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Mike Gallo [May 1, 2002]

NEC Throws Its Hat Into The Enterprise PDA Ring With The MobilePro P300

BY MIKE GALLO


NEC Solutions America, Mobile Solutions

Ph: 888-632-8701
www.nec.com

Price:  $599.00.

RATINGS:
(Out of 5 possible stars.)

Installation:

Performance:
Features:
Display:
Overall: A-

With their first foray directly into the Pocket PC market, NEC has given its flagship mini, the MobilePro P300, plenty of enterprise appeal. Integrating Pocket PC 2002 along with the latest industry-standard hardware into a stylish and surprisingly thin silver shell, the P300 really gets down to business.

INSTALLATION
NEC suggests upgrading to Outlook 2002 (if you're not already running it) before installing ActiveSync. A full version of Outlook 2002 is on the installation CD. Other than that upgrade, installing the ActiveSync software, and adding the NEC device driver (also on the installation CD), nothing else is necessary to get the P300 up and running on a host PC. The PC will need Microsoft Windows 98, Me, NT 4.0 (SP6), or 2000 Pro (SP1 or better) plus an Internet connection. Our device was shipped to us with the battery fully charged.

FEATURES
The P300 -- just 4.72" (w) x 3.07" (d) x 0.73" (h) -- is fortified with a 206 MHz Intel StrongARM 32-bit RISC processor, 32 MB flash ROM, 32 MB RAM, and a 32 MB SD card. It weighs in at 6.7 ounces. The display is a reflective color 3.8-inch TFT LCD display 320 x 240 resolution (more than 65,000 colors) with four front light settings: low, medium, high, and maximum brightness. The removable cover hinges from the top of the P300 and can also be folded behind the unit, helping to keep its compact footprint. The four standard interface buttons line up near the bottom of the device and include these default functions: My Menu, Calendar, Contacts, and Tasks. The four-way Navigation control resides between the buttons with two on either side, and is rather unique in that its four-point design is built around the unit's square, single-speaker audio output, which resides at the heart of the control.

The uniquely designed cradle supports both USB and serial connections, and the AC adaptor can be used via the cradle allowing the P300 to sync and charge simultaneously, or travelers can forgo the cradle and charge the 10 hour Lithium-Ion battery directly using the same AC adaptor.

The P300 houses both types of industry-standard card ports: CompactFlash (CF) and Secure Digital (SD), while also offering an IrDA port, stereo speaker, and a built-in microphone. Other notables: a headphone jack, sturdy strap swivel, CF card ejector, scroll dial, and recording button. Data entry is achieved through the use of the P300's touch screen with stylus pen, soft keyboard, Block Recognizer, Letter Recognizer, or Transcriber.

The P300 employs Microsoft's Pocket PC 2002 operating system and comes with Pocket Word, Pocket Excel, Outlook, Pocket Internet Explorer, Microsoft Reader, and Windows Media Player. PPC 2002 supports secure network access, better device security, and more reliable synchronization than its predecessor. The P300 comes with some pre-installed software including MobilePro Synchronization System and Insignia Jeode Java Plug-In. Other bundled software includes productivity enhancers such as ArcSoft's PhotoBase and WESTTEK's ClearVue, Voice Messenger from Ruksun, as well as some games and additional tools.

OPERATIONAL TESTING
The sleek, compact design of the P300 and its cradle make our iPAQ 3635 with CF expansion sleeve look like an old wooden boat. The P300 packs a lot of user interface bells and whistles into the left side of the device, including a thumb-jog wheel, both a Power and Record button, the SD card slot, and a CF card ejector button. The placement and design of the SD card slot was excellent. The Handera 330 PDA for example, was designed with both the CF and SD card ports on the top of the device, leaving only a few millimeters between the two cards. NEC's design worked beautifully, incorporating a spring-loaded door to protect the storage slot when not in use. The placement of the Record button is the only design decision that tended to frustrate me from time to time. I inadvertently (and repeatedly) would press the button when lifting the device out of the cradle, which launches the Notes screen and recording interface

Carrying the P300 around the office for several days was long enough for me to realize that while I wasn't too excited about the cover's mechanics, it offered very good protection to both the screen and the input buttons on the dashboard. While the plastic clasps used to affix the removable cover to the top of the PDA didn't seem up for the long haul, the magnet embedded in the PDA itself kept the cover on tight even when I removed the device from my pocket or a small pouch on a laptop case. The major advantage to this type of cover appears to be allowing the user to fold it behind the device to keep it out of the way, just as you would the cover on a small spiral-bound notepad. A Wi-Fi or storage card installed in the CF port on the top of the device (directly behind the cover's hinge) however, prevents this from happening. Instead, the cover flops back and extends awkwardly off the back of the device, resting on the CF card.

Software Supplements
The documentation says that one or more of the follow applications come with the included 32 MB SD card: ArcSoft's PhotoBase and WESTTEK's ClearVue, Voice Messenger from Ruksun, NEC's MobilePro Synchronization system, ZIOGolf and Golfwits, though the card that came with my demo unit was blank upon reception. Nevertheless, all the applications can also be found on the installation CD that accompanies the unit.

