Review - Sprint PPC-6700 PocketPC Phone
Adama D Brown on Monday, December 12, 2005
It seems to be the current vogue that every new smartphone gets 15 minutes of being called a "Treo killer." But for the PPC 6700, is this overenthusiastic hype or genuine commendation?
First, a little note. This review was performed on a Sprint version of the HTC Apache, also known as the PPC-6700. Most of the comments will also apply to the forthcoming Verizon Wireless version, called the XV6700. Design & Construction
The PPC-6700 is the successor to Sprint's last major PocketPC phone, the 6600. While Sprint's PPC-6600 was labeled as being from Audiovox, the 6700 is branded by UTStarcom. It really makes little difference in the end, since the design and construction is entirely done by HTC for both units. Compared to the 6600, the 6700 adds WiFi, EVDO, a larger keyboard, and a considerably smaller overall size. The 6700 is now of a size and shape that you can reasonably hold it to your ear without feeling like you're talking into a dinner plate, which was a problem with the previous generation's huge footprint.
The design is similar to many of HTC's other newer PocketPC phones, such as the Magician; a very simple, rounded candy bar design. Like other recent HTC models, this one features a sliding keyboard hidden beneath the screen. The device is separated by a seam, with the front-most portion containing the LCD and main buttons, and the rear containing the keyboard, battery, motherboard, and everything else.
Unlike many previous sliding-keyboard designs, this keyboard is laid out to the side, rather than vertically. When you slide the screen over to reveal the keyboard, the system automatically rotates the screen, so that you're then using a device laid out like a Blackberry. This provides more space for the keyboard, allowing for a larger and more complete set of keys than on other devices. I find this to be great for typing, as it allows a lot more input and less hunt-and-peck. The size of the keys is a major factor in how comfortable the keyboard feels, and makes it one of the best thumb keyboards that I've yet seen.
The downside is that with its side-sliding design, one handed dialing on the 6700 is difficult verging on nonexistent. To do it, you'd have to either tap the on-screen keypad with a finger, or slide the keyboard open and successfully type in the numbers without dropping the thing or misdialing. Not at all easy. It is possible, but I wouldn't recommend trying it for most people.
Aside from dialing, which isn't really the fault of the keyboard design itself, the main problem with the keyboard is key spacing. Specifically, there isn't any. With the keys all pressed up against each other, it makes for large individual key size, but it also makes it easy to push more than one button by accident. Still, the keys are large and easy to use for the most part. They all have a good solid feel and response to them, with a nice defined click.
Maybe it's just me, and I have some kind of cognitive dissonance, but I keep thinking that the soft keys should be at the bottom of the keyboard. I don't know why it feels like that, but every time I reach for the soft keys without thinking about it, I end up going to the bottom row near where the function keys are. Instead, they're on the top of the keyboard, which just seems like a contradictory place to put them. They're not as well lighted as the rest of the keyboard, either, which compounds the difficulty.
I'm not entirely sure why they put a camera in the 6700. Given that it's primarily a business oriented device, and many businesses tend to ban cameras, it seems counterproductive to offer it the way it is. Still, I suppose that Sprint must have some kind of logic behind their decision. Hold on--I just used the word "logic" in talking about a wireless carrier. I had better schedule screening for a brain tumor.
There's obvious concerns over the 6700's sliding design. Moving parts tend not to hold up well, and if the slider breaks then the 6700 suddenly becomes a much less useful device. In the course of my testing, I've deliberately worked the slider a great deal, trying to get a feel for its durability. It's held up perfectly well, but I still suspect that the mechanism will wear out and break eventually. With moving parts, you rather have to take that as a given. Hopefully, this won't happen until the device is well obsolete anyway, but if you're one of those who plans to keep their devices indefinitely, I might steer clear of this sort of design.
