2007 Update for the hx2795b Windows
Mobile 5 version below!
Sometimes HP reminds me of IBM. Both are
huge organizations who come up with brilliant ideas, apply terrific engineering,
then somewhere between engineering and production the company wires get
crossed up. The result is a promising and expensive product entering the market, that behaves
unpredictably and is difficult to support.
And so begins my long-postponed review of the
HP's second costliest handheld Pocket PC, the
iPAQ hx2755 (also known as the
hx2750 but oddly referred to by HP as the hx2700 until you dig deeper). The main distinguishing
feature of this 2700 series iPAQ is the biometrics - a fingerprint scanner -
that makes this Pocket PC like no other on the market. This is an
outstanding feature, considering the value of some of the data - bank codes,
passwords, client data, etc. - that people tend to keep
on their handheld devices. Yet this feature will also turn out to be this iPAQ's downfall, but more on that later.
The hx2755 utilizes ARM computing
architecture with an
XScale CPU running at
a swift 624MHz, carries 128MB of RAM and 128MB of flash ROM, and ships with
Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition. It has slots for SD (Secure Digital)
and CF (CompactFlash) expansion cards and features both WiFi (802.11b only) and
BlueTooth wireless connectivity, as well as Serial IR (but not CIR/IrDA).
It carries an easily replaceable 1440mAh Li-Ion battery pack which can power the
unit for several days. The 320x240 TFT QVGA touch-screen display is bright,
very readable, quite beautiful and
needs only a light tap. The LCD persistence is noticeable only during
fast-moving videos. At 5.8oz this handheld is a middleweight
contender, but HP has packed a lot into the shirt pocket -friendly 4.71 x 3.01 x
.65 inch package.
The hx2700 is not the first or only handheld with
biometrics. HP included a fingerprint scanner with its groundbreaking iPAQ h5450 a couple
of years ago. Unfortunately the thing was a brick. It was expensive,
absurdly large, heavier than any other handheld on the market, suffered mediocre
battery performance, used an immature version of Windows and was otherwise
uncompetitive. At the time I wrote a very nice letter to HP's then-CEO "Carly"
Fiorina, opining that the h5450 was a terrific idea but poorly executed. I
pointed out that few people would willingly carry the half-pound, five and a
half inch long monstrosity, mentioned a few other shortcomings and in
perfect sincerity offered my services as a beta -stage tester for any available
evolutionary products HP might offer, and volunteered to be a focus group participant for the
development of such products.
My letter to HP never even received the courtesy of a
form response, much less actual attention or concern. This goes a long way
toward explaining why Carly is no longer CEO of HP, and why after nearly a year
of fiddling with this second-generation iPAQ it still isn't what it
should have - and could have - been. Bye Carly!
What it is and what it isn't...
This iPAQ is nearly all business. HP's
Image Zone is included, but its usefulness is largely limited to slideshows.
The oh-so-handy Nevo Universal Remote software that is available on the cheaper
iPAQs is missing, and that's because the infrared transmitter on the hx2000
series is not capable of transmitting signals in that format or at a useful
strength. In fact, simply beaming data to other devices is limited to immediate
proximity now - a matter of inches. The cheap SIR hardware is not even strong enough to make
it across the conference room desk. And to compound the problem, HP has
crippled the CF slot in a fashion that makes it unfriendly to third-party CIR
add-on devices. You're stuck.
The teeny built-in speaker is useful for
reviewing dictated notes, but that's about it. If you want to listen
to music you'll have to use headphones. Quality of the audio rendered
at the earphone jack is fair. There's some room for improvement but
bass and treble controls can be adjusted to compensate somewhat. I say
"somewhat", because the controls actually contradict each other's effects.
The included version of Windows Media Player
handles WMV files but not MPEG or AVI. It does handle most MP3 files
just fine, choking just a little on a few of the VBR MP3 files that I had
encoded using the software from my wife's Rio MP3 player, whose MP3 encoding
plug-in is based on code from the "LAME" open source project.
To pick up where WMP leaves off I installed
TCPMP - The Core Pocket
Media Player. This is free software, distributed under the GNU General
Public License. It plays all my AVI and MPG files just fine.
The calculator included is inexcusably lame and
is easily outperformed by any digital wristwatch. Although you can scribble
simple line drawings in the Notes, no actual drawing software is included, a la
MS Paint. There are a few good inexpensive or even freeware third-party products that will fill
gaps, but I think this is a significant omission on the entire iPAQ line.
offers a perfectly competent and absolutely free Engineering Calculator.
