Mobile device review: HP iPAQ 110 Classic Handheld

The iPAQ Classic Handheld, spun-off from HP's popular iPAQ h1910, is a classic-style handheld which builds off the successful elements of previous versions.

The iPAQ Classic Handheld, spun-off from HP's popular iPAQ h1910, is a classic-style handheld which builds off the successful elements of previous versions and is the latest of HP's traditional handhelds. Despite its slender build, this Windows Mobile device packs a 624 MHz processor, Wi-Fi b/g, and Bluetooth.

Preliminary Comments
Before we get to the meat of this review, I must make a quick note. My iPAQ review unit came in a generic white box, rather than retail packaging, so I can't swear that the device reviewed is exactly as it is off the shelf.

It is not unheard of for HP to ship pre-release units for review. These may come with pre-release software versions, which aren't as polished as the final production run. Then again, everything could be exactly the same. I sent a query about this through HP's PR firm, but unfortunately HP didn't respond before this review went to press, so I'm not sure.

On a further note, to untwist some of HP's notoriously strange numbering system: The iPAQ 110, 111, 112, and 114 are all the same device, more or less. The 110 and 111 are available in the US, the 112 is the version for Asia/Pacific, and it's called the 114 in Europe. They may vary slightly in terms of languages pre-loaded, and including the proper AC power adapters for their localities of sale, but the hardware itself is the same.

Last but not least -- while much of this review is intended for casual customers, the iPAQ 110 debuts a wholly new processor, so we're going to take some time out to investigate that and its functions. I've tried to make this as accessible as possible, but if you find yourself becoming lost, there's usually a summary at the end of each section. Don't worry about it -- if you don't know what a megaflop is, you probably won't care, either.

Design and Construction
The 110 is based off a classic HP design -- or, more accurately, a classic HTC design that HP bought and used for the iPAQ h1910 way back in 2002. Since then, it's become one of the most popular iPAQ form-factors, with four other models following it, including the 110.

The things that most popularized it were its thinness, and light weight, both of which the 110 delivers on. Just a tiny hair narrower, longer, and thicker than the older devices, it's unlikely that you'll notice there's a difference unless you measure it.

The 110 also shaves off a little weight, down to just 3.68 ounces. This makes it one of the lightest full Pocket PC devices on the market. It's noticeable, too. You can literally drop it in a pocket and forget about it until you need it. Yesterday, I had the experience of carrying it around in my pants pocket for a good four hours before I even recalled I'd slipped it in there.

The whole face of the device is silver plastic, which is textured to convey the impression of brushed metal without the weight. The back side of the casing is black plastic, which I found to be a little smudgy. It's not high gloss, but it does tend to retain skin oils.

Overall construction is solid. While some devices may employ cheap materials to lighten their weight, the 110 does not. The casing itself is quite sturdy, the battery cover latches securely, and the SD card mechanism feels robust.

The only part where the durability of the device truly falls down is the front buttons and directional pad. Compared to the rest of the machine, they feel lighter and a little flimsy. Still, the directional pad is large and easy to manipulate, and the buttons are good enough for average use. People seeking to play action games might find them unacceptable, though.

I do find the layout of the buttons a little odd -- the OK/close and Start buttons are the innermost pair, as opposed to being the outermost as on many other devices. If you're accustomed to the other way, it takes some adjusting.

The iPAQ doesn't have dedicated softkeys for one-handed use, but the Calendar and Messaging buttons can be retasked to this purpose. You don't even have to lose your application launching ability: the iPAQ supports press-and-hold secondary choices on its three remappable buttons. Thus, you can have softkeys and still be able to launch four programs from the hard buttons. Or no softkeys, and six apps.

In general, simplicity is the order of the day for the 110's design. On the bottom, it has only a single Mini-USB plug for both charging and syncing. SD card slot are on the left side; power, recorder, and reset buttons are on the right; 3.5mm headphone jack up top. There's no infrared port, and very few added complications.

The top front houses the LED indicator and the light sensor. This latter is marks the return of a "classic" iPAQ feature that hasn't been seen in a little while, the ability to automatically set the screen brightness based on ambient light. I found that I barely noticed this during the course of the review, which I suppose is testament to it working well. You can, if you like, disable this and manually select the brightness, or set a rough range for the auto-dimmer using the standard controls.

The stylus is a simple but rugged metal barrel with plastic end caps. None of that telescoping nonsense here.

All in all, I find the iPAQ 110's design to be unoriginal, but in part that's because it works well. The curvature feels good in the hand, all the buttons are reasonably useful, and the parts are straightforward. If I changed anything, I'd make the front panel buttons a bit more robust, and make the power button larger. When those are the biggest complaints I can find, a device has done pretty well.

