02 Xda Atom

The race to the bottom of pricing and size amongst PDA/smartphone devices continues apace, and the Xda Atom is ‘the smallest multimedia PDA-phone on the market’, according to o2 marketing. At 140 grams and only about 6x10cm in size, they’re undoubtedly right, but how many times have we wondered how much smaller mobile devices can get? Maybe as humans evolve our mouths and ears will get closer together’

You couldn’t imagine smartphones getting much smaller. As a phone the Xda is just right, but a PDA needs a certain amount of screen size and it’s right on the cusp of feeling too cramped. With a 240×320 screen the picture quality is good, but trying to read in the sun is a lost cause, and if you believe the trends coming out of Europe and Japan we’re going to spend more time looking at our mobiles than talking into them. And wear long sleeves — you’re forever wiping blotchy fingerprints off the screen no matter how carefully you handle it.

One frustrating feature of the Xda Atom (and it’s not the only one) is the relegating of the phone to a deeper function within the unit. Despite the fact that making phone calls is still the reason most of us have mobiles, taking the stylus out to hit the Start button and call up the virtual phone pad wears thin on one’s patience. You can answer and disconnect incoming calls with buttons on the body, but if making them is 90% of the reason you need a mobile, look at something that has a real life keypad.

Of course, o2 might contend the ‘high number of calls’ user isn’t the market they’re aiming at, but if you’re the type to go for the hip young multimedia angle, you’re either going to be a young professional who already has a battery of requisite digital devices or a teenager without the means to shell out the $1,200 for it.

Pushing the phone as your personal multimedia hub is a sound theory and it certainly is the future, but it’s too early for that kind of future with this kind of technology. If you own any decent MP3 player produced in the last two years the sound of your music files will sound dreadfully tinny through the little frontal speakers, not much better through headphones. Likewise the camera leaves something to be desired. Aside from the ‘flash’ (a tiny white light that has no effect over 10cm away), your photos have a distinctly purplish hue when you transfer them to your computer.

But as always, the biggest selling point for any mobile device run by Windows Mobile is that 95% of computer users in the world can attach the phone to their computer with a simple USB cable and instantly sync it with their email, contacts and appointment calendars.

It’s great when it works. Microsoft’s ActiveSync fires up on your PC every time you connect, syncing all your data automatically and displaying the phone in My Computer so you can transfer files to it.

There’s no reason it shouldn’t work, but we hooked two separate Xda Atom devices up to a PC running Widows XP in an everyday Windows Exchange server environment — hardly a unique or unusual set-up. ActiveSync wouldn’t even recognise the first one, and although we could access the second to transfer files, all attempts to sync data were met with inexplicable failure.

Sure, it might have been some obscure setting in our system at fault, but it serves as a reminder; a lot can impinge on your connectivity and computers are rarely truly seamless.

The Xda Atom is quite stylish encased in what o2 calls a ‘piano-black’ design, but the axiom that good things come in small packages is starting to look a little shaky, and the overstuffing of the device with features seems to have been done more for the sake of it than to deliver solid services to users.

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