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ThunderHawk Browser for Pocket PC: a killer app? Yes!
Reviewed by Lisa Gade , 2004

 

The current crop of PDAs are in some cases more powerful than your desktop computer circa 1996. As a result of their power and expandability and inherent ultra-portable nature, networking solutions have become more plentiful and affordable. Well, what to do with this nice hardware and Internet access when you're working with a tiny screen? Enter a nice crop of wireless (and wired if you're so inclined) browsers designed for PDAs with Internet connections.

ThunderHawk by Bitstream, $49.95/year

So what does a well known font maker, Bitstream, have to do with PDAs? Take a set of fonts designed to look great in small sizes on a Pocket PC screen in landscape mode and you have the ThunderHawk browser. ThunderHawk uses a custom made Bitstream font "Kassila", named after Thunderhawk's chief software architect, Sampo Kaasila, who invented TrueType while working at Apple. This font allows ThunderHawk to display what looks to be an 640 x 480 view in landscape of a web page. ThunderHawk doesn't state a specific screen resolution because their software custom-sizes each page as needed.

But I already have Pocket Internet Explorer

And we've all been wishing that after so many years, Pocket IE could've evolved further. How many of us really find the standard view, which often shows us only a corner of a web page at at time a real pleasure to use? Allowing IE to run in landscape mode would've been one giant step in the right direction. ThunderHawk takes it even further by formating the page to fit well within the screen in landscape orientation, providing a font set that is very legible (and my eyes are not great!) at small size and supporting more current web standards than IE.

ThunderHawk screen shot
-- ThunderHawk screen shot. Note that this image has been resized smaller to fit this column, the actual screen is larger and more legible of course!

ThunderHawk means desktop experience

No minimalism here. ThunderHawk is designed to approximate the experience of a desktop browser. If you want pages that are formated as if you were looking at them with your desktop computer, images and all, then this is for you. It is not an offline browser like AvantGo, and so far doesn't have the ability to strip out images. If you're using a wireless service that charges by the meg or GPRS then you may not want ThunderHawk. However, ThunderHawk does compress images, so you're not downloading as many bytes as you would be if you used Pocket IE.

The user experience (UI)

Once you create an account (you can set up a 30 day free trial) you're ready to go. Simply enter the activation code emailed to you in ThunderHawk and ThunderHawk's home page will appear with all sorts of helpful links about how to use the software. The browser runs only in landscape mode with buttons to the left (as a lefty, this suits me, but righties may not be happy). The user interface is unique, but won't take you more than 5 minutes to master. Pressing either of the top two buttons (relative to holding your device in landscape, left if you're holding it in the standard way) will bring up the onscreen keyboard and control icons such as close ThunderHawk, reload page, Go and so on. ThunderHawk uses its own on-screen keyboard, you won't be able to use the built-in soft keyboard or character recognizer. I'm not a big fan of on-screen keyboards and wish I could use the trusty character recognizer that's a part of the OS. The bottom two hardware buttons become your page back and page foward buttons. Button assignments vary somewhat depending on your PDA's brand.

New in version 1.02
A Bookmark/Favorites feature has been added to version 1.02, and it automatically picks up your Pocket IE favorites as well as allowing you to add and delete bookmarks whenever you wish. The URL selector remembers the last 64 pages in history during a session, and you can pop back and forth between URLs in history. New also in version 1.02 is the ability to switch back to your Pocket PC desktop without having to exit Thunderhawk.

Speed

ThunderHawk loads pages a bit faster than Pocket IE (our homepage took 3 seconds to load using a WiFi card and IE and 2 seconds using ThunderHawk). Scrolling up and down or sideways is slower because there's a delay of about 1 second while the page is reformated. Hopefully this will improve, perhaps with some caching done on the PDA.

How is this done?

I asked Sampo Kaasila just that question. I imagined that ThunderHawk proxy servers act as a middle-man, reformating the content to make it suitable for Pocket PC screen then sending it out to your device. Here's the definitve word from Sampo: "We do rely on an array of ThunderHawk content adaptation servers acting as proxies. These servers have a very fast Internet connection so they are able to download all the HTML and images fast. They do not strip out content, instead they do all the heavy weigh lifting (page layout with font substitution) on the server and the actual page content is then transmitted in a compacted format to the PDA.
A key thought behind what we do is that we are trying to preserve the content and desk-top experience on the wireless device"

What's supported?

ThunderHawk actually supports more web standards than Pocket IE, including HTML 4.0, SSL, XML 1.0, CSS 1 and some of CSS 2, JavaScript 1.5 and more. Not bad!

As far as PDAs are concerned, the device must be running Windows CE 3.0 or greater or Pocket PC 2002 OS or greater (works for me with a Pocket PC running equivalent Phone Edition hardware such as the Sierra Wireless AirCard 555, which is used in an embedded form in devices such as the Audiovox Thera). The following devices are listed as supported, while others may need additional "configuration" (can't tell you exactly what that means because we haven't tried other devices yet). HP Jornada, 540 or 560 series, Compaq iPAQ and Casio Cassiopeia.

An Internet connection is required. I've tested the service on a Jornada 568 and an iPAQ 3835 via connection means such as the afore mentioned AirCard 555 high speed CDMA2000 1X wireless network, 56k dialup with a CF modem, and via WiFi 802.11b and a wireless network card.

Conclusion

We're loving it so far! This is the first time I and my collegues have seen truly usable web pages on a Pocket PC. No more does it feel like an act of either desperation on the road or geek chic to use a Pocket PC to access the web. I have spent hours playing in the office and sitting on the couch surfing, something I would not ordinarily do when using Pocket IE. Is it worth $50 a year? I do think that price is a bit steep. However if you need Web site access when away from your office, nothing else compares. Even using Jimmy Software's fine JS Landscape doesn't equal the experience because it doesn't provide an optimized font set and page layout, it merely changes your PDA's resolution. Again, keep in mind that if you're looking for a super-fast minimalistic browser, text-only browser or an offline browser, this product is not what you're looking for.

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