Stylish and Practical:
The Fujitsu Pocket LOOX 600 Pocket PC
The Pocket PC market certainly is chaotic, largely because the platform is still fairly new. Just in the past year or two, there have been a number of monumental shifts on the hardware front. The once-dominant MIPS-based Casio, was surpassed by the StrongARM-based Compaq iPAQ. Casio then released a lackluster device in the E-200. Casio was once the multimedia king, but the failure of the device (caused by quality issues and poor design) likely contributed to the company’s decision to exit the market several weeks ago. The HP-Compaq merger would sound the death knell for the Jornada. Although not the most popular device, the Jornada still had a loyal following and a respectable presence in the market. And HP-Compaq itself may well have blown its lead with the 3900 series, a rehash of the previous model coupled with a higher price tag. And remember the @migo, the device that only sort of existed? Let's move on.
That leaves us with Toshiba, which seems to have made a successful entry unto the PDA market. These devices are interesting, but their less-than-ideal screens, anemic battery life, and boxy designs seem to place them more in the “me too” category, although they do have fairly aggressive price points.
The low-end side of the market has witnessed the birth of several new models. Dell, Viewsonic, (and even Toshiba again with yet another model) have all announced circa $300 units that are still very capable. The specs on these upcoming units indicate that in terms of performance and features, they should be reasonably close to higher-end offerings and will be true Pocket PCs. Since many have shied away from the Pocket PCs because of their typically prohibitive cost, having a number of strong lower-end units is only a good thing.
For those awaiting the Fujitsu Pocket LOOX 600, it’s been a bumpy ride. All reports indicated that the LOOX was going to be a very stylish PDA with some compelling features. Then Fujitsu announced it wasn't going to release the LOOX in the U.S., instead focusing on the unexciting laptop-cum-PDA known as the Tablet PC. Then came another announcement that the LOOX would be distributed in the U.S., only it was very vague and didn't make it clear whether it would be meant for enterprise (meaning corporate) or consumer channels. Now rumors are circulating that the LOOX will indeed by released in the U.S. in the upcoming months. If you were one of those hoping the LOOX would eventually find its way to U.S. stores, you may finally get your wish.
I ordered the LOOX way back in June (from Expansys) and eagerly awaited its arrival. I decided to proceed with the order even after the announcement, knowing that it would still likely be my best choice compared to the competition. Since I work in Bloomington, I am one of the few people living in the U.S. with the ability to purchase the LOOX locally. Although finding the warehouse was quite an adventure, since it was tucked away in an ancient, unsafe part of town (don't get me started on trying to find an address in a large Illinois town, especially Bloomington-that's a rant for another day). Being the impatient person that I am, I finally found the warehouse and purchased the unit. Yay!
What follows is an informal review, touching on some aspects of the device. And by “informal,” I mean this will not meant to be a thorough, exhaustive look at the LOOX. I don't have the resources to test the integrated Bluetooth, nor do I plan on doing benchmarks on the battery and CPU (I won't comment on general CPU performance-we all know the issues behind the current XScale implementation by now). What I instead plan to do is share some of my subjective opinions on certain aspects of the device based on my prior devices, the iPAQ 3835 as well as my previous PDAs before that, the iPAQ 3650 and the Casio E-125. I'll also be looking at it from the distinctive slant of someone who uses the device primarily for gaming and entertainment purposes.
What is the LOOX, Anyway?
The Pocket LOOX is Fujitsu’s first attempt at a Pocket PC. Intended primarily for the higher-end corporate market, the LOOX has a bevy of features you’d expect to find on an upscale Pocket PC:
What's in the Box
There's nothing terribly surprising about the LOOX packaging. The box itself has a picture of the usual shiny, happy people using their new device, while the back is littered with specs in different languages. Inside the box, you'll find the LOOX, cradle, AC adapter, quick start guide and manual, driver and software CDs, and an extra stylus. You'll also find a decent carrying case, although it doesn't have a belt clip. It’s still a good case, though--slipping the LOOX into it reminds you of just how small the device is.
Looking at the LOOX
You have to admit that “LOOX” is an odd name. What does it mean, exactly? I'm not sure, but I'm guessing part of their rationale for giving it that name was the amount of time they put into the device's design (they seem to do this with their other products as well). There's no doubting that the LOOX is a sexy device, one of the sleekest PDAs currently on the market. I don't want to overemphasize the appearance of the device, but it's really almost a work of art. Since appearance and design do impact usability and overall user satisfaction, it is an important factor to take into consideration when designing (and purchasing!) a device.
