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Asus MyPal A636 - an absolute battery life record
Asus has never been the PDA market leader and hasn't aspired to take leading positions. This was a fashion direction for the company, it yielded profits from sales of motherboards and notebooks and plenty of OEM/ODM orders. The first PDA models (Asus MyPal A600 and A620) added the status of productive PDAs with long battery life. The following Asus A716 still kept the status, though it seemed clumsy.
The latest model Asus A730 (and its modification Asus A730W) seemed to be an advance at first time - a VGA screen, relatively small size. However later comparison with rival models revealed it was a far from better solution (read the comparison test of VGA Pocket PC here). The most important moment was that the model lagged behind with its productivity and battery life. That is it lacked the things, for which many liked previous Asus handhelds. In result we see poor sales and the stop of production. To say the truth there was another factor in the assessment, the overall crises on the PDA market. Asus A730/A730W and previous models are no longer produced, now stocks are offered for sale. Thus there won't be an upgrade to Windows Mobile 5.0.
Asus will follow the current trend on the market for the coming year - shifting to GPS navigation solutions and smartphones/communicators (with the focus on the latter). Asus A636 (navigation) and Asus P505 (communicator) offered by the company now are pilot balloons on the market.
Today we review Asus MyPal A636, which is a successful handheld in the both aspects of navigation and the ordinary PDA. Some features make the model unique, and as for the battery life there isn't any rival even to be near it. But we won't run ahead, let's start from the beginning.
Design, control elements
Dealing with the appearance of Asus MyPal A636 designers should have created strict design and control elements easy to work with in portrait and landscape orientation. On the photos below you can see rejected design versions, we think that an optimal version has been eventually chosen.
Design is strict enough dominated with straight lines. There are no light forms like in Asus A730, we see the model returned to the ideas of Asus A620. Due to external flip GPS antenna its dimensions and weight (122x73.2x19-19.5 mm, 186 g) are rather typical for a dual slot PDA (SD/MMC and CF) than for a single slot solution. GPS onboard can't be a good explanation to big size and weight, as there are smaller solutions - FS Pocket LOOX N520, HTC Galaxy. You can put up with such weight and size carrying the device in your overcoat, the bag or at the belt. And if you'll take it out of the car rarely, so these things aren't important. In hand the PDA rests the same way as Asus A620, I had similar feelings.
The front panel is metallic with the engraving unique for each device, it is done under hairlines technology - laser applies non-parallel lines to the surface. This technology is used in expensive Asus notebooks (for example, Asus W1). In addition to attractive appearance it has a utilitarian feature - it doesn't leave fingerprints, even you try it on purpose. Another plus is nice touch. I'd note that the assembly quality is high, when you squeeze the device in hand, you feel it monolith.
Under the screen are 3 equal circles. The left circle is the speaker, its sound volume is higher than average (though we expected much from big dimensions), it doesn't creak at the highest sound level and produces pure sound.
The joystick with the enter button in the middle carries out standard functions, makes sound volume higher/lower, changes scale in navigation mode. The joystick and buttons are very good gaming - 4 buttons fit the right thumb, that's ideal for SNES emulator, for example. In games the joystick and functional buttons proved well. Sides are free from control elements, you find only an infrared window and grooves to mount the device in the car cradle.
At the top end we see Power button, a silo for the big and comfortable plastic stylus pen, a SD/MMC slot supporting SDIO. At the bottom are a synchronization connector (like in Asus A730, FS LOOX 710/720), a rest button, a standard audio jack protected with a rubber gag. However I can't follow the logic, why the audio jack is protected and the synchronization connector is open. Music playback quality is standard high, I have no claims to it.
Hold button, rarely seen on PDAs, is located at the back panel and blocks the screen from an accidental touch. The battery compartment has nothing peculiar.
The car-cradle for the windscreen and the choke charger are integral items of a navigation PDA. The Asus MyPal A636 kit includes it all.
Another essential element of the kit is navigation maps - so after you bought the device you can install it in the car and use it right away without searching for and buying additional software. The sales package in Europe contains a 256 MB SD card with Destinator PN5 navigator. In Russian the device will be shipped without maps at first, that will lower the attractiveness of Asus A636 as the completed navigation product.
There is a junior cheaper modification - Asus MyPal A632. It lacks Wi-Fi, but is equipped with a dual slot (SD/MMC and miniSD). For the first time we saw this slot in HP iPaq hw6515, both modifications had similar distinctions. In 2Q 2006 we'll see an update of Asus MyPal A636 - the main change will be the built-in flash disk capacious of 1 GB.
This handheld has SiRFstarIII GPS chip, in fact this is the standard for all new PDAs with integrated GPS. All rival models have this very chip.
The GPS chip is the heart of any GPS-receiver. It is as important as CPU in PDA or GSM (UMTS) chip in the phone. SiRF stands out on the GPS-chip market, the solutions of this company are used by many manufacturers. An important milestone was the appearance of 3G chips SiRFstarIII. This is a new break in the development of personal satellite navigation. In the table below you see the comparison of SiRFstarIII and 2G chip.
The main difference for the final user is that it became possible to use the internal antenna saving place and making the appearance better. But there is a by-problem: the new chip is vulnerable to noise made by the TFT-matrix and the processor. In the foreground are brought talents of engineers, who try to minimize and isolate noise. There is an alternative solution - to place the external antenna, so the accuracy will be higher (larger surface of the antenna, direction adjustment, lower noise). But you shouldn't expect a miracle - the difference between the external and the internal antenna for the final user is negligible. I haven't felt the advantage of Asus A636 against Qtek G100 (HTC Galaxy) in positioning accuracy. Moreover if you use the device in the car, you can plug the external antenna via a special jack. The advantages of the external antenna are the subject of many disputes now and in future. Salespeople will provide strong arguments in favor of the external antenna (with the external antenna the signal reception is better).