Operating System
This iPAQ runs the standard package of Windows Mobile 6 Classic. Make no mistake, though, "Classic" is simply how Microsoft refers to Windows Mobile device without a phone -- the OS on the 110 is the most up to date you can find.

It's a fairly clean copy, with the only additions to the basic application package being a PDF viewer (ClearVue), and HP photo application, along with a few "getting started" type apps. Windows Live is present, but Remote Desktop is not.

In fact, far from being "classic," the 110 is actually one of the first devices to ship with the brand new Office Mobile 6.1, which enables compatibility with Microsoft Office 2007, and in particular the new DOCX file format, based on XML.

I also got the chance to try out the Windows Update utility now being used to disseminate OS updates, rather than relying on device manufacturers to do so. It can be switched to either automatic or manual modes: in manual, it's quite easy, just push the button and wait a few seconds. No updates were available, so I couldn't actually download any, but it seems a straightforward enough process.

Regrettably, HP is still following its policy that Microsoft Outlook is no longer included with new devices. Pity, as that will flummox some new users who don't already have Outlook on their machines. Of course, there's always third-party options like syncing to Mozilla via BirdieSync. Perhaps, if we keep mentioning that, Microsoft will pressure HP to go back to the old bundle.

Performance
Among its other new features, the iPAQ 110 is also the first device available to have the new XScale PXA310 processor. This is the first generation of new XScale CPUs to be built by Marvell, rather than Intel, after the latter sold off the XScale unit. That said, the PXA310, and its bigger, faster sibling the PXA320, are both still mainly based on Intel hardware and research.

The new PXA310s run at the same clock speed, 624 MHz, as the highest end of the older PXA270 line, and raw floating point performance is almost exactly the same -- 1.9 megaflops for the PXA270, 1.94 for the PXA310, on the Linpack benchmark. That doesn't mean that they're identical, though. Some unconfirmed reports attributed to Marvell claim that the 310 will actually deliver 50 to 100% more performance than a PXA270 at the same speed.

To test this out, I used Spb Benchmark to compare the 110 against my 624 MHz, WM6-upgraded X51v. This isn't a perfect comparison, both since the X51v's WM6 implementation is unofficial, and because it's VGA versus QVGA, but it at least provides some point of comparison.

Most file operations were substantially faster on the iPAQ, as were some graphical operations, though this was to be expected on the lower resolution. In general, I would say that the newer CPU does offer some benefit over the older model in pure performance -- including, at least in my subjective experience, the speed with which the processor spins up to maximum after idling -- but not a life-altering difference.

Regardless of performance, the newer CPUs do boast about two major selling points: improvements in power consumption, and integrated video functionality.

Power first, because it's the hardest to quantify. There's no test that will really tell you how much power is being saved by one component of a device. But some tests on the components themselves have been done by Marvell and others. While playing video, a 624 MHz PXA270 would eat about 530 milliwatts, whereas a PXA320 running at the same speed, playing the same video, only needed 327 mW, a power savings of nearly 40%.

200 milliwatts may not sound like much, but when you figure the fact that that's about 5% of the iPAQ battery's total capacity per hour, it becomes a little more significant. And when you average that over, say, four hours, you're talking about a very significant increase in battery life, 20% or more.

While we're on the subject of processor speeds: Absent on the iPAQ 110, you'll find, is any sort of settings applet for controlling the CPU clock speed or scaling. Never fear, though, because the device seems to do quite a good and aggressive job of this on its own. I found that the 110 does a better job eliminating the fractional startup lag that I associate with the processor scaling up from the power saving 208 MHz "idle" to the snappier 400 MHz to 600 MHz speeds.

The second major selling point of the newer processors is the fact that they include some hardware video decoding capability. Originally, Intel was developing a second generation graphics chip called Stanwood to replace the Intel 2700G (code name "Marathon"). While this project got scrapped before the line was even sold to Marvell, some of the Stanwood features were integrated into the new "Monahans" class processors.

Caution: even more numbers and jargon ahead. If you just want to find out how well it works, without finding outhow it works, skip down a few paragraphs.

According to the specifications, the PXA310 and 320 chips both integrate hardware decoding of MPEG-2, MPEG-4, and some of the more advanced MPEG-4 parts such as H.264. To test this out, I fed the iPAQ a high-quality video clip: 512 x 384, 8 MB per minute, run through The Core Pocket Media Player. I was quite impressed with the result -- It played as flawlessly as it would have on my Axim X51v's hardware acceleration. This despite the fact that TCPMP hasn't been at all tweaked to take advantage of the specific video capabilities of the PXA310, only the older 2700G. Either the new processor handles video acceleration automatically -- a fact which I doubt, given that Windows Media Player doesn't get the same benefits -- or the 2700G tweaks are still compatible.

