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Dell-icious Debut: ; Dell's Entry in Competitive PDA Market Shines with Features, Pricing

Mike Langberg Knight Ridder Newspapers

December 31, 2002

Dell Computer has made a brilliant debut in the crowded field of personal digital assistants with its fully featured and very affordable Axim X5 running Microsoft's PocketPC software.

The Axim is such a good deal that it changes my world view: I'm now prepared, for the first time, to recommend first-time PDA buyers consider PocketPC as a reasonable alternative to the well- established Palm software.

Introduced in late November, the Axim is sold only through Dell's Web site ( and toll-free phone line at (800) 999- 3355. There are two models - a basic configuration at $199 ($249 up front with a $50 mail-in rebate) and an enhanced configuration at $299 ($349 up front with a $50 mail-in rebate).

What makes me so excited about Axim is the wide array of features delivered at half the price rival PocketPC makers were charging just a few months ago.

The color-screen Axim does the familiar PDA chores of storing phone numbers, appointments and to-do lists, but it can also play MP3 music files and even short videos as well as running scaled- down versions of Microsoft Word, Excel and Outlook.

And there's a Compact Flash memory-card slot for networking. Connect a CF modem card, wireless card or Ethernet card and Axim will fetch electronic mail, display Web pages and play Internet radio.

The makers of Palm-compatible PDAs - including Palm, Handspring and Sony - charge at least twice as much for models with a similar breadth of features.

Nor is Axim ahead of its time, a complaint I've had with previous PocketPC PDAs. Fast Intel processors perform commands in a snap, so there's no waiting as you move through applications on the Axim. Earlier PocketPCs had much slower processors that bogged down under the weight of Microsoft's complex software.

Dell shook up the PDA market even before Axim was officially unveiled on Nov. 18; details, including the low price, leaked out several months in advance. The predictable result was price-cutting by competitors ahead of Dell's arrival.

The color-screen Palm m130 (, introduced in March at $279, is now down to $199 after rebate. Sony is offering the color- screen Clie PEG-SJ30 ( clie) at $249 and Handspring has the Treo 90 ( at $299.

Rival PocketPC makers have also rolled out their first $299 color- screen models, including the Hewlett-Packard iPaq h1910 (www jornada), the Toshiba PocketPC e330 (www.csd. and the Viewsonic V35 (www.

This shift to affordable color screens is more than a cosmetic improvement. After years of using monochrome Palm PDAs, I switched to a color Sony Clie earlier this year and I never want to go back. Back-lit color screens are much easier on the eyes, with heightened contrast that greatly improves the visibility of tiny text.

I remain a big fan of Palm's software. For ease of use and fast response, PDAs running the Palm operating system continue to outperform PocketPC, especially at basic tasks such as calendar and address book.

The Palm side of the PDA divide also continues to offer the lowest entry price for buyers on a budget, with the monochrome Palm Zire at $99 and the monochrome Sony Clie PEG-SL10 at $149.

I never recommended PocketPC before because PDAs running the software were so expensive and slow.

Now that Dell has removed those objections, I regard PocketPC as a worthy contender - especially for those who want to work with Word or Excel documents, or who run their lives entirely through Microsoft's Outlook.

All PocketPCs are designed to synchronize with Outlook, so any data you enter in Outlook on your computer automatically flows to your PDA, and vice versa.

I borrowed the $199 Axim and found just about every facet shined.

The color screen, 21/8 inches wide by 3 inches high, is among the brightest and sharpest I've seen in a PDA. There is a built-in microphone for voice recording. Music playback through headphones sounds almost as good as from a full computer. The Axim weighs 7 ounces, a middle-weight ranking for a PDA and very reasonable given the unit has a removable rechargeable battery and Secure Digital memory-card slot as well as the CF slot.

Differences between the two configurations are minor.

The $199 model offers a 300-megahertz Intel X-Scale processor, 32 megabytes of read-only memory for storing programs and files, 32 megabytes of random-access memory for running applications and a USB cable.

The $299 model bumps up to a 400-megahertz X-Scale processor, 48 megabytes of ROM, 64 megabytes of RAM and a cradle for connecting and recharging.

These features smoke the competition; competing $299 PocketPC models have slower processors and no CF slot.

I also borrowed a wireless networking CF card from Socket Communications ( that sells for about $150 and got a fast Internet connection on the Axim through Wi-Fi, or 802.11b, wireless networks in both my home and office.

I could browse the Web with the PocketPC version of Internet Explorer, although some pages wouldn't load because the PocketPC doesn't support all Web formats, and used the PocketPC version of Windows Media Player to view short videos and listen to Internet radio.

The total cost for the Axim and Socket card would be $350, at least $200 less than competing wireless PDA packages.

That's a great deal, another reason why I see the Axim as a breakthrough product for both Dell and the PocketPC platform.

(C) 2002 Sunday Gazette-Mail. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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