Review of the Hewlett-Packard iPAQ hx2700 Pocket PC

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 Intel PXA270 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 both gaps, but I think this is a significant omission on the entire iPAQ line.  Aidem 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.

Practical Use...

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 still be.

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 and immature.  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 beta.

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 smoothly now.

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 hx2795b

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 out.

See this link to 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 either.

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 lunch here.

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.

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