Overall, the design of the 6700 is not bad, but nothing particularly special either. It's a pretty generic candy-bar style device. It's keyboard is nice, but the lack of one-handed dialing is a problem is you want to use it for making a lot of calls. Hardware Specs
Processor: 416 MHz Intel XScale PXA270
Operating System: Windows Mobile 5.0
Display: 240 x 320 transmissive/reflective LCD
Memory: 64 MB RAM; 128 MB flash memory (43 MB available)
Size & Weight: 4.25" long x 2.32" wide x 0.93" thick, 6.07 ounces
Expansion: Single MiniSD slot
Docking: Mini-USB plug; standard USB cradle
Communication: Dual-band CDMA 1xRTT/1xEVDO; Bluetooth 1.2; 802.11b WiFi
Audio: 2.5mm headset/headphone jack; speakerphone; speaker & mouthpiece for phone
Battery: 1350 mAh Lithium Ion rechargeable/replaceable battery; optional 1900 mAh extended battery
Input: QWERTY thumb keyboard; touchscreen; re-mappable application buttons
Other: 1.3 MP camera Processor
Processor performance with the 6700 was quite good, despite running at less than peak processor speed. The only times when it tended to bog down were when a number of applications were left running in the background. Otherwise, it handled even intensive applications such as the camera utility with aplomb. Really heavy duty tasks such as video or streaming video could and probably would overwhelm it, but the processor seems more than capable for the mostly business-like tasks it's intended to perform.Operating System
The 6700 runs Windows Mobile 5.0, the newest version of Microsoft's mobile operating system. However, it doesn't have the AKU 2 package, which includes the Messaging and Security Features Pack enabling the much anticipated "push" email capability when paired with an Exchange server. Hopefully, the device will get a ROM update to correct this, but as it stands now it's a major downside.
Out of the box, the 6700 suffers from a few software malfunctions. My unit, for instance, seems to like turning itself on at random intervals. In the cradle, in a pocket, sitting on a table... it didn't matter where or what it was doing, it just seemed to turn on. If you have something running that keeps the device active, then you'll end up with a dead battery. This happened to me once or twice when I left the device in a coat pocket overnight. Even if the device isn't kept active, you'll still end up with a critically low battery pretty fast. Needless to say, this was hugely annoying to deal with, particularly when it turned on in my pocket and ended up calling Micronesia.
After a couple of weeks of this, and multiple soft and hard resets, I went bloody well insane from the thing. Trying to fix it was like strangling myself with my own intestines. Judging from my Google searches, everyone else who had a problem with the device had trouble with it not turning on at all--I was the only person who couldn't get the thing to STOP turning on. I think that somehow, those people's power buttons were wired into my machine.
Finally, I did find out about a fix. By creating a new Exchange server connection (a fake one, if need be), then instructing it to never sync automatically, you can get the device to stop its incessant activations. In the 12 hours since I made the fix, the device doesn't appear to have woken up against my will once. Ahh, blissful functionality. Memo to Sprint--this really needs to be the default in your next ROM update.
Second was bugs in the Bluetooth implementation. For instance, the 6700 will respond to a general query about available profiles from my BT-equipped laptop, and it does list the Dial-up Networking profile. But if you query it directly for the BT DUN profile, it refuses to answer. More to the point, it refuses to function for dial-up networking, even when using the Sprint-bundled application designed specifically for that purpose. Nor could I get the application in question to act as a USB modem, as it also advertised. And just for good measure, the device refused to sync to my desktop over Bluetooth, displaying an endless "Connecting" dialog instead.
There were yet more bugs in the dialer program. A few times, I pulled it out to find that it had turned on in my pocket and had dialed some strange combination that caused an error message: "Press end key to stop interrupt tone." Unfortunately, pushing end did not in fact correct the problem. Usually, I would have to turn off the cellular radio and turn it on again before the device would hang up. This probably wouldn't happen if the device weren't getting mashed in a pocket, but it still seems like an undesirable issue to deal with.
Really, these sorts of bugs should be ironed out in testing. If you can't produce a device that will refrain from demolishing its own battery, you should leave it in the hands of the engineers until it's fixed. Maybe I'm abnormally unlucky, and everyone else has had smooth sailing. But there were more than a couple of times when I got so frustrated with the device that I considered returning it to Sprint in pieces. Display
At just 2.8 inches, it's smaller than the average non-phone display, but the 6700 still manages to pack in all the relevant information. Having a smaller sized screen benefits the device in a couple of ways--it reduces overall size, and it increases the number of pixels per inch, which makes for a sharper display. Still, you definitely notice the difference between the quarter-VGA 6700 and a real VGA device. The former is less sharp, and decidedly less dazzling. If you've never had the latter, though, you'll probably be quite happy with the quality of the 6700's screen.Memory
The 6700 has 128 MB of on-board flash memory, a pretty generic amount for Windows Mobile 5 devices. Of this, a whopping 79 MB is used by the device, leaving only 43 MB for the user. If you're wondering why these numbers don't quite add up, it's because flash memory totals up to slightly less than the rated number; in this case, 128 MB is actually closer to 122 MB.
