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T-Mobile Dash (aka HTC Excalibur) review: T-Mobile Dash (aka HTC Excalibur)

T-Mobile Dash (aka HTC Excalibur)

Bonnie Cha Former Editor
Bonnie Cha was a former chief correspondent for CNET Crave, covering every kind of tech toy imaginable (with a special obsession for robots and Star Wars-related stuff). When she's not scoping out stories, you can find her checking out live music or surfing in the chilly waters of Northern California.
Bonnie Cha
9 min read


T-Mobile Dash (aka HTC Excalibur)

The Good

The T-Mobile Dash has a sleek design with a vibrant color screen and features integrated Bluetooth 2.0 and Wi-Fi; push e-mail capabilities; multimedia functions; and a 1.3-megapixel camera. The quadband smart phone also has good call quality and extralong talk time battery life.

The Bad

The T-Mobile Dash's volume touch strip isn't always responsive. The camera interface is also confusing and picture quality is subpar.

The Bottom Line

With a sleek design, good performance, and a robust set of productivity and wireless options, the T-Mobile Dash is an all-in-one hit and earns its reputation as a Motorola Q killer.
It was bound to happen. With all the buzz and hype surrounding the Motorola Q, it was only a matter of time before a competitor would come and knock it off its pedestal--and that time is now. Today, T-Mobile, along with smart phone manufacturer HTC and Microsoft's Windows Mobile division, finally introduced the T-Mobile Dash (a.k.a. HTC Excalibur), and after putting it through its paces, we find that it deserves its title as a Moto Q killer for a number of reasons. It has integrated Wi-Fi (a feature the Q and BlackBerrys lack), Bluetooth 2.0, and push e-mail capabilities right out of the box. Plus, it delivers on performance with snappy response time, excellent call quality, and long battery life. Of course, the smart phone isn't flawless. Its design won't appeal to everyone, and it's already garnered some harsh criticism around the Web. The new volume control touch strip is also a bit temperamental, and using the device's camera interface is unnecessarily confusing. That said, if you're in the market for a Windows Mobile smart phone to help you stay connected and be more productive on the road, we think the Dash is an excellent choice. The T-Mobile Dash is expected to be available starting October 16 for $199 with a two-year contract or $249.99 with a one-year contract. We fully confess that we were wrong about the T-Mobile Dash's design. We may have called it ugly as sin at one point, but once we had the final product in our hand, we changed our mind. It may be that the silver bezel gives the device a weird look, but it's really more handsome in person. On first glance, the Dash may remind you of the RIM BlackBerry 8700g, with its form factor and full QWERTY keyboard, but this smart phone has merits of its own. At 4.4 by 2.5 by 0.5 inches and 4.2 ounces, the Dash is thinner and lighter than the 8700g (4.3 by 2.7 by 0.7 inches; 4.7 ounces) and shorter than the Q (4.5 by 2.5 by 0.4 inches; 4 ounces). More importantly, it feels good in the hand. The Dash has a nice contour shape and curved edges that make it a little more comfortable to hold and use as a phone than the blockier Moto Q. In addition, the Dash features soft-touch covering that gives the unit a rubberlike texture, so it's easy to grip and use one-handed.

The T-Mobile Dash is shorter than the Motorola Q but just a hair thicker.

One point we want to make up front is that the Dash does not have a touch screen. Like the Q, the Dash runs Windows Mobile 5 Smartphone Edition, which doesn't support this functionality, so navigating the mobile's menus and registering commands are handled via the external controls. It's not difficult, but we also appreciate the convenience of a touch screen, and if you've previously owned a smart phone with this feature, using the Dash may take some acclimation--you may even find it doesn't suit you. All that said, the Dash has a brilliant, 2.4-inch TFT screen. It's just slightly smaller than the Q's 2.5-inch screen but displays the same 65,536 colors and 320x240-pixel resolution. As such, colors are vibrant and images and text are sharp--great for viewing Web pages and video. And more good news, the display is still readable in direct sunlight. You can customize the home screen with preinstalled or personal background images, change the backlight time, color theme, and font size. There are two status LEDs above the display that blink different colors for wireless connections, messages, and battery status.

