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An introduction to Windows Mobile 5.0

Posted Sept. 5, 2005 by Lisa Gade, Editor in Chief

Windows Mobile 5 sports many new features and enhancements making it a very worthwhile upgrade. Perhaps the most important feature that everyone will love- from PDA novices to hardcore PDA devotees, is persistent memory. Your data won't be lost if the battery runs completely dry-- a new concept for Pocket PCs, and an old one for MS Smartphones and some Palm brand PDAs such as the LifeDrive and Treo 650. This memory architecture more closely resembles PCs: RAM is used for running programs and not for storage. Your data and all OS files are stored in Flash ROM which doesn't require power to preserve its contents. And just like your computer (and the Palm LifeDrive), Windows Mobile devices can use hard drives as a storage medium. This means we could see a Pocket PC with an embedded MicroDrive (the MicroDrive is a tiny hard drive and it's currently used in the LifeDrive as well as hard disk based MP3 players like the Apple iPod and portable video players). It's less likely we'll see a hard drive in a smartphone since the current trend is to miniaturize phones as much as possible and because hard drives use more power.

Speaking of power, since the device need not power large amounts of RAM, battery life has improved about 10%. Assuming most devices will go with large amounts of flash ROM and no more than 64 megs of RAM, expect to see increased battery life along those lines. Why not even greater improvements? Because the device, like a notebook put to sleep, does indeed just go to sleep and not power off completely. The PDA must maintain whatever is in RAM (i.e.: running programs) so that you find it in the same state as when you last turned it off. If the battery does run completely dry, the device will soft reset (reboot) when you charge it up and all running programs will be terminated. But again, your data will still be there!

At what price? Flash ROM is slower than RAM, likely why PPC manufacturers went with RAM in the first place. The Pocket PC marketplace has become as competitive as the PC market when it comes to performance specs. This is both good and bad: devices get faster, but the move to flash ROM came late in the game. Pure benchmarks for file system and data loads are slower on Windows Mobile 5 Pocket PC and Pocket PC phones because flash ROM isn't as fast as the RAM it replaces. The folks who make Spb Benchmark, the common standard for benchmarking Pocket PCs, say their benchmark app has been straight ported (made compatible) as of this writing but hasn't be revised to level the playing field and fairly represent speeds relative to the memory technology used. The next major release of Spb Benchmark will be re-architected to do this and may also represent VGA devices in a more level field against QVGA devices (a VGA Pocket PC's benchmarks should possibly be multiplied by 4 since they are rendering 4x the data to screen as a QVGA device, according to Spb).

Pocket PC boot times are slower as well, since operating system files are copied from ROM to RAM at boot to improve device responsiveness. We're talking large chunks of files copied to RAM after every soft reset: about 30 megs of RAM are in use at boot on a Pocket PC with 64 megs of RAM.

High speed data over GSM and CDMA networks? You got it. WM5 supports every current data standard in use: 3G (EVDO and GSM's UTMS), 2.5g (1xRTT and EDGE) as well as good old fashioned slow as molasses GPRS. While Pocket PC and Pocket PC phones have had support for WiFi for some time, now MS Smartphones will as well. And of course, both can use Bluetooth.

Soft Keys, found on MS Smartphones are now standardized and ubiquitous across all Windows Mobile 5 devices, both Pocket PC and smartphone. These are two quick keys that activate menus on the home screen and within applications, theoretically reducing the number of actions required to accomplish common tasks and reducing the need to whip out the stylus for Pocket PCs and Pocket PC Phone Edition devices with touch screens. We may not see actual hardware keys on Pocket PCs, but even if there are no hardware keys, there are two areas at the bottom left and right of the screen which you can tap with your finger or stylus to activate these menus. On the Today Screen screen shot below, you'll notice soft keys for Calendar and Contacts. In Internet Explorer they are Favorites and Menu which brings up all available menu items for that application. Once you've navigated to a web page, the Favorites soft key changes to become the back button. In Word, the left soft key is dedicated to the View menu and the right soft key is the general Menu for all available menu items.