Whereas the Toshiba looks like some prop designed used in an 80s spoof of a 70s sci-fi movie, the LOOX, with its smooth, rounded lines, ergonomic button layout, and overall shape make it look like the Porsche 911 of Pocket PCs. While the 3.5” screen is smaller than the iPAQ's (and a good deal smaller than the almost ridiculous 4.0” screen of the Toshiba e540), it seems “just right” considering the size of the device, which is just a bit larger than the Palm IIIc and about the size of the “naked” (i.e., sleeveless) iPAQ. Since it doesn't rely on sleeves for additional storage, the unit is very self-contained. I found that it fit quite easily into the shirt pocket of my daily business casual attire without making the pocket bulge or weighing it down. And for those of you who are show-offs (you know who you are), the LOOX does get plenty of “looks” when you're out in public. I'm guessing this is because it's a highly-sculpted Pocket PC that's not quite a Palm and not quite an iPaq. J
The LOOX feels good in the hand. The plastic has a smooth, quality feel, but make sure you don’t drop the device on any hard surface. The unit has just enough weight to make it feel solid and enough lightness to make it easy to carry on your person.
Built for Interaction
Just as important as overall physical appearance is the layout of the buttons, which have an enormous impact on the usability of the device. The LOOX shows that a lot of thought was put into this aspect of the device as well. Since the application buttons are off center (rather than in a horizontal line like the Toshiba), they are easy to reach and press. They're just tactile enough to acknowledge your button presses without wearing out your fingers. This is essential in gaming, where the button presses are repetitive, frequent, and can go on for hours. Another game-friendly aspect of the buttons is that they're just the right size and slightly concave, making them more comfortable to press than the small, rounded buttons on the iPAQ series. The directional pad (it's not oblong, thank God), is also a joy to use, with a concave design and just a subtle hint of tactile feedback. It works well for games, at least far better than the one on the newer iPAQs. Although the pad functions as an action button if you push it down (like the iPAQs), I haven't experienced the dreaded problem of inadvertently hitting the action button while pushing down on the gamepad. On the iPAQ, this was a major issue for games, since the action button was often mapped to a particular game function. The Fujitsu design team did a good job in ensuring that the d-pad would be very easy to use while remaining highly functional. The only problem I had with it is that it takes a bit of getting used to, mostly because of its small size. The best d-pad I've ever used on a handheld device is still the one on my Casio E-125, which seemed to be just the right size.
Other buttons have a fairly traditional layout. The power button is on the top right, next to the ambient light sensor (we'll talk more about that later). On the left side, you'll find the Start button (which doesn't bring up the Start Menu but Casio's application launching program--more about that later, too), and above that is the jog dial. The jog dial is interesting because it's placed right where the device bulges slightly to the left, an obvious design element made to make the device more ergonomic. The infrared port is located on the center of the bulge, and the reset switch is located on the back of the device (hard resets are performed via an on/off toggle on bottom right side of the device). On the right side of the device you'll find the Bluetooth on/off switch as well as the record button.
Having the jog dial and the Start button on the left side has actually been a part of CE device design for several years and is meant to enable the one-handed operation paradigm. This is one aspect where the iPAQ, with its non-conventional design, completely misses the boat. One-handed operation allows you to do just that-operate your PC with one hand, performing many PDA functions without having to press multiple buttons and tap the screen. It's an attempt to bring Palm-like simplicity to the platform, and while it isn't perfect, it certainly is nice to have. The SD slot is mounted on the side, while the CF Type I/II slot is mounted on top. While these are probably the only places Fujitsu had left to stick these two slots, I haven’t yet encountered any problems with their placement. However, I’d prefer if the CF slot at least had a cover to protect my MicroDrive. Given the size of the LOOX, however, that may not be feasible.
Software Bundle? What's That?
You'd think that that with Microsoft's whole "software matters" mantra that hardware manufactures would put extra effort into bundling value-added software with their devices. With the last batch of Pocket PCs, Compaq got it right with the 3800 series, offering a slew of useful utilities, even a game emulator. On the other end of the spectrum was the Casio E200, offering almost nothing. The Fujitsu software bundle isn't terrific either, but it does offer a handful of utilities that some users will no doubt find useful:
· Message Master Mobile Client - an SMS messaging application (I can’t use this.)
· F-Secure FileCrypto for Pocket PC Personal Edition - a file encryption utility (Good for security.)
· Nyditot Virtual Display - a utility using sub-pixel rendering to run at “higher” resolution (I refuse to run this—it scares me.)