Another $10 buys you the same product with unit and currency conversion
features added. For $25 the same company offers an excellent drawing
program called Pocket Painter.
I would have liked to see Pinball! ported to Windows Mobile too,
but there are too many other things I'd sooner see fixed first.
HP Mobile Printing is included, allowing printing
of emails, notes, contacts, etc. via Bluetooth, Serial Infrared or a LAN/WLAN connection. Unfortunately if
you wish to print from Pocket Word or Pocket Excel, you have to fork over
another $24 for the recommended ClearVue software. It amazes me that while
Microsoft is busy bundling the proverbial kitchen sink into the desktop versions
of Windows, they are still helping to empty your pockets into the coffers of third party
software publishers for functions or features that seem rather intrinsic to me. Or perhaps
this is their way of persuading us toward the elusive dream of a paperless office?
Defecting from PalmOS...
This iPAQ was my first personal experience with
any Pocket PC, disregarding a few casual encounters with units belonging to
clients and co-workers. I've been using Palm handhelds since the very first PalmPilot.
Since I was migrating from a well-worn Palm m505, and since I maintain a LOT of
information in my handhelds, the migration step was the source of much anxiety.
My anxiety was largely unnecessary. I made
printouts of everything in Palm Desktop, made backups of the Palm Desktop data
files, exported everything to delimited text format files, saved those in a safe
place, and reconfigured the Palm HotSync to use a Palm -supplied conduit program
(PocketMirror) to synch the m505's information into Microsoft Outlook instead of
Palm Desktop. I performed one "hotsync" with the Palm and checked Outlook.
Everything appeared intact in Outlook. After that, the Pocket PC easily
and seamlessly downloaded
all the information from Outlook through MS ActiveSync.
Information outside the core applications managed by Outlook would not carry
over of course, but I was prepared for that.
There were only two notable hitches the
conversion. First, data in the Palm Desktop's "Other" field in the Address
Book was indeed carried over, but transferred into an obscure data field that
was only accessible in Microsoft Outlook and could not be viewed at all on the iPAQ's Pocket
Outlook. Second, somehow in the conversion all my contacts' addresses were
imported as business addresses, even though half were home addresses. No
information was lost, but plenty of cut-and-paste was required to set everything
right. The other little niggling item was that the Notes categories did
not carry over. That took somewhat less effort to amend.
While the hx2750 is a little heavy compared to
other handhelds, it is not overly so. It feels solid without feeling like
a paperweight. This iPAQ features nice grippy rubberized
sides that make the unit easy and comfortable to hold securely, and protects the
unit somewhat from minor impacts. The rocker-type four-way controller -
one of HP's experiments I think - is a bit of a failure. It becomes
uncomfortable to use when scrolling through long documents, but is fairly
resistant to errant input. The task buttons are not overly sensitive but
are not at all countersunk either. Since I tend to carry this unit without
the flip-up cover in order to reduce its profile, this results in frequent
unexpected wake-ups due to the buttons getting pressed. This is mostly my
fault - there is an option to disable all but the power button during standby. I haven't yet bothered to set it
mostly because it's somewhat futile. When ProtectTools performs an
automatic logout - the step where it closes all your programs, encrypts the
data, and places the unit back into standby mode - it has to completely wake up
the unit to do so. So the unit can and will turn itself back on while in
your pocket no matter what you do.
While a fast CPU and lots of RAM is nice, the biometrics were the
real attraction for
this model, offering the protection of an identity challenge and of data encryption without the
inconvenience and impediment of having to tap in or scribble in a pass-phrase. Yes, it
works. Usually, anyway. And yes it does take a little acclimation, to
swipe your finger(s) consistently and with the right pressure. But it's a
bit forgiving so don't worry. It helps you secure your sensitive
information and the coolness factor will remain unmatched until someone comes up
with a built-in retina scanner. For the seriously paranoid or for the Men in
Black, there's even a
"self-destruct" option that causes the unit to erase itself in case of
tampering. And if you happen to lose your hands in a horrible kitchen
accident, a pass-phrase still gets you in as a fallback. HP's ProtectTools,
supplied by Credant, can encrypt your data and/or software with four different
strengths/methods (from quickest to strongest): Lite, Blowfish, Triple DES and
AES. The difference in speed among the four options is not so great that
you should choose anything less than the strongest, in my opinion.