Like Windows Mobile 2003, Windows Mobile 5 uses the familiar Start Menu and the same top taskbar widgets such as volume control, data connection indicators and etc. on Pocket PC and PPC phones. Unfortunately, we're still limited to assigning only 7 possible applications to the Start Menu. The Start Menu retains the most recently used application list and shortcuts to the programs and Settings screens.

Microsoft Voice Command, a very full-featured and remarkably accurate voice recognition and command system has been integrated into Windows Mobile 5 (previously it sold separately). It is not a required component of Windows Mobile 5 however, so we'll likely only see it included in Pocket PC phones and MS Smartphones and not Pocket PCs without phone capabilities. Should you purchase a Windows Mobile 5 PDA or phone that doesn't come with Voice Command, you can purchase it separately.

GPS Settings applet offers a basic GPS driver and settings control panel where you can set the COM port, baud rate and allow Windows Mobile to manage the GPS for you. You'll need to install your own maps, but not a driver.

Bluetooth now supports HID devices: Bluetooth keyboards and mice. No need of a 3rd party driver.

Windows Mobile 5 supports a variety of display resolutions included standard QVGA (240 x 320), VGA (640 x 480) and square 240 x 240. Like Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition, it supports both landscape and portrait orientations and you can change screen orientation on the fly.

Text input options remain the same (on-screen keyboard, character recognizer, block recognizer and Transcriber), but the keyboard icon which brings up the input system has been moved from the right to the middle of the bottom task bar.

GPS applet

The GPS Settings applet


What are these devices?

Now that three types of devices fall under the Windows Mobile brand, things can get a little confusing.

Pocket PCs are PDAs, with large touch screens but no phone features.

HP iPAQ hx2750 Pocket PC

(HP iPAQ hx2750 PPC)

Pocket PC Phones are Pocket PCs with all the features of PPCs and they add a mobile phone and related software.

Samsung i730 Pocket PC phone

(Samsung i730 PPC Phone)

MS Smartphones generally look like normal cell phones but are more powerful, can easily sync to your Windows PC but have smaller displays than Pocket PCs and do not have touch screens. The word smartphone is a generic term for a phone with PDA-like features, that term is not specific to Microsoft.

(Audiovox SMT5600 MS Smartphone)

Error reporting applet

As you all know, Microsoft has been under great pressure to tighten security and user confidence in Windows, and this extends to Windows Mobile. You'll see a lot of security warnings in Windows Mobile 5 when you install and run a new application for the first time. MS Smartphone users are already somewhat accustomed to this, thanks to the unsigned applications warnings seen on WM 2003 smartphones. When you install an application using your Windows PC and ActiveSync, you'll no longer specify the location using the desktop. You'll still install apps using ActiveSync, but once the desktop portion of the installation is done, the Pocket PC will ask you if you really wish to install it (after warning you about installing an unknown application), and where you wish to install it, i.e.: internal memory or an SD card. This is similar to the way MS Smartphones have always done things. After you've told Windows Mobile you really did want to install that app and you do indeed trust it, WM5 will ask you if it's OK to run it (thankfully it will only ask the first time you run the app after installation). A somewhat heavy-handed way of effecting security-- making you confirm everything is OK several times, but it's better than nothing. At least someone won't be able to download and install an app onto your PDA or phone via some yet invented script and install it because you'll have to confirm that installation before it proceeds.

Just like Windows XP desktops, Windows Mobile now has error reporting. You can turn this feature on or off using a Settings applet. If you enable it, error reporting can send reports about crashes to Microsoft over your network or ActiveSync connection. The good news is that the new error handling feature can intercept problems before they freeze or crash your handheld.