· Pocketinformant - a popular Personal Information Management (PIM) application (I don’t need this.)
· Space2go Organizer - another PIM application (Oh joy.)
· KSE Truefax 2.01b - a FAX utility (I can’t use this.)
· Westtek - a group of filters allowing you to view various file types (Useful for those wanting to view files from their business applications on their handheld.)
It's nice to see them offering these utilities, but a software bundle ought to be more balanced. The Pocket PC is as much about multimedia and entertainment as it is about enterprise utilities and personal information management (phone numbers, addresses, tasks, etc). Do we really need two PIMs? How about a sample movie to show Media Player off? Or an ebook or two? How about a game? Giving a well-rounded bundle is good for the platform, good for the customer, and good for the people and companies who develop the applications. The software bundle included with the LOOX shows how it’s intended more toward a corporate audience, I suppose.
Task Swapping 101
Although CE devices are meant to multitask fairly gracefully, managing tasks is still the Achilles Heel of Pocket PCs. Default Pocket PC 2002 still relies on each program's exit routine and doesn't have a native way of easily closing tasks or switching to other open tasks (although the “smart minimize” feature brings it a little closer) without going into the control panel and viewing active programs, which takes several steps. Hardware manufacturers have stepped in to fill the void, and Compaq did a good job with its lean and efficient “iTask.” If you want to switch to or close a task on the iPAQ, you simply tap the iTask button, and a list of programs appears, making it easy to manage multiple open applications. Other manufacturers have developed similar programs, with varying results.
Fujitsu's answer to this perennial Windows CE problem is with their SpeedTask application, which comes up when you hit the button on the left side of the device normally reserved for bringing up the Start Menu. Although this program has its uses, it's really more of a shortcut to accessing the built-in applications than anything else. You can use it to switch to and close applications, but only through a shortcut that takes you to the task manager in control panel. As a program launcher, the application is arguably easier to use than the Start Menu and the Programs folder, although the categorization is a little odd (Internet Explorer is listed under “Messaging”).
Of course, we always have our good friend WISbar, the excellent freeware program for task-swapping/closing purposes. Fortunately, the buttons on the LOOX are highly configurable, and I have my Start button to bring up the Start Menu on one press and bring up my running applications in WISbar when I press and hold.
The All-Important Screen
The display is one of the most important parts of any Pocket PC, since it's what you spend most of your time looking at, and it's your primary way of interacting with the device. Screens are also one of the most fragile and trouble-prone parts of PDAs, being subject to scratches, dirt, insensitive touch elements, backlights which sometimes fail, and sidelights which fail to light the entire display. And then there's the dreaded dust issue, which causes small particles of dirt, dust, and, well, really anything floating around in the air (even hair!) to collect underneath the LCD due to poor design. The first-generation iPAQ was blighted by this problem, as well as one of the newer Jornadas and the E-200. Compaq solved this problem in the 3800 series by completely sealing the screen, and hopefully other manufacturers will follow suit. We'll see. Other, more subjective issues include such things as richness of colors, size of display, readability of ClearType and fonts, brightness, and other factors.
I'm not even going to get into the Is-it-reflective-or-transflective-and-what-does-that-word-mean-anyway? debate that got rather heated in the discussion forums on some of the Pocket PC fan sites. Let's just say that the LOOX has, in my opinion, a quality, well-rounded screen. My main problem with the iPAQ was that the contrast was so high (likely a knee-jerk reaction to the 3600 series, which everyone said looked “washed out”) that games and applications which used lots of dark colors were simply unviewable in certain lighting conditions. The screen of the LOOX seems a comfortable mix between the two, offering adequate color depth while having enough brightness to make the entire screen visible, even outdoors.
One of the innovations Compaq brought to the table with the original iPAQ was the ambient light sensor, which allows for automatic brightness adjustment depending on lighting conditions. Although most Pocket PC manufacturers haven't adopted this feature, I'm pleased to say that Fujitsu has and that their implementation works very well. Although you don't have many settings if you choose to adjust the screen brightness manually, the automatic adjustment feature seems to offer more, and cycles through the various settings very smoothly (on the iPAQ 3800 series, you could see the screen moving through the various increments.) The main problem I had with the iPAQ's brightness adjustment was that it tended to turn the backlight off aggressively when it should have left it on. On the Fujitsu, that's much less an issue—although sometimes I have to give the sensor a little “encouragement” by covering it up with my finger, I usually don’t have to spend much time at all tweaking the brightness.