While this is far from being unusable, the large amount of memory used by the OS is staggering. Other similarly specified devices have had closer to 75 MB or more of memory available. Maybe there's a lot of bulk in the extra software that HTC added in, but either way, there's a lot less memory available to the end user. Size & Weight
I was pleasantly surprised by the small size of the 6700. It's considerably more compact than its predecessor, and compares well even to other small-but-powerful smartphone devices like the Treo 650 and Samsung i730. That's not to say that it's without a penalty, though. It's still much larger and much heavier than the average mobile phone. It's nearly an inch thick, and weighs over 6 ounces. Still, that's one of the inevitable trade-offs that you make in a converged device. They're not as simple, small, or full featured as dedicated devices. On the other hand, the 6700 still weighs two or three ounces less than you would get with a separate handheld and phone, which makes it worth the issues for some people. Expansion
Expansion options for the 6700 are rather limited. The choice of a mini-USB plug for the docking connector writes off almost any kind of cabled accessories other than sync/charge cables. The MiniSD slot also doesn't have a lot of peripherals available for it either, with memory cards being the item of choice. The only real option for adding peripherals is over Bluetooth, such as a GPS receiver. Docking
Despite using only a mini-USB connector, the 6700 does come with a cradle. It's a simple plastic affair, but sturdy, designed to hold up the device, and to charge an optional second battery. The rear panel contains two mini-USB plugs, one for connectivity to a PC, and one for the AC power adapter, which has a mini-USB tip.Communication
The 6700 features a triplet of short, medium, and long-range wireless options. Bluetooth 1.2 offers connectivity to peripherals and other mobile devices: headsets, GPS receivers, PCs, etcetera. Bluetooth stereo headphones, I'm afraid, need not apply. The 6700 doesn't have the proper profiles for it. One of the most common applications of Bluetooth is to connect a handheld or laptop to a phone. However, since the 6700 is itself a phone, this process is reversed. The device comes with a program built-in that's intended to allow it to be used as a wireless modem over USB, Bluetooth, or infrared. Unfortunately, this didn't turn out to work that well--I was unable to establish a suitable connection over either USB or Bluetooth. This is hardly the first or the last connectivity problem I've had with the 6700.
WiFi provides broadband at home, work, and at hotspots, as well as local network access. If you've read more than one of my reviews, you know that I'm something of a WiFi purist--there is no such thing as too much range. That said, I couldn't be happier with the WiFi range on the 6700. It doesn't have quite as much range as my Axim, which in turn has less range than I would like. Even so, it behaves acceptably. I could also be happier with the dialog for finding and connecting to WiFi APs. The 6700 basically leaves this up to the default Windows "zero configuration" system. While this may work for consumer-oriented devices, I'd have expected something a little more serious for connecting to a work network, or for navigating among multiple available hotspots.
Last but not least, we have the 6700's CDMA radio, for both voice and data. On the data side, the main attraction is support for the EVDO 3G networks being deployed by Sprint and Verizon. EVDO provides significantly faster data service than previous technologies--speeds close to those offered by true broadband connections.
Most EVDO users and devices see speeds in the range of 300 to 700 kilobits per second, and the PPC-6700 is no exception. The rough average speed over several tests was 440 Kbits per second, or 55 KBytes per second, a very, very fast connection for being on the go. EVDO can theoretically go north of one megabit, but getting these kinds of speeds is unlikely on a resource-limited device like a handheld.
Unfortunately, EVDO is still limited to relatively small areas of coverage. So unless you stay entirely within the selected cities that have service, you're going to be running on the older 1xRTT network at least part of the time. 1xRTT is available on all of Sprint's network, and provides speeds in the range of 10 to 14 KBytes per second. Despite the speed drop, I still found 1xRTT to be remarkably snappy and fast, even on such a small device. Maybe it's just the fact that I'm used to an internet connection with abnormally high latency, in the range of 800 to 1200ms, but 1xRTT feels really very comfortable for web browsing and email.
