and the camera application uses the 2.6” LCD as its viewfinder. For road warriors, the P527 offers built-in GPS with the SiRF III chipset, navigation software and North America maps and POIs (on the $599 version). Additional features include a microSD card slot supporting SDHC, an FM radio and Business card reader.
In the Box
The ASUS package includes the P527 PDA phone with standard battery, AC world charger, mini-USB sync cable, wired stereo headset, protective case, P527 bonus CD and a printed getting started guide and full manual. The $599 package adds a 2GB microSD card with North America maps and navigation software pre-installed and the “ASUS Go” Navigation CD and manual.
Design and Ergonomics
While PDA-style slate design WinMo Pocket PC phones and those with only number pads aren’t to be found in the US these days, Asian manufacturers like E-TEN and ASUS have us covered. E-TEN handles the slate design while ASUS has been making the number pad design for years (these were not generally sold in the US). The ASUS P527 is a lot more pocket-able than the AT&T Tilt and its cousins, and at 4.45 x 2.28 x 0.6 inches it’s only a bit larger and ever so slightly lighter than the slim and stylish Sony Ericsson P1, and a tad taller than the E-TEN Glofiish X650. Folks who are used to candy bar feature phones will love ASUS’ light and slim design that doesn’t differ much from candy bar phones. The brushed metal finish also gives the phone a modern and masculine look.
The 65K color LCD takes more than half of the front real estate, and the number keys and menu keys below are not big but not cramped either. The Call send and end keys require precise presses as they are not as big as those found on the Tilt or the E-TEN Glofiish X800. The Left and Right shoulder keys and the Home and OK keys are even smaller. The ASUS has a thumb-stick control instead of a 5-way d-pad, and it’s hard to use. The P527 is wider than most candy bar feature phones, and the extra width efforts 2 additional columns of dedicated menu keys (Hot Keys in ASUS’ lingo) that launch Travelog, FM radio, Bluetooth, Message, Voice Command and the application switcher. Side buttons are minimal thanks to the extra front menu keys. You will find the jog dial and OK button on the left, the key/screen hold slider, soft reset hole, camera launcher and microSD card slot on the right.
The phone’s rear-firing stereo speaker, 2 mp camera lens and battery door live on the back of the ASUS. The SIM card slot is underneath the battery. The power button is on top of the phone, and headset port, charge/sync mini-USB port and the stylus silo are on the bottom of the device. The stylus fits tight in the silo and it won’t fall out accidentally.
Phone Features and Reception
The ASUS P527 is a quad band world phone that works on all GSM bands (850/900/1800/1900MHz). This is the first Pocket PC phone that ASUS has offered in North America and it's sold unlocked for use with any GSM carrier (that generally means T-Mobile and AT&T in the US). For data, the ASUS P527 has EDGE/GPRS but lacks 3G, a feature that T-Mobile users could care less about but AT&T customers who are used to 3G’s faster speeds might consider a roadblock. Our DSL reports mobile speed tests averaged 160-180kbit/sec, very respectable for EDGE speed but nowhere near AT&T HSDPA 3G speed that averages 600-800k. WiFi is the ASUS’ saving grace for high-speed data in the office, at home and around Wi-Fi hotspots.
Reception is great on the US bands for GSM and EDGE. We had full bars on AT&T throughout the Dallas area, and experienced no dropped calls. The call quality is good with clear audio and good volume. Only heavy thunderstorms affected voice quality a bit in our tests—but the same could be said for our other phones. The speakerphone sounded good in calls as well and voice through the included wired stereo headset was excellent. The ASUS P527 has integrated Bluetooth and supports both Headset and Hands-Free profiles. We tested the smartphone with the Jabra BT8040 and the Plantronics Explorer 330 Bluetooth headsets and it had great performance with both. The voice quality through the Jabra BT8040 was very good with clear and loud sound. It was not as full as a landline voice but the DSP worked wonders: our call recipients could hardly hear any road noise and wind noise. The range was about 20 feet between the smartphone and the headset before we could hear crackling and audio distortion. Voice command and voice dialing worked like a charm via the Jabra Bluetooth headset and the headset automatically reconnected with the P527 after power on/off. While pairing and connecting were just as easy with the Plantronics Explorer 330, the voice quality wasn’t as good as the Jabra. Though sound via the Plantronics was fuller, our call recipients heard a lot more road noise and wind noise. This isn’t entirely the ASUS P527’s fault as other phones had similar performance when working with the Explorer 330. The range between the Plantronics and the ASUS reached only about 10 feet, but voice command over Bluetooth worked very well.