Once you get past the biometrics you're greeted with RhinoCode's TodayPanel Lite screen. This supplants the otherwise ordinary
Windows start button and background with a configurable desktop that is
slightly reminiscent of Outlook's "Today" screen, showing upcoming appointments,
outstanding tasks, unread emails, etc. At the bottom of the screen is a
list of icons to show battery level and memory consumption, and to adjust the
backlight or TodayPanel's settings, and set different display themes. You
can also replace the backdrop, but the results will look weird because it won't
be integrated with the theme.
The four task buttons on the face of the iPAQ default
to opening Calendar, Contacts, Outlook and iTask. There is a fifth button
on the side that is primarily used for recording voice notes. All are configurable,
and all but #4 (why not #4, I have no idea) can be given a second task on a long press. iTask is
the type of software that will appeal to the folks
who download every hack, plug-in and augment they can find, but doesn't quite float my
boat so I changed button #4 to display the Notes application instead. iTask gives you quick jumping points to recently opened programs and a displays
a configurable set of icons for changing modes and opening programs. If I
didn't make such heavy use of the Notes, I would just as soon configure button
#4 to open TodayPanel Lite.
In addition to being able to configure the task
buttons and menus, you can set owner information which ProtectTools displays
when the unit is locked. The owner notes are not displayed, however.
You can enable and disable sounds for various events and adjust the volume, but
cannot change the sound clips used. You can adjust the bass and treble for
the sound output and adjust the microphone's gain control. You can set up
to three alarms, one alternate time zone, and five different profiles governing
the setup of the sound, backlight, timeouts and WLAN devices. This iPaq
comes with a good suite of software to manage wireless devices as well - BT
Phone Manager and iPAQ Wireless.
The "core" applications - Calendar, Contacts,
Outlook, Tasks and Notes, all are snappy and pleasing to work with. There
are one or two minor failings, such as not being able to sort Notes by category,
or not being able to use tabs in contact notes, or birthdays not appearing as
reminders until after a synch, but nothing really terrible. Windows Media
Player handles fairly high bitrates without jerkiness. Pocket Word and
Excel are still "pocket" versions, which mean they don't handle native
format Word and Excel files (they're converted to Pocket format through
ActiveSync), and they offer a very limited scope of functionality compared to
their bloated desktop brethren. Spell check is available but not grammar,
and while the documentation oddly claims it's limited to Pocket Outlook, it
works in all the Pocket Office applications.
The 624MHz CPU is fairly well-suited to the light
multitasking that occurs during most uses of the Pocket PC, but is not quite
robust enough to maintain instant-satisfaction performance when Credant's
ProtectTools software is doing its thing. Opening up and switching among
several applications is snappy and comfortable. For those of you who are
accustomed to the way Windows does things, it's interesting to note that
"closing" a program in Windows Mobile doesn't necessarily stop it from executing
or occupying memory, so even when you're not multitasking, the Pocket PC may
The battery is safe for 72 hours of standby
time. After growing accustomed to Palm units that could go a month without
being cradled, I find this to be too demanding for my taste. But little
USB charging widgets fill the gap when I'm on the go, and so far the standby
time has not become an insurmountable problem. Operating time has been
good, the battery allowing frequent use of the handheld's usual business
functions and playing music most of the day without the battery nearing perilous
levels of discharge by evening.
The SD and CF slots are a fantastic convenience
but rather slow. While
this isn't a problem in typical use, i.e. retrieving documents and media from
flash cards, I had a few occasions where I needed to copy large amounts of data
from one card to another while on the go, and thought the Pocket PC would be a handy resource.
The transfers took forever, probably 1/20th the speed of which the cards are
natively capable. I have been carrying a Sandisk Ultra II 2GB SD card in
the unit for several months. The extra money spent on a high-speed variety
of SD card was wasted, but it does work fine.
The lack of 802.11g capability is becoming
increasingly bothersome, and leads to frequent confusion. Access
points that are g -only (versus b/g) will show up in the iPAQ Wireless screen as being openly accessible, but
connection attempts are refused without explanation. The 802.11b
radio performs adequately however. In fact the range is surprisingly good, performing more reliably
over longer distances than my laptop with a benchmark Proxim PC card loaded up.
The new iPAQ firmware version made WLAN connections perfectly reliable.