The antenna can be completely hidden inside the shell, almost not giving itself away (the shell here is 0.5 mm thicker, you can neglect the fact). In the PDA mode the antenna won't disturb you in any way. If you eject it, it can be bent for the portrait or landscape use.
In navigator mode Asus A636 is the typical Pocket PC based on SiRFstarIII chip, so we won't go into details.
The screen of the A636 has standard specs for Pocket PC: a transflective TFT screen with a 320x240 pixel resolution and 65K colors, a 3.5" diagonal. The screen behaves well inside and outside, that is typical for all transflective screens. There are 240 backlight levels, the lowest level is comfortable to read in the dark. As for the quality we have one of the best QVGA screens, however there are no fundamental differences from the average level.
The Li-Ion battery is capacious of 1300 mAh. That's not the highest figure among the PDA, it's higher than average. The manufacturer claimed 44 hours of offline work. We haven't believed in this statement, until we checked it.
In the read mode (auto scrolling in Haali Reader, the lowest backlight level and the lowest clock rate) the A636 lasted for 35 hours 50 minutes on a single charge. The MP3 playback from the memory card with the screen of drained the device completely out within 23 hours 24 minutes. Under the maximum load Asus A636 worked for 4 hours 10 minutes. In GPS navigation mode with 50% backlight level the device was good for 7 hours 10 minutes. Bravo Asus! Hats off! The PDA outpaced all previous records. And don't forget that the A636 is equipped with Intel XScale processor and not the efficient TI, and the battery capacity is far from 3600 mAh. We suppose, this record will be kept for a long time, this model should become the standard to access offline work. Other manufacturers should think about power consumption optimization for Intel XScale processor.
As for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi in the A636, we won't go into details, as both modules work without reprimands. There are Broadcom drivers of latest version for Bluetooth, the fact says much about their complete functionality.
The most interesting here is the implementation of USB. The connector remained the same inherited from Asus A730. There is no USB host function in this model, but there are 2 extra modes implemented: Asus MyPal A636 can be used as the Wi-Fi adapter for PC - some of you might find this function very useful. The second mode is the use of the PDA as the card-reader, Windows XP recognizes the device without drivers as the external drive. The later mode is available for Palm devices for a long time, but it is applied for Pocket PC for the first time. Frankly speaking, it's possible to activate this function in other Pocket PC with the special program.
I'd remind you that memory has been organized other way in Windows Mobile 5.0. Volatile RAM is used as RAM, user's data can't be stored there as before. There is 59.21 MB of flash memory onboard to store user's data and programs and 58.09 MB of available ROM. There is also an extra flash disk for 25.74 MB. Asus MyPal A636 is powered by Intel XScale PXA272 processor with 416 MHz maximum clock rate. Let's see how the handheld can perform in tests.
At first we run our standard test with SPB Benchmark package and take PDAs with similar functionality. Here we won't provide the integrated index, as it is distorted by the new OS version (we've written about the SPB index peculiarities in the review of HTC Wizard).
This index describes Pocket PC's CPU speed. The models occupied positions according to the nominal clock rate, Asus A636 slightly behind Asus A620.
The file system index test failed because of memory reorganization, in reality there is no such gap from the leader. As we've written many times - the test isn't adequate.
The synchronization speed unfortunately turned to be low.
The results on graphics productivity for Asus A636 are the highest.
Let's see the test results in real applications, they are much closer to the reality. At the video playback the PDA showed best performance. In this case without using Wireless MMX optimization (the function of PXA27x processor), we launched 4 clips at different stream intensity, the index was formed on the basis of dropped frames. The less dropped frames, the higher the index is. 1000 index means no dropped frames at all.
As we see the result is quite good, entering the top 5 among pocket PC.
Test of graphics productivity with of the PocketQuake game in the mute mode (turn the sound off by nosound 1 console command, leaving other settings unchanged) suggests the results of the most productive Pocket PC. We have an averaged figure by 2 tests (Demo 1 and Demo2).
If for some reason you need higher productivity, you can speed up the PDA (the only thread is the hard reset with the loss of all data). For example, we sped up the processor by XCPUScaler, measuring the productivity growth with BetaPlayer, Wireless MMX optimization was on. The handheld worked stable at the frequency up to 624 MHz. Higher speed up caused unstable work and made the system busy. As we see, the results are quite good, though not the best.
The PDA productivity (with the speed up) will be enough to cope with any task. The results of real tests suggest that this is one of the best Pocket PC.
The handheld is powered by the 5th version of Windows Mobile. You can read about its standard applications in the special review published on out site (remember that the version for Asus MyPal A636 doesn't have specific phone applications, the PDA can't be used as the phone), here we just mention non-standard programs:
Mode Switcher/ Task Switcher. It switches between active applications, like Alt+Tab combination on the keyboard.
The important advantage of this model is the record battery life. Other peculiar features include the front panel made under hairlines technology, built-in card-reader mode, the dual slot modification (miniSD, SD/MMC), high quality.
As for the weak points I'd note big size and weight because of the external antenna, and relatively high price. The A636 is already commercially available, in Europe it costs €550 with navigation maps, the junior modification without Wi-Fi and with the dual slot is priced at €500. The price tag in Russian is $450-480 for the senior model and about $400 for the junior one.
Soon we pass to the detailed comparison of GPS-handhelds based on Windows Mobile 5.0 in the review of Qtek G100 (HTC Galaxy).
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