If you go too far outside the urban jungle, though, your data gets cut off completely. Sprint devices will roam onto Verizon's network for voice, but not for data service. So in the boondocks, you'll have to rely on WiFi and your wits for survival. Unfortunately, this is compounded by the fact that you can't use the 6700 to dial-up a conventional ISP. Or if you can, nobody seems to have figured out the formula yet. No great loss, as even if you could do it you would only get speeds of 1.5 KB/second or less.Audio
If you don't want to hold the 6700 up to your head to make a call, you have the options of a wired headset, a Bluetooth wireless unit, or the speakerphone. The 6700 actually comes with a pretty nice wired combination headphone/headset unit, a pair of ear buds that also have a microphone dangling from one side. They look a little funny when you first unpack them, but that's just because the cords aren't of even length--once you figure out how they fit, they're quite decent.
I found the speakerphone to be relatively weak, with a tinny sound to it. It didn't provide nearly as much power or volume as I would have wanted in such a feature, and would be almost useless in a noisy environment like a car.Battery
The 6700 runs on a 1350 milliamp-hour user-replaceable Lithium Ion battery. There's room on the cradle, both in the battery slot and behind the device, for a spare standard or extended battery. These latter weigh in at 1900 mAh, 50% more than the standard slim battery. I didn't get one of these to test, so I can't provide exact figures. However, the results for an extended battery are usually a little more than the percentage increase would indicate.
According to the official specifications, the 6700 should provide around 4.7 hours (282 minutes) of talk time, and 200 hours in standby with the standard battery. This is probably a bit unrealistic under all but ideal operating conditions.
"Talk time" is defined as the battery life when using the cellular radio, either for talking or for data transmission. This test was conducted on the basis of a voice call--battery life on a data connection will be less, because the system turns off the screen during a voice call. To that end, a data session could drain the battery in only 2-3 hours.
Talk time: Approx. 4.2 hours
PDA usage--light PIM, books, email, and a relative minimum of radio usage--fared much better, though this number will drop significantly with heavy use of WiFi or processor-intensive apps.
PDA usage: Approx. 5.3 hours
Standby time, of course, is even more variable, because of the number of factors affecting it. Any talk time or other use will be deducted from the available standby time, so it's really how much you use it when it's on, rather than how long you leave it off, that determines how long you can go between charges. I would probably recommend that if you're going to be using the 6700 for more than basic phone and data functions, you should probably plan on charging it at least once a day.
As is prototypical for mobile devices, the camera on the 6700 is of moderate to low quality. While it doesn't suffer from some of the obvious quality issues of other devices--faded or blackened colors, spots, etcetera--it really is just not that great. 1.3 megapixels of resolution can't save most images from being blurry, and you can see streaking and other artifacts in the finished shots. On the bright side, its light performance is decent, and more distant shots look considerably sharper. It can also shoot video, though only in the size of a postage stamp.Conclusion
I can't unreservedly recommend the PPC-6700, due to some of the more frustrating technical difficulties I've endured with it. Even so, there are others who haven't had the troubles I have. I can only say this: until and unless a ROM update comes along, make sure before you buy that you have an iron-clad no-hassle return option, and if you get a lemon, ship it back to Sprint along with a knife and fork.
Otherwise, the PPC 6700 is a decent device for many applications, particularly the more data-intensive variety. On that score, it's more a threat to the Blackberry than the Treo. It's not as much of a phone as the Treo is, however, or even some other Windows-based devices. If your usage is more voice than PDA, you might be better off buying another model, or even a two-piece solution. A Treo killer the 6700 is not, but it still has some very nice capabilities.
It is, however, in serious need of that ROM update. Some of the bugs are just ridiculous, and something that nobody should need to deal with in a polished business device, even if it does affect only some units. Without that hanging over its head, the PPC 6700 would be a good converged choice for mobile users whose primary needs are email and internet oriented. Pros:
Small size Cons:
One-handed dialing unwieldy
Doesn't currently support "push" email Bottom Line:
A decent device, albeit a little buggy, and considerably more data than phone oriented. Good for email users.