Armed with built-in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, EDGE support, and Windows Mobile 5, the nondescript T-Mobile MDA--a rebranded version of the HTC Wizard--makes for an enticing addition to T-Mobile's staid lineup of long-in-the-tooth handhelds. As one of CNET's editors put it, it's like a Sidekick for grown-ups. Indeed, this unassuming-looking phone makes it easy to jump on to available hot spots, manage your messages, open and edit Office documents, and crank your tunes. Unfortunately, the MDA ($399) is without any new tricks or spectacular performance, and since it's hobbled by a subpar keypad and an iffy camera, it will have to fight against heavyweights such as the Palm Treo 700w, the Sprint PPC-6700, and the Cingular 8125 for attention. The T-Mobile MDA will be available starting February 20 with a price tag of $399.99, but you should be able to get it for less with service. The boxy, silver and black T-Mobile MDA looks like a typical PDA: The front is dominated by a roomy 2.9-inch-diagonal display, while a small T-Mobile logo and a set of navigational keys sit just beneath. Measuring 4.3 by 2.3 by 0.9 inches, the MDA is a bit of a brick, making for a tight fit in a jeans pocket; then again, it's actually slightly smaller and lighter (5.6 ounces) than the Palm Treo 700w. The phone fit comfortably in our hand and against our cheek during calls--or at least, no more awkwardly than the Treo or the T-Mobile Sidekick II.
To access the T-Mobile MDA's QWERTY keypad, you slide the front face of the handset to the right, revealing the keypad beneath. The actual sliding motion is a bit stiff, but the face locks into place with a satisfying snap, and the display automatically switches from portrait to landscape mode, though sometimes a little slowly, depending on which programs are running. The good-size buttons have plenty of room to breathe, compared with the cramped keys on the Treo 700w and the Treo 650. Unfortunately, the MDA's keys are annoyingly smooth and slippery, and the uneven blue backlighting makes the keys tough to see in dark conditions, especially considering that the backlighting stays on for only a few seconds after you hit a key--a setting you can't change in the setup menu. The lack of a row of dedicated number keys on the keypad irked us; instead, numbers share the top row of letter keys, which means you must hit the Function button before typing a numeral. Alternatively, you can use the onscreen dial pad.
Back on the plus side, the T-Mobile MDA's 65,000-color, 240x320-pixel display is razor sharp, with excellent detail and rich colors, although we had a tough time seeing the TFT screen in direct sunlight. The main controls include a long, thin rocker for the two soft keys, a four-way navigational mouse, flanking Talk and End buttons, and another thin, horizontal rocker above the display that gives you one-touch access to your in-box and Internet Explorer. Along the left spine of the MDA is a small volume slider and a shortcut button for the handset's communication control panel--including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and synchronization options--while on the right edge, you'll find dedicated camera and voice-calling buttons, plus the phone's infrared port. A Mini SD expansion slot (unfortunately, the MDA doesn't ship with an actual Mini SD card) and the power button sit on top of the phone; along the bottom are the 2.5mm headset and power/USB ports, a latch for the back cover, and the retractable stylus. Overall, the MDA has a nice setup, although we wouldn't have minded a dedicated speakerphone button.
The back of the T-Mobile MDA has the look and the feel of a camera, with a ridged surface and a sleek oval surrounding the lens, the LED flash, and a small self-portrait mirror. When you're holding the phone sideways for snapshots, the dedicated camera button sits next to your right pointer finger. In a nice touch, a thin black sliver to the right of the camera lens acts as a rubber foot to keep the MDA from sliding off smooth tabletops.Like the Palm Treo 700w, the T-Mobile MDA runs on Microsoft's Windows Mobile 5 operating system, which is a blessing and a curse. The good news, of course, is that Windows Mobile 5 Pocket PC Edition comes bundled with Microsoft's Mobile Office suite, including the new and improved mobile versions of Outlook, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, as well as the revamped mobile Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player. Messaging options abound: You can collect and send mail from POP and IMAP4 accounts, access your Hotmail via Pocket MSN, and send text and multimedia messages. Even better, the MDA will be upgradable to Microsoft's Messaging and Security Feature Pack for true push e-mail and real-time contact, appointment, and mail syncing with Exchange servers. The bad news is that unlike the Palm OS, Windows Mobile requires an inordinate amount of clicking and tapping. Important features are often buried under multiple layers of menus, and menu options are so small that you'll need a steady hand to click them with your stylus. Good luck navigating the MDA's menus while you're on the bus or walking down a sidewalk.