The system played my first test video so well that I decided to stress it out. I dug up the heaviest video files I had around: 608 x 336 at 13.5 MB/minute, 576 x 384 and 15.8 MB/minute, and last, a whopping 1280 x 720, 27 MB per minute HD clip.

TCPMP actually borked first -- when opening the HD clip, it reported a maximum supported video resolution of 1008 x 1008, and refused to play. Otherwise, all the files worked great, even during extremely high-motion sequences. To compare, an unaccelerated 624 MHz PXA270 on a QVGA device would play the more sedate, low-motion sections of the 8 MB/minute video, but would choke on action or panning sequences.

To test how much leeway there was left, I used the TCPMP benchmark option with the 15.8 MB/minute file. The iPAQ scored 189% of minimum, or a benchmark data rate of 3.1 megabits per second. That means that on the 15.8 MB/minute file, the 110 was only using a little over half its total capacity to play at normal speed.

For comparison, I did the same test on my Intel 2700G-equipped Axim X51v, using the same file, on the same memory card. The Axim scored 277%, or 4.5 megabits per second -- substantially higher, but at a level that could only be significant if you're playing back high-definition video sources. To put it in different terms, the iPAQ should be able to play any file up to 23 MB per minute, which is just shy of 1.4 GB per hour of video recorded. In short, insanely high. And again, I stress that this is without the media player enjoying any specific optimizations to the new processor.

Codec compatibility was equally good. My test sample included files based on DivX, Xvid, and Windows Media Video. Both the DivX and Xvid files worked perfectly. I wasn't able to properly test the WMV file, since the default Windows Media Player does not support hardware acceleration, and TCPMP doesn't support WMV9. However, the chip specifications do list WMV9 playback as being supported.

All stats, numbers, and calculations aside, the iPAQ 110 has tremendous multimedia performance. You can reasonably expect to throw extremely high-quality desktop videos at it and have them play without a second thought. The one thing that's not on the table is hardware-based 3D acceleration and Open GL ES, such as the old 2700G provides. There's still an Open GL driver, but it's now software only. Unless you're into either advanced 3D games or emulators, this won't make a difference to you.

Further, the new design also means substantial power savings on the part of the processor. While this won't translate into an order of magnitude increase in device battery life, it does mean substantial cuts on one of the more power-intensive parts of the device, and less reason than ever before to avoid using a fast processor.

Display
The iPAQ 100's screen is a slightly mixed bag, but still mostly to the good. After a long time with only my Axims and various smartphone devices for regular use, I'd forgotten how relatively large 3.5 inches really is. Only fractionally smaller than my Axim's screen, the iPAQ offers a much larger viewing average than you get on most phone-based devices. Trust me: the people who say that there's no real difference between 2.8" and 3.5" haven't looked at both side by side.

The downside is that because the resolution is only QVGA, it seems less sharp than a 2.8-inch screen at the same resolution. Also, the screen seems to have more polarization issues than other units -- there's a noticeable "glow" effect to it. This is particularly evident in landscape mode, even when looking at the screen head on. It's not unusable by any means, but it is a bit annoying if you're trying to watch video, particularly something with a lot of dark scenes.

In general, though, the iPAQ 110 does about as well as one would expect out of a QVGA screen. The resolution isn't unlivable, and I think that a high quality screen protector would help with the polarization issue.

Expansion
The 110 has a full size SDHC slot, giving it a considerable advantage over most other devices in this age of microSD. Full size SDHC cards are available in capacities up to 16 GB right now, and 32 GB cards are on the horizon. Not entirely cheap -- a 16 GB SD card will run you around $150 at this writing -- but it does give the iPAQ far more solid-state storage than any but the most advanced multimedia devices. To give a little perspective, 16 GB holds 3000 to 4000 average songs, or 20 to 100 feature-length movies, depending on quality.

Comparison to iPod Touch
Speaking of expansion, the fact that an iPAQ and 16 GB card would run around the same price as the 16 GB iPod Touch has prompted some comparisons of their relative merits online. A short breakdown: The iPod has a higher resolution screen (albeit of the same size), support for iTunes, and a more advanced web browser.

The iPAQ, meanwhile sports upgradability -- you can swap the 16 GB card out for a 32 GB model when they become available -- nearly unlimited third-party software support, Bluetooth wireless headphones, and support for almost any audio or video codec other than iTunes, as well as superior battery life. More on that later.

Doubtless, the iPod Touch will outsell the iPAQ for pure multimedia users, but the fact that the comparison can even be made speaks well of the iPAQ's capabilities.