There are a few different modes of handwriting
recognition, all surprisingly
effective when some care is taken and even more effective if you tell the
software a bit about your writing style. Unfortunately my penmanship has
suffered through years of shameful neglect (in favor of typing), and from years of using
that despicable Graffiti "recognition" on my Palm devices. For now I've found it easier to use the
pop-up screen keyboard to tap out what I want, rather than regain my lost
writing skills. But there is a Block Recognizer, Letter Recognizer and
Transcriber. The Transcriber is the nifty one, allowing you to write
anywhere on the screen and in any way you please. That's the one that
benefits the most from spending a few minutes telling it how you write.
The others require you to write in a box and use various methods to more
reliably distinguish case and numbers, but are fairly tolerant even of
occasional Graffiti scrawls.
Adding third-party software is a bit
unnerving. One of WM2003SE's features on this iPAQ is a landscape display
mode, allowing the screen content to rotate ninety degrees. Not all
software understands this ability and most of it complains when it's being
installed, that it may not work correctly on this unit. Most of the
time the warnings can be ignored. Some of the software can be quirky
Adobe Acrobat for example, is so slow as to be nearly useless when reading
documents that use multiple layers.
The availability of third party
software for Windows Mobile is still not nearly as vast as that for the Palm
OS market, but it's improving quickly. I've been able to replace most
of what I had on my Palm, except for any Manhattan cross-street locator, an
IP address calculator that works just the way I'm accustomed to (although
there are several available), and Palma Sutra. Recently a product
called StyleTap entered a public beta test. StyleTap can emulate the
PalmOS on a Pocket PC, and runs simple Palm applications like IPCalc+ and
X-Man very easily. Palm Sutra for Windows Mobile is currently in limited availability
As delivered, the unit suffered from MANY bugs
and a few design shortcomings. There were problems with the TodayPanel Lite
software missing icons and aligning them so you were never sure what you were
tapping, setting up AvantGo
was hugely error-prone, the Credant
ProtectTools software exhibited many serious problems such as hang-ups and
occasional data corruption, WLAN connections dropped inexplicably, the backlight misbehaved
and power settings were unpredictable,
Media Player's playlists showed up backward and the sorting method was
incomprehensible, just to name a few of the more conspicuous items.
HP released a major firmware update six
months later. That update fixed a list of bugs so long that it made my
eyes spin in their sockets. It was a huge improvement! One one hand
I felt lucky I wasn't experiencing even more problems. On the other
hand it failed to fix the major problems with ProtectTools, and it broke Media
Player as much as it enhanced it. The upgrade process was easy to perform
but lost some
JPG and HTML files that should have been saved on my PC through ActiveSync, but
turned out not to have been saved after all. Luckily
that material was backed up elsewhere. Initial setup of the fresh handheld
operating system was much smoother with the new version. The new Avantgo setup was still
slightly error-prone, but improved vastly. Somehow in the upgrade ActiveSync disappeared
from my startup, and replacing it caused a second instance of the Pocket PC to
appear in my Send To list. But really, the entire unit does operate more
By now surely you've noticed I keep harping on
ProtectTools. Allow me to clarify this. While there were a fair
amount of annoying bugs prior to the long-awaited update, none of those bugs
were show-stoppers. Windows Mobile and the Pocket Office stuff has been
generally rather well behaved, especially considering the Windows heritage.
But HP's ProtectTools, a product of Credant, suffers from grievous bugs.
It did so before and still does so now. And with the Windows Mobile
5.0 upgrade (downloadable from HP for the hx2700 and standard in the newer but
nearly identical iPAQ hx2790), ProtectTools must actually give up much of the
functionality it had under WM2003SE!
Basically the problem is that Credant's software
- by no fault of their own - is a hack. I don't really mean this in a bad
way, at least not directly. Microsoft simply does not provide Windows Mobile with
an API for such a widget and so Credant
is forced to dig its way under Windows uninvited. As such, its operation
is far from seamless. Plus, Credant's software is not stable.
The result of the non-API approach is that when you wake up the unit you can often see data from the
prior session for a second or so, the time it takes ProtectTools to realize it
needs to cover up and ask for authentication. And the immature software
means that if you're not patient enough
to wait for it to decrypt your data, you stand a chance corrupting what you're
trying to access. And once in a long while the ProtectTools software simply locks up,
which temporarily obstructs access to the unit if asleep and defeats the
data protection altogether if it happens when the unit is awake. Then because the software is
hidden, only a soft reset can recover its functionality.