The T-Mobile MDA's wireless options are tough to beat. In addition to the IrDA port for beaming contacts, you get Bluetooth (good for wireless headsets and syncing to your PC via ActiveSync) and--drumroll, please--built-in Wi-Fi (which comes with a helper application that logs you on to T-Mobile's network of wireless hot spots), including support for WEP and WPA encryption; unfortunately, the handset works with 802.11b (not g) networks only. The MDA also acts as a world phone, thanks to its quad-mode GSM abilities, and it taps into T-Mobile's EDGE network for theoretical data speeds up to about 135Kbps. That said, the phone can't compete with the 3G handsets from carriers such as Verizon, Sprint, and Cingular. T-Mobile isn't expected to launch its own 3G network until 2007--at the earliest.
Armed with resolutions ranging from a thumbnail-size 160x120 pixels up to 1,280x1,024 (a "scaled" 1,600x1,280 mode is also available), the T-Mobile MDA's 1.3-megapixel camera boasts an LED flash, a 5- to 10-second self-timer, an 8X digital zoom (at the lowest resolution setting), a rapid-fire mode, and the ability to save snapshots as JPEG or BMP files. You can also add some goofy-looking picture frames to your images, tweak the brightness and ambience settings, and add a date and time stamp to your snapshots. The MDA also has a video recorder that saves clips to MPEG-4 or Motion-JPEG AVI files at resolutions ranging from 128x96 to 176x144 pixels. We were less than impressed, however, by the MDA's mediocre image quality (see Performance).
You can listen to your tunes or watch videos using Windows Media Player 10 Mobile, which comes standard with Windows Mobile 5. The player handles MP3 and WMA music files (both DRM-protected and unlocked), as well as a variety of MPEG and AVI video files (no Ogg Vorbis or AAC support), and its snazzy interface includes beveled play/pause/skip controls and album art. Syncing songs via Windows Media Player is a piece of cake, and you can listen to your music while working on other applications; the MDA pauses tunes when incoming calls arrive. Unfortunately, T-Mobile doesn't offer an online mobile music store à la the Sprint Music Store or Verizon V Cast, and the player lacks an equalizer for tweaking the sound.
Besides the Mobile Office suite, the T-Mobile MDA comes preloaded with ClearVue PDF for viewing PDF files; a ZIP utility; an instant-messenger app that logs you in to your AOL Instant Messenger, ICQ, or Yahoo IM accounts; a calculator; notes and task apps; and a pair of games, Bubble Breaker and Solitaire.We tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900, EDGE) T-Mobile MDA in New York City. Our callers reported solid call quality with no apparent echo or tunnel effects, and our friends sounded loud and clear. As expected, the MDA's speakerphone sounded tinny but reasonably clear. We successfully paired the MDA with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset, and though audio quality suffered a bit, we think this has more to do with the headset than the phone.
Overall, performance for the T-Mobile MDA was good, given its middle-of-the-road 195MHz TI OMAP 850 processor, with 64MB of RAM and 128MB of onboard flash memory. Launching applications took only about a second or so, as did switching the display from portrait to landscape mode--unless you have numerous apps open. Also, we often ran out of memory while snapping photos (especially at the top 1,280x1,024 resolution), forcing us to dig into the Settings menu to quit other running programs.
The T-Mobile MDA had no trouble connecting to a T-Mobile hot spot at a local Starbucks and to our home 802.11b network with WPA encryption. We also experienced decent, if not bone-rattling, Web surfing over the phone's GPRS/EDGE connection; that said, anyone spoiled by the 3G networks of Verizon or Sprint will be sorely disappointed.
Image quality from the T-Mobile MDA's camera was ho-hum. Our snapshots boasted rich color but looked noticeably murky compared with those of similar 1.3-megapixel camera phones we've tested. Our video clips were especially dull and jittery, even more so than those of other handset-based camcorders we've seen.
The T-Mobile MDA is rated for 5.5 hours of talk time and five days of standby time, but the phone proved to have much more stamina than the advertised time. While the MDA had no problems reaching the standby time, it was the whopping 12.5 hours of talk time that blew us away. This handset is built to stick with through the long haul.