Connectivity
There's nothing lacking in the connectivity department. This iPAQ features 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, along with Bluetooth 2.0/EDR.

My only complaint with the wireless has been that a few times, upon first being turned on, the iPAQ would claim to be connected to the network, but really wasn't. To get Wi-Fi working again, I'd have to toggle it off and back on. Also, when turning the device back on while Wi-Fi was still active, I'd often get a roughly 1 second pause where the wireless light would turn on, but the screen would remain powered down. Not killer bugs, but a bit annoying, particularly given that sailing was mostly smooth elsewhere. I was away and surfing minutes after first connecting the iPAQ to my network.

Bluetooth came with good news. HP has maintained its status as one of the few manufacturers to recognize how really pathetic the Microsoft Bluetooth stack for Windows Mobile is. Thus, it has chosen to use the superior, more reliable, and much more friendly Widcomm stack, for which I am grateful.

This, of course, includes Bluetooth headphones. Even in the radio-crowded environment of my lair, with at least four other transmitters trying to use the same airspace within five feet, the connection between the iPAQ and my Jensen WBT212s was solid. Even better, the connection didn't skip or hitch in the slightest when I loaded web pages over Wi-Fi while streaming to the Bluetooth headphones -- a chronic problem on many devices, including my Axim.

I did notice a performance hit on Wi-Fi during this time -- I was only able to get 640 to 675 Kbits per second on a speed test while connected to my headphones, whereas my Wi-Fi connection normally maxes out well above my 800 Kbit DSL. Still, this is more than enough for streaming music or even most video from the Internet while using BT headphones.

Battery Life
Last but not least, we come to the thing without which all the other features are useless. While most early reports placed the 110's battery at 1100 milliamp-hours, the actual cell is 1200. Not a huge difference, but every extra milliwatt is useful.

(In case anyone cares, which I doubt, watts are calculated by multiplying amps times volts. A 3.7 volt rated battery, with a 1.2 amp-hour capacity, contains 4.44 watt-hours, or 4,440 milliwatt-hours. This brought to you by Adama's House of Useless Knowledge.)

Between the further battery life improvements in Windows Mobile 6, and the power saving properties of the new processor, battery life on the iPAQ 110 is good. Really good. I started with a full battery, playing high-end video on it to test the longevity. An hour and 15 minutes later, it was still insisting that it was at 100% charge. Just shy of two hours in, it admitted mortality and dropped to 97%.

It finally cut out totally a little ways past the four hour mark -- quite exceptional performance all in all. Many devices with larger batteries can't even make three hours: the hardware decoding in the processor helps greatly.

In short, the iPAQ 110 trounces all other comers in video battery life. It easily equals the Dell Axim X51v's four hours of playing time, trounces the 2 hours of the iPod Touch, and comes quite close to the advertised five hours of the iPhone. You may get a bit more or less than this depending on other factors, such as backlight settings.

Multimedia use isn't the only story, though, so I recharged the device and turned on the wireless. With both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi turned on, the device still managed a bit over 3 hours and 30 minutes of browsing over Wi-Fi with the screen brightness turned well up. Again, a very good showing. I wouldn't hesitate to say that the iPAQ is very power efficient.

Conclusion
While it tends to get overshadowed by its more advanced sibling, the yet unreleased iPAQ 210, the 110 is a solid model in its own right, serving not just as a data repository but also being more than capable of taking on the tasks of light Internet, entertainment, and communication.

Pros:

  • Large internal storage
  • Fast processor
  • Excellent battery life
  • Standard jacks
  • Video acceleration for excellent multimedia

Cons:

  • Slightly buggy Wi-Fi
  • Back casing slightly smudgy
  • Buttons and directional pad feel weak

Bottom Line:
A surprisingly well designed and built model, with good if not extraordinary features, at a reasonable price.

Specifications:

Processor: 624 MHz Marvell XScale PXA310 with hardware video decoding
Operating system: Windows Mobile 6 Classic (Pocket PC)
Display: 3.5 inch, 240 x 320 touchscreen LCD
Memory: 64 MB RAM; 256 MB flash (195 MB available)
Size & weight: 4.59 inches long x 2.71 inches wide x 0.54 inches thick; 3.68 ounces
Expansion: Single SD slot with SDHC and SDIO support
Docking: Single Mini-USB connector
Communication: 802.11b/g Wi-Fi (supports WPA2); Bluetooth 2.0/EDR
Audio: Internal microphone and speaker; 3.5mm headphone jack
Battery: 1200 mAh replaceable Lithium Ion
Input: 3 remappable application buttons; touchscreen
This was first published in December 2007

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