The ASUS P527 has Windows Mobile Professional standard call management features. It offers smart dialing (matching the first few letters in names to provide a list of contacts), speed dialing (press and hold any number key you have assigned as a speed dial), dialing from call history and more. The ASUS also bundles the excellent Cyberon Voice Commander 2.0 software which not only handles dialing by voice but also can read messages out loud, launch applications and announce the date, time, my next appointments, etc., all without any pre-recorded voice tags or voice training. The voice dialing and voice command worked very well in our tests, and also worked via Bluetooth headsets.
Horsepower and Performance
The TI OMAP850 processor running at 200MHz is an unsuitably slow brain for a richly featured Pocket PC phone, especially when it comes to CPU and memory intensive applications likevideo playback and GPS navigation. Couple the slow processor with limited memory (64MB total and 24MB RAM available at boot) you’ve got a poorly performing machine. We tested the ASUS using TCPMP, a super fast open source free video player that supports MPEG1, DivX, ASF, WMV and AVI files. TCPMP provides benchmarks on video playback, and we used our usual test file “The Chosen” encoded in 370kbps. The result in average speed was 180.32% which is considerably slower than any heavyweight Windows Mobile PDA phones.
What’s even more unsettling is that the device seems to have memory leaks which doesn’t help the performance one bit. When you quit applications the device doesn’t free up the expected amount of memory, and only a soft reset will get your memory back. As result, the ASUS not only runs video slowly, it also runs less-power hungry applications like music playback sluggishly as well. We got frequent out of memory messages while running 3-5 applications. The P527 comes with 128MB flash ROM with 29.32 MB free to store programs and files. The ASUS comes with a generous bundle of OEM and third-party applications which use up a good chunk of flash storage. You will likely need a memory card if you install additional software, and the P527 has a microSD card slot that is compatible with SDHC cards.
Display, Sound and Multimedia
The ASUS P527 has a smaller display than mainstream Pocket PC phones (2.6” vs. 2.8”), but it’s as bright as the LCDs on the Tilt and the Glofiish X800. The ASUS screen can display 65K colors and is in portrait 240 x 320 resolution. Pictures and video clips look good on the screen and you can set the display to landscape mode for easier viewing of documents, spreadsheets and web pages. Like all Windows Mobile Professional phones, the screen is bit hard to see outdoors unless the brightness is turned to max. You will want to turn the brightness to max if you are taking outdoor pictures using the display as a viewfinder or checking out maps while geocaching.
The ASUS P527 has a built-in loudspeaker that sounds good in calls (ASUS describes it as “stereo quality”, but there’s only one speaker). The smartphone supports MIDI, WAV and MP3 ringtones and comes with several MIDI classical pieces as ringtones. First time Windows Mobile users should know that unlike many feature phones currently on the market that support AAC files, Windows Media Player Mobile phone still does not support AAC/AAC+ format music files (the default iTunes format). So if you have ripped CDs in iTunes in AAC format, you’ll need to rip them again in Windows Media Player or purchase a 3rd party music player with AAC support. Music playback sounded good via the speaker, and obviously better using the included wired stereo headset. We also tested Bluetooth stereo headphones with the ASUS P527 since it has A2DP/AVRCP support. The ASUS sounded good but not excellent via the Plantronics Pulsar 590A and Motorola S9 Bluetooth stereo headsets, which was a surprise because many of latest phones sounded superb via these headsets. The sound was good with high volume, but wasn’t very full and dynamic.
Given the ASUS P527’s 200MHz processor, this isn’t a video demon. If watching video ripped from DVD is one of your main tasks on a Pocket PC phone, look for faster devices with stronger multimedia like the Glofiish X800 and X650. That said, for QVGA videos encoded at 350kbit/sec or less, the P527 can handle the task. There were no discernable frame drops and audio was in sync with the video when playing QVGA videos encoded at 300 – 350kbps.
In addition to Windows Media Player for music and video playback, the ASUS also comes with an FM Radio which seems a popular treat on import smartphones (E-TEN and Nokia S60 come to mind). The FM radio on the ASUS uses the included headset as antenna and got a large number of stations in the Dallas/For Worth area. The radio offers preset list where you can add, delete and change the listing order. The audio quality was good through the headset.