Below the screen is the standard array of navigation controls: two soft keys, talk and end buttons, a shortcut to the Today screen, a back button, and a five-way toggle with a center select button. The layout is spacious enough that most users shouldn't have a problem pressing the wrong key. The full QWERTY keyboard is also easy to use; the buttons are tactile and well backlit. For making phone calls, you can use the silver-highlighted number keys (doubled up with letters) that occupy the left half of the keyboard. It's not apparent at first, but to dial a phone number, simply press the number keys; you don't have to bring up a phone app. Also, the bottom row of the keyboard includes quick-launch buttons for the camera, T-Mobile's T-zone service, and your messages. Though we had no problem creating e-mail and notes with the Dash's keyboard and found it easier to use one-handed, we give the slight edge to the Motorola Q in this department due to its extra spacing between keys.

The T-Mobile Dash features an easy-to-use keyboard, though we prefer the extra spacing of the Q's QWERTY keyboard.

The T-Mobile Dash has an interesting design element that we haven't seen on any other smart phone. To the right of the screen is a touch strip that lets you control the volume of the device. Theoretically, you just have to touch the designated area to turn sound up or down, but we found it to be a bit temperamental. Sometimes our commands registered immediately, while other times we had to repeatedly touch the designated area before the volume changed (more so with volume up than with volume down). Plus, left-handed users may have difficulty accessing the strip if you're using it one-handed. We'd much prefer a jog dial or dedicated keys. However, you can adjust the sensitivity or turn off the functionality completely through the Settings menu.

We're not huge fans of the volume touch strip.

On the back of the Dash, you will find the camera lens and self-portrait mirror but no flash. There is a Micro SD expansion slot behind the battery cover along the right side. It's a bit difficult to locate at first and its location a little inconvenient, but we'd much rather have it there than not at all. Finally, there is a power button on the left spine and a mini USB port on the bottom of the unit.

The T-Mobile Dash comes packaged with an AC adapter, a USB cable, a protective case, and a wired headset. The T-Mobile Dash is designed to help you stay connected and be more productive on the road, and it comes with a strong set of features to help you accomplish that goal. In fact, we think its winning combination of PIM tools, wireless options, and form factor give it an edge among its competitors, including the Motorola Q, and even its HTC siblings, such as the T-Mobile SDA and the Cingular 2125.

As we mentioned earlier, the T-Mobile Dash runs Windows Mobile 5 Smartphone Edition. While you don't get the full Microsoft Office Mobile suite to edit documents, you do get the ClearVue Suite (ClearVue Document, ClearVue Worksheet, ClearVue PPT, and ClearVue PDF) for viewing said files. We successfully transferred and opened all four file types to the Dash without any format loss. Other productivity tools include a download agent, a voice recorder, a calculator, and a task manager. One app that we missed was the Memory Manager utility found on the Q, which helps you keep track of used and available memory. Speaking of which, the Dash has 64MB of SDRAM and 128MB of Flash ROM, supplemented by the Micro SD expansion slot.

For e-mail, there's Outlook Mobile, so you get out-of-the-box synchronization and not only with your e-mail but also your contacts, calendar, and tasks. The Dash has direct push capabilities, so you can receive your message in real time. In addition, you can access personal e-mail from POP3 or IMAP4 accounts, including AOL, Yahoo Mail Plus, EarthLink, and Comcast. There's a handy e-mail wizard to help you get set up; we used it to access our Yahoo Mail Plus account, and it was a simple matter of entering our address and password. For quicker communication, the T-Mobile Dash comes preloaded with four of the most popular instant-messaging clients--AIM, ICQ, Yahoo, and MSN--and supports text and multimedia messaging.

