Midweek technofetishism: O2’s XDA Exec

A new phone! Three things strike me about O2’s XDA Exec. First, what fools Vodafone are for losing me as a customer after five years; all they had to do was offer this device. Second, what an amazing little device it is, replacing a phone, PDA, camera, and at a pinch even a laptop; the thumbboard is as usable as any Blackberry. Second, what a bunch of fools O2’s marketing dept are for forcing a ridiculous UI extension onto its users that halves its speed and doubles user frustration.

The hardware is about as good as it gets – if you don’t mind small buttons. The main exterior buttons for camera and so on are TINY; anyone less dextrous than normal, or even if it’s a cold day, will have serious problems. Conversely, it’s a bit too easy to hit the volume control by accident.

But it’s amazing just how many things have been packed into a casing the size of a fat phone. Full 3G, GPRS, and triband GSM connectivity, plus a Wifi card! Gratifyingly, the headphone jack and USB connector are standard, 3.5mm and the reduced-USB D-shape, which means I can reuse some cabling when connecting it to a PC. The USB plug’s also the charging point, so it trickles the battery just by being plugged into a laptop. I’ll barely use the AC adapter, I think.

The screen is a full 640×480; you don’t need to resize web pages. The clamshell case swivels like a tablet PC, screen orientation swapping to suit; it can resemble a PDA, or a phone when closed, or a laptop that’s shrunk in the wash. The thumbboard is a work of art: hidden under the clamshell, it’s got a firm, tactile feel, perfectly adequate for writing emails or editing a Word doc.

The software, by contrast, sucks big-time. It’s less than 48 hours since I bought the thing and I’ve already done a hard reset to scrape off the appalling ‘O2 Active’ UI overlay. Fortunately manual setup isn’t too hard once you’ve switched to the ‘Corporate’ option – but users shouldn’t have to google for passwords and unlock codes buried in the Exec’s firmware, and I think a lot of Execs are going to be returned when users find them unusably slow. There’s a 520MHz processor in here yet it seems slower than my jurassic IPAQ from 2001.

On the other hand, Windows Mobile 5.0 isn’t too bad. Microsoft have finally got the hang of PDAs and started treating its handheld OS as a handheld OS instead of a stripped-down desktop operating system. Once the O2 gunk is out of the way it’s reasonably fast and intuitively functional.

The camera functions are terrific. 1.3 megapixel isn’t much these days, and as a camera it’s far from great quality. But for snapshots it’s fine – 1280 x 960 JPEGs and 320×160 video. There are some clever features like panorama – the XDA stitches a series of shots together for you – and bursts for sport; there’s even a tiny torch for low light closeups and a second lens on the front so you can videocall. Fun.

Other media gubbins are all fine: Media Player’s as good as any, although you’ll need a storage card – 128Mb is a bit stingy if you want to avoid buying an iPod. (A 1GB SD card’s gone straight into mine.) And why doesn’t Media Player handle MPEG playback when the camera’s MP4? A bit of extra software’s needed to bring this device fully up to potential.

But the verdict: this is a brilliant PDA – everything I need: calls, calendar, all sorts of messaging, web browsing, MP3 playback, and a camera. Well done O2. Now all I need is the nerve to take it everywhere when it’s such pickpocket bait.

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