Today more and more phones come with aGPS (assisted GPS) that’s tied to carriers or service providers via a subscription service. While aGPS services are often reliable and fast, they do require a monthly fee. The ASUS P527 has the SiRF III GPS chipset that has excellent performance and does not require fees like aGPS services. ASUS also includes its own navigation software called ASUS Go, and if you opt for the map bundle version of the P527, you will also get North America maps with POIs on a 2GB microSD card. To make sure that you take full advantage of the GPS, ASUS even throws in several supporting apps: GPS Catcher, a satellite info updater; Travelog which allows you to record your trips and export the data to Google Earth and create your own POIs; and Location Courier, an application that allows you to send SMS messages with location to up to five numbers. GPS power users who can utilize all GPS tools will have a remarkable experience with the ASUS.
The SiRF III chipset offered very good performance with cold start times under a minute and warm/hot starts within half a minute to get a 3D fix. The GPS receiver tracks up to 12 satellites and keeps a solid fix on 4 satellites for the 3D data. The ASUS Go navigation software offers the standard route planning including fastest, shortest distance and avoidance of road conditions (toll road, etc.). The routing was right on target and route recalculation on the fly was quick and accurate. The map has decent zooming and scrolling speeds running off the microSD card and the POI (Point of Interest) database has a large number of entries which are as fresh as those in most other map bundles (some POIs might not be there if they are newer than 6 months). Both the GPS menu and route/voice guidance support several languages. The voice guidance seems to be on target and is very loud through the phone’s built-in speaker. Overall, the GPS experience is excellent on the P527.
The ASUS P527 comes with a 2 megapixel camera with an auto-focus lens and 5x zoom. The camera lens isn’t terribly wide angle and the auto-focus is quite fast by camera phone standards. You can take still images in one of six resolutions and in super fine, fine and normal quality settings. The camera has multi-shot mode with 4 or 9 pictures per shot options. It also has macro mode for close-up shots. Image quality is a bit above most 2 megapixel fixed focus camera phones on the market and on par with HTC and E-TEN’s current auto-focus offerings. The photos are sharp but not harsh, colors are generally balanced with an occasional color cast that turns blue sky violet, and has good depth of field. Even indoor shots with good light are reasonably sharp and have good color balance. Macro shots look a bit soft.
The ASUS P527 can also record video clips with audio in 3gp and mp4 formats. The video capture resolutions are 176 x 144 and 128 x 96 pixels. The video quality in 176 x 144 is a little blocky but very viewable, and audio and video are in sync.
WiFi and Bluetooth
The ASUS P527 has both WiFi 802.11b/g and Bluetooth v2.0 +EDR, which competes well with the also unlock E-TEN Glofiish smartphones. The P527 has a wireless manager that you can use to turn on or off any or all of the triple wireless radios (cell, Bluetooth and WiFi) on one screen. Both WiFi and Bluetooth have their own manager where you can find and connect to access point in WiFi or pair with Bluetooth partners in Bluetooth Manager.
The ASUS P527 has integrated Bluetooth v2.0 with EDR support, and in addition to the headset, hands-free, A2DP and AVRCP support, it also support ActiveSync over Bluetooth, FTP/OBEX as well as PAN and serial port profiles. The Bluetooth manager can search for and pair with discoverable computers, headsets and other devices, and the P527 had no trouble pairing with all the Bluetooth devices we tested.
The WiFi manager on the ASUS can find nearby access points and offers 6 types of authentication (Open, WPA2-PSK, WPA, etc.) and AES and TKIP data encryption. We connected the ASUS to our D-Link 802.11n router in G mode using WPA2-PSK, and the P527 worked well with the WiFi router and range was good by Windows Mobile Professional phone standards.
The ASUS P527 comes with a 1300 mAh 3.7V Lithium Ion battery (model number SBP-06) which is a good capacity considering the device has only a 200 MHz processor. The claimed talk time is 4 hours and claimed standby time is 4-8 days. In our tests, the claimed standby time was on target but talk time was shorter than the claimed time at 3 hours. Having all three wireless radios turned on will drain the battery more quickly, and if you are using EDGE and the GPS receiver frequently along with moderate phone calls, PIM access and some MS Office work you will need to charge the ASUS daily. There were some bugs on our test unit – it launched GPS applications on its own, which drained battery life unnecessarily. We hope that these problems will get ironed out with firmware updates.