Since the Voice Messenger from Ruksun supports VoIP via a handheld, I couldn't pass up the opportunity for a couple of quick tests. To sustain a voice conversation from the PDA to the desktop, the desktop must also be running a version of Ruksun's Voice Messenger -- MSN Messenger won't do. I installed a Wi-Fi card in the P300 and was receiving excellent signal quality for my small battery of VoIP tests. After getting all the client software installed, a TMC Labs team member and I then initiated several conversations via Voice Messenger and a PC. Over the MobilePro's speaker the voice quality was barely audible, at best. Switching to a headset on the MobilePro improved things, however, we couldn't use a headset with a microphone due to the lack of a microphone jack. At the full 11 Mbps throughput of our Wi-Fi card, the latency was still measurable in full seconds. A cool toy to play around with, but I didn't find much use for Voice Messenger considering the enterprise focus of this PDA.

PPC 2002
The MobilePro offered a crisp, bright, 65,000 LCD needing only a nimble touch with the light, durable stylus to get things started. The "Microsoft Mobile" logo branded into the handheld's wallpaper is yet another indication Microsoft has marketed its PPC 2002 operating system heavily toward business applications. Fortifying it naturally, with Outlook e-mail and scheduling extensions plus Terminal Services and VPN capabilities, these features are the attention-getters and the attraction that businesses with Microsoft solutions already in place are searching for.

Just as ActiveSync helps users transfer information between the desktop and handheld, Terminal Services allows users to interface with Microsoft Servers from their P300s. A user with proper network clearances need only know the server's IP address, or even its DNS, to log on and retrieve the latest info, or save information to that server. After logging onto the server once, Terminal Services will save a server's addressing information making the interface no different than logging onto the network via a networked PC. Though Terminal Server is built into Windows 2000 and not Windows NT Server, Microsoft offers the software as a free download for use with Windows NT Server. Terminal Services clients are also available free of charge.

The MobilePro also comes with the Pocket versions of Microsoft Word and Excel, as well as Microsoft Reader, MSN Messenger, and Windows Media Player. These applications all offer a limited, but useful section of functionality their larger siblings are known for. P300 users will be happy to know that even though Microsoft failed to come up with and include a Pocket PowerPoint program for the 2002 operating system, ClearVue's suite of pocket-size readers allows slide documents to be viewed via the handheld, in addition to spreadsheet and text documents.

Other Notables
I also really liked the programmable LED on the top of the device, right above the NEC logo. To readers it may seem almost inconsequential, however I found myself relying heavily on the light to inform me at a glance if the P300 had successfully connected to the network (flashing blue), synced to my PC (flashing cyan), if the microphone was active when using the Ruksun Voice Messenger or recording a .WAV for a voice e-mail (flashing green), to inform me of the battery's condition (50% battery life flashing red), and so forth. The LED supports seven re-programmable color settings in all.

Another program worth mention is Synchrologic's synchronization system for the MobilePro. Called the MobilePro Synchronization System, the program allows business users to handle all mobile applications at one time such as downloading files, software applications, and software updates; backing up files; sending and receiving e-mail messages; and synchronizing PIM data. The MobilePro Synchronization System client is a part of a system that requires a MobilePro Synchronization System server, which manages content flow.

NEC offers an excellent one-year limited warranty, covering parts and labor and hardware technical support. Concurrent with the limited warranty, the customer receives at no additional charge one year of UltraCare Service. This service includes Rapid Exchange, allowing customers to receive a replacement system the next business day. The MobilePro P300 UltraCare Service includes a toll-free hotline for hardware technical support 24 hours a day, seven days a week (excluding some holidays). NEC MobilePro P300 UltraCare Service options cover an additional one or two years of service and can be purchased with the system or within 90 days of original purchase.

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
The device performed well in all of my tests. Initially, I had a problem syncing the P300 on a computer with three other handheld identities using a previously installed copy of ActiveSync 3.5. The device wasn't being recognized as connected to the computer. I installed the P300 on two other PCs and had no other problems transferring data between the host and the P300, including large MP3s, and multiple Word and Excel files as well.

When testing Ruksun's Voice Messenger, voice was raspy and distorted over the external speaker, but much clearer when using the headphones. Although the microphone seemed to perform okay, its positioning directly below the snap-on cover didn't seem like an optimal place for a microphone. The cover would have also been more attractive if the magnetic system that works so well to keep it closed on the front of P300 was employed to keep the cover pinned open while the device is in use.

I wonder what percentage of enterprise handheld users also own or use a laptop computer as their host PC? Though I loved the look of the cradle, its serial and USB interface, and the fact that the AC cord can be plugged directly into the P300 for charging, why doesn't the USB cord do the same? Who wants to cram a cradle that doesn't break down or fold in half into their laptop bag ? It just seemed like with the device's focus on enterprise and mobility, this would have been taken into consideration.

Lastly, I don't think it's too early to integrate Bluetooth (Compaq's iPAQ 3870 supports it) with higher-end handhelds. In fact, I think this type of connectivity to compatible peripherals would be an asset to the P300s business approach.

CONCLUSION
NECs MobilePro P300 is a well-designed, highly functional handheld computer. With support for Wi-Fi, industry-standard hardware and operating system, included Secure Digital 32 MB storage card, and a great warranty, at $599.00 NEC's entrant into the Pocket PC realm is priced competitively. Billing as an enterprise PDA becomes apparent in the P300's business-orientated bundled software, its warranty, and MobilePro Synchronization system, while the programmable LED and unique cradle give the product usable character and personal style. NEC seems to have effectively increased the competition in the business handheld market with the MobilePro P300, a sharp, colorful Pocket PC with an enterprise accent.

Michael Gallo is a technology editor for TMC Labs, and a regular contributor to Planet PDA. He welcomes your comments on this article in our Planet PDA Forum.











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