The slight danger of ProtectTools corrupting your
data can be mitigated by reducing its functionality to a first-line defense -
login only - and configuring it not to encrypt your data. This also speeds
up the login process and access to your data. But then you're paying a
$100 premium just for the fingerprint scanner and giving up an element of
world-class security. The bugs in ProtectTools and the limitations of its
implementation on this platform deeply mar an otherwise wonderful handheld computer from HP whose
few shortcomings are easily worked around or supplanted by third-party tools.
2007 Update - The
In the summer of 2007 the WiFi adapter in my
hx2755 stopped working unless I smacked the unit "just so", and in the fall
it finally started acting too weird to be a trustworthy companion - such as
not booting with less than an 83% battery charge - so I swapped it for an
hx2795b. I don't pretend to blame anyone for the flakiness given how
much of a beating this unit has taken in my ever-fumbling fingers.
Over the life of the hx2700 series HP PPCs
the memory allotment has been creeping upward. This is partially to
make room for the fatter Windows Mobile 5, but gives applications and data
more breathing room as well. This unit now carries a 320MB ROM and
64MB RAM. The memory balance seems odd but the memory management in
this unit is completely different as well.
Once you get over the excitement of the newer
version of Windows Mobile you begin to discover what has quietly disappeared
from HP's package. The first thing I noticed was, sadly, Sprite Backup
is no longer included. A few weeks later it suddenly occurred to me
that no printing solution is included in this version either. Then you
start to wonder what is really improved so much in WM5 that you're giving up
so many other features. The most visible improvements are a newer
version of Windows Media Player, the addition of Pocket Powerpoint (which I
never realized was missing until now), the "Pictures & Videos Viewer", and a new layout for Contacts that
I'm not yet sure how much I like. Whoopee. Wiki shows a few more
differences under the sheets but nothing earth-shattering in my opinion.
I had high hopes for a more reliable
experience with this updated unit but came through somewhat disappointed.
On one hand I'm no longer seeing the silly warnings about landscape mode
compatibility when installing software, and AvantGo setup isn't quite as
confusing as it was before. But that's where my kindness ends...
The Credant security component is still
intolerant of bad timing with respect to the encryption / decryption sequences
and it's best to heed with great care HP's warnings not to screw with the
thing until it's completely done encrypting or decrypting your records.
Keep a watchful eye on the number of records it's encrypting versus how many
it's decrypting. If they don't match, check all your data and make
sure your last backup is handy! Memory and/or process management is
still touchy too, with something as seemingly innocent as a round of PacMan
from Microsoft's Arcade Pack
being enough to make a soft boot a good idea afterward. The mis-management
becomes apparent when - as usual - Credant gets hung up at the biometric
prompt. Perhaps this is why there's no mention of Credant in HP's
latest 110 and 210 lines of iPAQ PPCs.
And oh joy, a new quirk has surfaced with
these WM5 -based devices, making itself apparent both on my new iPAQ and my
spouse's identical, several month old unit. They wake themselves up
periodically! My PPC would wake itself almost an hour after being shut
down, but my wife's would wake itself in just five minutes. You can
imagine what that does for battery life, particularly in the latter case.
Apparently this wake-up issue is very common, and the solution is as simple
as it is stupid, most likely solved by faking out the synchronization
settings in ActiveSync. It worked fine for us. But the truly disturbing part is that if you
call HP Support they're likely to exchange the unit or put you through
a futile exercise of ROM updates, or casually suggest disabling ProtectTools,
rather than suggest a software
configuration work-around that takes just two minutes to explain and carry
the HP iPAQ Support Forum for an example of what I'm talking about.
Not a good thing. Not for the customers and certainly not for HP
OK, it hasn't been all terrible. The
new WM5 unit doesn't seem to require as frequent use of the recessed reset
button as its predecessor, and if you install tons of software the changes
in WM5's memory management make critical mass much more difficult to
achieve. Also, WM5's Persistent Storage feature means that when your
battery dies in 24 hours from the unit waking up every eight minutes, you
won't need the now-missing Sprite to recover your data. A brief charge
and some attention to the date/time and other basic settings and you're all set.
An unfortunate side effect if this however, is that the encryption and
decryption times seem to have nearly doubled. No such thing as a free
The hx2795b has some improvements in software
and in its battery and data management, but is slower in some tasks and that
ActiveSync problem should have been patched a year ago. Credant
continues to suffer credibility problems and that keeps these iPAQs from
being truly enterprise -class handhelds.