On issue with many Pocket PCs is how well they display ClearType. ClearType is an anti-aliasing technique used to make screen fonts more readable. It's primary use is in Reader, where users can spend hours engulfed in books and reference material. The LOOX generally does a very good job of displaying ClearType, although if you look closely, you might notice and odd brown-purple tint on the letters.
One complaint about the LOOX screen is that it doesn't respond well to screen taps. I haven't noticed this problem on my unit. The only device I had that exhibited this issue was an E-200, which had major problems registering screen taps on the edges of the screen. The only problem I've had with the Fujitsu is the dreaded scroll bar problem, which causes said scrollbar to predictably jerk in unpredictable ways when you drag it.
Part of how well you interact with the screen, of course, depends on what kind of stylus you use. The stylus that comes with the LOOX is a good one, and is made of plastic and what appears to be steel or aluminum in the blue and silver LOOX color scheme. Although a little lightweight for my tastes, the stylus feels comfortable in the hand is just the right thickness. Probably the neatest feature is the fact that it's telescoping, meaning that you can expand to almost the length of a regular writing instrument. This makes the stylus easier to grip and write with.
Gentlemen, Charge Your Batteries
As applications become more processor and storage device-intensive, battery life has become more and more of an issue on Pocket PCs. Those in the Palm camp have become acutely aware of this as well. Palm devices once had a significant advantage over Pocket PCs because their relatively slow processors and simple displays used little battery power. But the new Sonys, because of their secondary processors (for playing MP3s), integrated expansion, and high-res color screens, are known as battery hogs.
When the Pocket PC OS and applications actually start taking advantage of the XScale processor, we’ll likely see some significant boosts in battery life. For now, however, we have to be content with the fact that battery life depends primarily on two factors: the strength of the battery and usage of the device. With a battery at 1520 mAH, the LOOX has battery life roughly equivalent to the 38xx series iPAQ, perhaps a bit longer. The battery gauge is analog, meaning you get tiny increments of measurement rather than large chunks. The battery gauge seems to pretty accurately reflect the amount of battery remaining, although it doesn’t give you a numeric percentage. It also doesn’t give you a running tab during a battery charge, but WISbar seems to take care of this if you have the battery meter displayed in your taskbar.
Alas, none of the Pocket PCs are perfect, and the LOOX is no exception. Here’s a few of the major bugs affecting the LOOX:
We all know what an incredibly reliable program ActiveSync is. The program is even more cranky with the LOOX, since the device appears to have some bugs which affect the reliability of the software. These issues are reportedly even more acute if your OS happens to be Windows XP. One problem is that ActiveSync will simply ignore the device if it isn't turned off before being placed in the cradle. Another problem is that the device will sometimes come up as a guest even if it has a name and a partnership has been established. The third and most annoying issue is that AvantGo will report a "device components missing or out of date" error when updating. The second two issues seem to resolve after an upgrade to the newest version of ActiveSync (3.6), while the first is easy enough to get around. I've also heard of issues when trying to sync via Bluetooth, which I find easy to believe given the reliability of both the ActiveSync program and the current implementation of Bluetooth technology. J
Ah, the screen. So far, no Pocket PC manufacturer has ever created a screen that has managed to please everyone. Some of the issues/complaints against the LOOX screen include:
· The aforementioned problem of screen taps. This was a real issue with games that use the stylus for input on the E200, but I didn’t notice it on my unit.
· Anemic colors (this is highly subjective; I don’t agree).
· The dreaded “flicker” problem. This apparently appeared in some early units and causes lines on the screen to look wavy. This is a voltage calibration issue and can be easily fixed by taking/sending the unit to your local service center. It should be pointed out that many other Pocket PCs also have this issue (the first two generation iPAQs, for instance), but that it seems to be more pronounced on the Fujitsu.
· Backlight issues. Some units are having trouble with the reliability of the backlight.
My wish list for the device includes:
· SDIO support (for SecureDigital-based peripherals)
· Integrated 802.11b (Is it possible to have both Bluetooth and 802.11 in the same device? - YES!)
· Integrated bass/treble controls
· Removable battery
· Slightly larger d-pad
· Transflective or OLED screen
The Pocket LOOX is like many new models—not quite fulfilling the promise as originally announced, but still compelling and advancing the quality of the platform. The device is generally a strong one, with a form factor that is arguably the best currently available, an impressive array of features, a quality feel, and plenty of expandability and add-ons. Although the LOOX is a first effort and still has some growing pains, Fujitsu has managed to achieve a very attractive balance between design, features, functionality, and usability. If the device is indeed released in the U.S., it will likely do well and become a very viable alternative for buyers.