Speaking of ActiveSync, you'll use the new version 4 to sync to Windows Mobile 5 devices. The PDA or phone will tell you to install version 4 if you try to sync with an older version. ActiveSync 4 doesn't look much different but it allows you to sync to more devices (those of you who do corporate syncing and partnerships or just collect scads of PDAs will be happy) and is supposed to be faster at syncing. We've only had the pleasure of using the beta, so we can't make sure statements about syncing speed. In the beta it seemed about the same speed to us, if not a little slower to start the sync. Microsoft claims better compatibility, stability and a large number of eradicated bugs in version 4.0 as well. Beware: gone is the ability to sync over WiFi because syncing over a pubic unsecured medium is too risky. You can sync over WiFi if you're using a VPN connection however. WiFi syncing may make a comeback. Microsoft couldn't create secure WiFi syncing in time to release version 4.0 and that's why it's gone. Sadly, the backup and restore option is also gone. while MS Smartphone users couldn't use this feature in the past, Pocket PC and Pocket PC phone users have come to count on it. At least memory is persistent so desperate need of a backup might be lessened, but still there's one less avenue to keep your data safe. Do use the included backup utility on your device, and if one isn't included, get an application like Sprite Backup (when it's available for Windows Mobile 5, sometime Q1 2006). It will save your cheetos some day.

If you've used Pocket PCs or MS Smartphones before, Windows Mobile 5 will look familiar enough, have no fear. The basics of the user interface and overall functionality are much the same. Rather, the UI has been improved here and there to make one-handed use possible, features have been added on top of the familiar OS and bugs have been squashed. Microsoft has made marketing changes in the name department too. The OS is called Windows Mobile 5, not Windows Mobile 2005 following the naming convention of the last two OS versions. This is in part because both Pocket PCs and Smartphones run two variations of the same OS now rather than two different operating systems. Pocket PCs, Pocket PC Phones and MS Smartphones will all run Windows Mobile 5. This doesn't mean you can install a Pocket PC app on an MS Smartphone, but it does mean the software developers who write those applications will have to do relatively little work to get their app running on both variations.

Pocket Office has a new name as well. We used to have Pocket Outlook, Pocket Word, Pocket Excel and Pocket Internet Explorer. The word "mobile" has replaced "pocket", so we have Word Mobile, for example.

Today Screen

New for the Today screen are Device Lock, and Pocket MSN. To use device lock, simply tap on the device lock icon. The device will be oblivious to all button presses except the power button until you disable Device Lock by pressing the left soft key and confirming the unlock request.

Pocket MSN is now a handy feature rather than a dead end icon in the programs group. As a Today Screen plugin, it's an excellent enhancement with four icons (left to right): the butterfly which takes you to a listing of all MSN services (Messenger, Hotmail, MSN Mobile and Pocket MSN help), the house icon which takes you to the Pocket MSN homepage with a list of useful, small screen optimized info pages (sports, weather, entertainment and etc.); the MSN Messenger icon and lastly the mail icon which takes you to your Hotmail inbox. Yes, you can now use Outlook on the device to send and receive Hotmail.

It seems the file format for Pocket PC Today Themes has changed: we tried a selection of our favorite extended Windows Mobile 2003 SE themes, and the color palette changed but the background image did not. You can still assign the JPEG of your choice as the background image for the Today Screen as a consolation.

Internet Explorer

Boy, did we want to see the included web browser get better. While not a revolutionary overhaul, IE is indeed better, rendering pages more quickly and more like the desktop. Sites that stymied prior versions of IE now look decent in default layout mode. Yes, one column, default and desktop layout options are still there, along with the show images option, history and pretty much the same set of prefs found in IE on Windows Mobile 2003. IE now has a full screen mode and a progress bar that appears at the bottom of the screen to show page load progress. Once the page is loaded, the progress bar disappears, so it doesn't waste screen real estate. You can now tap and hold on a web page's image to save it to your Windows Mobile device and just as before, you can download, save and install CAB files found on the web.

Internet Explorer screen

Internet Explorer Mobile, with new menu system

IE full screen mode

Full screen mode


Sadly, NetFront 3.2 does not run on Pocket PCs and Pocket PC phones as of this writing. NetFront 3.2 (and v. 3.3 Japanese) are designed for Windows Mobile 2003SE and crash with a gwes.dll (graphics library) error when trying to render pages.


Contacts got a major overhaul and is both more attractive and easier to use one-handed. There are a few important new features too. Photo contacts are supported natively and your contacts' photos are synced to Outlook on the desktop. There's a search box up top where you can enter a name or number to find a contact (you need not enter the entire name or number since it filters your contacts as you type). The contacts directory is cleaner, more attractive and easier to scan, as are individual contacts. You can use the d-pad to navigate to a contact, then quickly move to the email address to send them an email, or move to their phone number (for phone devices) to dial them.