The ASUS P527 comes with the standard Windows Mobile Professional applications including a mobile version of MS Office (Word, Excel and a PowerPoint viewer), Internet Explorer, Outlook (Messaging) with email, calendar, contacts, notes and tasks that sync to Windows desktops and MS Exchange, MSN Messenger and Windows Live, Windows Media Player 10, Pictures and Videos viewer, calculator, File Explorer and two games (Solitaire and Bubble Breaker). ASUS adds a large number of value-added software titles. In addition to the GPS applications, the P527 also comes with several business-oriented applications (on CD) including Remote Presenter (controls PowerPoint on laptop/desktop remotely via Bluetooth, Business Card Scanner and Meeting Time Planner (different time zones- this one is on the device). Other software include NewStation (RSS newsfeed), a Java runtime, Streaming Player and ASUS Zip (compression tool).
With the relative lack of PPC phone design variety in the US, unlocked PDA phones are a breath of fresh air for those who want different form factors, different software bundles and no contract extension. The ASUS P527 certainly has a slim look by Window Mobile Professional phone standards and it offers a good software bundle. The integrated SiRF III GPS chip is a big bonus and the 2-megapixel camera gives HTC and E-TEN PPC phones a run for the money. Is there any reason you wouldn’t want to plunge down $500-$600 on this baby? With a lowly 200 MHz processor, you are not getting a speed demon; and the 64MB RAM hurts more in this case. No 3G also will steer away AT&T customers in 3G coverage areas. If you want something faster, for $100 more you can get the E-TEN Glofiish X800 with US 3G, a VGA display and a faster CPU or the Glofiish X650 sans 3G. But if you’re sold on that candy bar design and number pad, ASUS is the only on that’s got you covered. And that US warranty is comforting compared to imports.
Pro:Has a slim form and sleek look. Good phone reception and call quality. It has a good keypad. GPS has great performance and the LBS software bundle completes the GPS experience. Good camera. Solid WiFi and Bluetooth performance. Made for the US market, which should make warranty issues simpler than imports.
Con:Slow performance, memory leaks in our test unit. Not a multimedia powerhouse. Has some bugs that need to be fixed.
Price: $499 sold unlocked; $599 option comes with North America Map bundle on 2GB microSD card and CD.
Display: 65K color transflective TFT LCD. Screen size diagonally: 2.6”. Resolution: 240 x 320.
Battery:Lithium Ion rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable. 1300 mAh. Claimed talk time: 4-5 hours. Claimed standby time: 150-200 hours.
Performance:TI OMAP850 200MHz processor. 64 MB SDRAM with 24 MB free at boot. 128 MB flash ROM with 29.32 MB free at boot.
Size:4.45 x 2.28 x 0.6 inches. Weight: 4.55 ounces.
Phone:Quad band GSM world phone 850/900/1800/1900MHz bands with GPRS and EDGE. Unlocked for use with any GSM carrier.
GPS:SiRF III chipset with internal antenna.
Camera:2 megapixel camera with auto-focus lens. Photo resolutions: 1600x1200, 1280x960, 640x480, 320x240, 160x120, and 80x60 pixels. Can record video with audio in 3gp or mp4. Video Resolutions: 176 x 144 and 128 x 96 pixels.
Audio:Built-in speaker, mic and 2.5mm audio output jack. MP3 and WMA files.
Networking:Integrated Wi-Fi 802.11b/g and Bluetooth v2.0 +EDR.
Software:Windows Mobile 6 Professional operating system. Microsoft Mobile Office suite including Word, Excel and PowerPoint (View presentations only). Also included are Internet Explorer, Outlook Mobile (email, contacts, calendar, tasks and notes), Windows Media Player 10 Mobile, Photos and Videos, Windows Live and MSN Messenger. Other software includes File Explorer, Internet Sharing, Remote Desktop Mobile, calculator, Cyberon Voice Commander 2.0 and Voice Recorder, Solitaire, Bubble Breaker as well as handwriting recognition. 3rd party and ASUS software: Travelog, FM radio, Remote Presenter, Business Card Recognition, Meeting Time Planner, Newstation, ASUS Zip, Location Courier, Backup, GPS Catcher and Auto Cleaner. ActiveSync 4.5 included.