Like the Garmin Nüvi 350 and the Mio 168RS, the A636's 3.5-inch, 240x320-resolution color screen is a little too small for the car, so expect to squint a little to see details. We like the Lowrance iWay 500c's 5-inch display better, but the A636's spoken directions are right on the money, and the device's speaker (located beneath the screen) is surprisingly loud and clear.
Next to the speaker are two circular control pads. The keys are well marked and easy to use one-handed, but like other PDAs, the A636 comes with a thin plastic stylus for more exact work. In addition to volume up and down, the device has buttons for calendar, voice notes, and contacts, as well as for switching between landscape and portrait mode. Oddly, it doesn't come with a way to instantly launch the mapping app, but you can reprogram one of the shortcut buttons to do this. While the front scroll-up and -down buttons are acceptable, a jog-dial button on the side would have helped make this device even better for quickly going through Web pages or mapping choices. In addition to a headphone jack, the system has a SDIO/MMC expansion slot and a recessed reset button.
Asus includes a vinyl slipcase, AC and auto power adapters, a synchronization cable, a 256MB SanDisk Secure Digital card, a car cradle, and a gooseneck windshield-mounting arm that attaches to a car's windshield with a suction cup. We noticed that the car cradle has a tendency to shake loose of the windshield arm.Inside the Asus MyPal A636 is an up-to-date PDA with Windows Mobile 5 software and programs. The device comes with the basic organization and planning software as well as the Destinator 5 Personal Navigation application and nine regional map sets, including data for Hawaii, Canada, and Alaska. Unfortunately, you'll need to tediously load three CDs, then select the maps to install on the SD card using Destinator. Plus, the 256MB card has barely enough room to hold the data for the Northeast. If you're planning a trip of any length, we recommend investing in a 1GB card, or you'll have to reload a new set of maps every thousand miles or so.
The maps themselves are accurate, with plenty of detail and thousands of preprogrammed points of interest; in addition, the interface's predictive entry streamlines adding addresses. Those who always seem to be going from one appointment to another will appreciate that any Outlook contact can be mapped in a matter of seconds. It might take a little getting used to, but for the geographically challenged, the interface is a powerful tool, with a compass needle, controls for zooming in and out, and a bird's-eye view of the road ahead. Our favorite is the optional banner that highlights the next turn. While it doesn't show speed or time, the interface displays current altitude if you've acquired a lock on four or more satellites. You can set it to avoid highways, but it lacks a GM-10 receiver for instant traffic updates. At the moment, neither Asus nor Destinator provides map updates to include new roads or take account of construction, but Asus says it's planning to start a free update service in the spring. Alternatively, you can use Microsoft's Streets & Trips maps instead of those provided.
Based on Intel's 416MHz XScale processor and 192MB of memory, the A636 has 128MB of built-in flash ROM and 64MB of RAM; about 85MB is available for use. The GPS mapping uses a SiRF Star III single-chip receiver and a 75mm patch antenna. With Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and infrared, the A636 can always be connected, although the IR windows can be blocked by the GPS antenna. The 1,300mAh battery has a little more capacity than the typical PDA, but Asus doesn't offer an extended-range battery pack. Because it's a Windows Mobile computer at heart, the A636 includes the latest mobile versions of Word, Excel, Internet Explorer, Outlook, Windows Media Player 10, and a basic PowerPoint presentation viewer. Its ActiveSync 4 software set up in a few minutes and worked like a charm for moving data, maps, and music. The Asus status screen consolidates key info about the PDA, but it isn't available when applications are running. Unlike some other PDAs, Asus doesn't include much in the way of extra utilities.Performance on the Asus MyPal A636 was a mixed bag. In terms of its navigation abilities, we were impressed with the A636's ability to lock onto satellites in about 20 seconds and immediately plot our position with a large arrowhead. Whether we were walking through the concrete canyons of Manhattan or driving up and down the East Coast, it reliably plotted our position and direction. For the most part, its routes were efficient, and it reacts quickly to missed turns by calculating a new course, although on one occasion, it had us going in exactly the wrong direction on a roundabout route. It can be frustrating because every so often, the screen blanks out and takes a second to redraw the entire map.
As a PDA, the Asus MyPal 636 is a midrange performer that delivered reliable service over a week of daily use, although it had a tendency to lock up when connected to a host PC that had gone in sleep mode; fortunately, both woke up together. In CNET Labs' performance tests, the A636's CPU index score fell midway between that of the HP iPaq rx1950 and the HP iPaq hx2790, but its SPB benchmark score (239) was 20 percent less than either of them. The Wi-Fi radio's 95-foot range was acceptable for office or hot spot use but measured 50 percent less than its competitors. On the bright side, with nearly nine hours of battery life available, it can run for twice as long as the Mio 168RS or three hours longer than the Garmin Nüvi 350.
CNET Labs project leader Dong Van Ngo contributed to the performance analysis.