Office Applications for Pocket PC and Pocket PC Phone

PowerPoint Mobile joins Word and Excel on Windows Mobile 5 devices. Previous versions of the Pocket PC and MS Smartphone OS didn't include PowerPoint, so you had to purchase a 3rd party application. PowerPoint Mobile can view but not edit or create PowerPoint presentations. So it's a great solution if you need to view PowerPoint presentations sent to you via email, or give a presentation on the go by hooking up the device to a projector (this generally but not always requires VGA out hardware which is sold separately). If you need to tweak your presentation on the road, you'll still need a 3rd party application that allows you to edit presentations.

Word Mobile supports more advanced formatting and is less likely to munge your pretty desktop-created documents. For example, tables are now supported and files will be saved with tables intact. If you're an advanced user, don't abandon TextMaker just yet. TextMaker still offers more advanced formatting capabilities. But for general use, Word Mobile is much more worthwhile than the old Pocket Word.

Excel Mobile also has a few tweaks up its sleeve, which include support for chart display and creation.

Word Mobile screen

Word Mobile, with table

Excel Mobile screen

Excel Mobile, with chart

Pictures & Videos

Pictures has been around since Windows Mobile 2003. It's now called Pictures & Videos and, as you guessed from the name, now supports videos. Though we tried 3GP, MPEG, AVI, ASF, WMV and MPEG4 files and none were recognized by Pictures & Videos. Hmmm... we'll let you know when we find out what it does support.

Standard Software

While there have been additions, there were no subtractions— all the apps you've been accustomed to are there. These include Solitaire and Jawbreaker (renamed Bubble Breaker), Calculator, File Explorer, Terminal Services as well as the Outlook Mobile PIM suite (contacts, calendar, tasks, notes and email).

Application Compatibility

Though a lot has changed in WM5, we found that most of our favorite 3rd party applications ran on Windows Mobile 5. Many developers have already updated their applications for compatibility as necessary, so if you're running popular and regularly updated software things look good. We tested Spb PocketPlus 3.0 and Battery Pack Pro 2, both of which are WM5 compatible and they ran fine. Resco Explorer 2003 and 2005 as well as Resco Photo Viewer run well, as does TCMP (The Core Media Player, formerly Beta Player), MS Reader and eReader. Conduits Pocket Artist 2.7 worked, though one menu is mostly hidden under the newly centered keyboard input icon, so you need to tap near the edge of the keyboard to bring up that menu. In the games department, Jamdat's Tennis Addict, Arvale, and Ancient Evil ran fine. Mobilair's Creepy Pinball did not run (frozen with a blank screen). Street Duel got a gwes.dll error on launch but still ran.

Can You Upgrade to Windows Mobile 5.0?

So far, most manufacturers aren't offering many upgrades. Windows Mobile 5.0 requires at least 64 megs of ROM, and it's advisable to have 64 megs of RAM, and the device must run an ARM compatible processor such as the Intel XScale or the Samsung and Texas Instruments ARM compatibles. So not all machines meet the basic requirements. Beyond that, there are so many low level changes in the operating system, that testing older devices and their software with the new OS would cost manufacturers too much time and money.

Announced upgrades:

Fujitsu Siemens Pocket LOOX 718 and 720, Fall 2005, though rumors of delay until Jan. 2006

HP iPAQ hx2000 series models (i.e. hx2750), Fall 2005

HP iPAQ hx4700 / hx4705, delayed until Q1 2006

Dell Axim X50 and X50v, Fall 2005

Rumored upgrades:

Samsung i730 Pocket PC phone

E-TEN M500 (TORQ P100) Pocket PC Phone: E-TEN stated an upgrade would be available but hasn't said when.

Useful Pages on Our Site:

Pocket PC Reviews

Pocket PC Phone Reviews

MS Smartphone Reviews

Windows Mobile 2003SE Model Comparison Matrix

Microsoft's Windows Mobile web site:


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