The T-Mobile Dash has superior wireless options. First, it offers integrated Wi-Fi, a feature lacking in the Moto Q and the current crop of BlackBerrys, and EDGE support, giving you the freedom to surf the Web on the road using Internet Explorer Mobile. In addition, the Dash runs the latest Bluetooth 2.0 (whereas the Moto Q has Bluetooth 1.2), which requires less power consumption and offers faster transmission speeds. There's support for a number of profiles, including Dial-up Networking, Headset, Handsfree, Generic Object Exchange, and File Transfer, and the A2DP profile for stereo headsets. The Dash includes a convenient Communication Manager app to manage all your wireless connections.

Of course, the Dash also includes cellular wireless. As a quadband phone, you can use the Dash overseas. The Dash's Contact book is limited only by the available memory, and there's room in each entry for up to 12 numbers, three e-mail addresses, IM handles, street addresses, and more. For caller ID purposes, you can assign a contact a photo, one of 18 ring tones, or a group ID. There's also a speakerphone, voice dialing, and a vibrate mode. The Dash supports T-Mobile's recently launched MyFaves service, which gives you unlimited calling to five contacts. You can choose any five U.S. numbers, regardless of carrier, then have them displayed on your Today screen for easy dialing. Plans for MyFaves start at $39.99 a month.

The T-Mobile Dash is equipped with a 1.3-megapixel camera but... (see below)

For photo caller ID and quick snapshots, the T-Mobile Dash comes equipped with a 1.3-megapixel camera with video-recording capabilities, as well as four other shooting modes: video messaging, contacts picture, picture theme, and sports. Camera options are on a par with those of other smart phones on the market today. For still images, you get a choice of four resolutions (1,280x1,024, 640x480, 320x240, or 160x120) and four quality settings (Super Fine, Fine, Normal, and Basic). You also have white balance controls, flicker adjustment, various effects, a time stamp option, and other tools so that you can get the best picture possible. You can record video with sound in one of three formats (MPEG-4, Motion JPEG, or H.263) and one of two resolutions (176x144 or 128x96). Once you're done capturing your shots, you can share photos with others via Bluetooth, multimedia message, or e-mail; view them in a slide show; or save them as wallpaper.

The camera is one area where we really struggled with the interface, as it's not clear which buttons to press to access certain camera functions. For example, the zoom feature is located along the left side of the screen, but there is no indication about how to zoom in or out. It was only through trial and error that we discovered that the up-and-down controls of the navigation toggle perform these functions. Also, to escape out of a camera settings menu, our first inclination was to press the Back button but that only closed the entire camera app completely. Another downside, picture quality was a bit disappointing as colors appeared washed out and lines and edges weren't as sharp as we've seen on other phones. Overall, there was a fuzzy quality to the images.

...image quality was disappointing in our tests, as colors were washed out.

With Windows Media Player 10 Mobile onboard, the T-Mobile Dash can keep you entertained during your downtime, allowing you to enjoy your favorite AAC, MP3, WAV, WMA, MPEG-4, and WMV files. Also, if you have TV shows recorded on your Windows Media Center PC, you can transfer them to the Dash and enjoy them on the device's great screen. In addition, the smart phone comes preloaded with two games: Bubble Breaker and Solitaire. We tested the quadband (GSM 850/900/1800/1900; EDGE) T-Mobile Dash in San Francisco using T-Mobile's network, and call quality was excellent. On our end, conversations were loud and clear, though there was a slight hollowness to the sound, but our callers were impressed by the clarity of the phone calls and added that they couldn't even tell we were on a cell phone. Activating the speakerphone didn't diminish the audio quality of the handset, and we were able to successfully pair the smart phone with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset.

Overall, the device was very responsive to our demands, though camera activation and multimedia use caused a slight slow down in performance. Music playback on the Dash was good, but sound quality was much better through the included earbuds than through the single speaker on the back. Video looked amazing on the Dash's bright display. The sharp screen also made it great for viewing Web pages, and download times were quite fast.

The T-Mobile Dash is rated for 5 hours of talk time and up to 9 days of standby time. In our tests, the Dash more than doubled the rated talk time, with the battery finally petering out after 11 hours.


T-Mobile Dash (aka HTC Excalibur)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 7