Once you place the Orange SPV M500 and T-Mobile's MDA compact next to each other you might be surprised to see how similar the two devices are. This may be a little less surprising though when you discover that the same company in Taiwan makes both products, HTC, which also manufactures 02's XDA products range.
The MDA and M500 are virtually the same size, with the MDA being fractionally shorter by 2mm (M500 W58mm x L108mm x D18mm Vs. MDA W58mm x L106mm x D18mm). Orange has also shaved off 20g though, with the M500 tipping the scales at 150g as opposed to T-Mobile's bulkier 170g. It's possible that some of the weight lost could be attributed to lighter electronics within, but more likely would be differences in the batteries, especially when both products offer the same 5 hours talk time but the M500 seems to have lost out on standby time, offering 7.5 days as compared to the MDA's 7.9 (190 hours). However, once we've finished with the comparisons, how does the M500 stand up on its own?
Users of MS Windows Mobile Edition 2003 will be familiar with the OS out-of-the-box, with menus and user interfaces baring the hallmarks of a dozen previously viewed products. What sets the M500 apart initially is the bodywork. The dark grey brushed metal body combined with sleek bevelled contours, by the battery section, and tactile edges, concealing the stylus and function keys and SD media port, make it the most aesthetically desirable of the current SPV group by a long shot. Button controls and configurable quick keys are located below the screen, centred around a familiar 5-way navi-paddle. The exterior dimensions have been well matched against the 2.8inch (240x320pixel TFT 64K) colour screen giving a product that sits well in the hand, while also not being over cumbersome as a phone and offering a screen large enough to be practical.
The reverse of the body houses a 1.3Megapixel camera and while the quality of these types of cameras is getting better all the time, the images captured on it clearly demonstrate that the camera is part of larger device rather than a dedicated imaging product.
For those who feel they need to know the processing core of the M500 is an Intel Bulverde 416MHz chip with an onboard memory of 64Mb. The SD port mounted in to the top edge can naturally be used to expand this up to 1Gb. With expandable media there always seems to be the need for an application to fill it and besides the camera the M500 offers Windows Media player for the playback of both music and video files.
The Windows OS comes will all the familiar programmes you'd expect, compact versions of Office's Word, Excel and Internet Explorer and applications to allow PDF and PowerPoint files to be displayed. Like most mobile telecoms companies Orange has had HTC spice up the product with some dedicated bespoke applications, in this case Orange Backup™, Packet Video Player, Orange Update, Orange Help. Orange Backup is a nice idea, albeit not new, that allows you to create an account via the device and the remotely store (as opposed to the MS xBackup application that only allows you to store data on non-volatile, or SD card, memories), all your contacts, calendar appointments and SIM contacts on a remote server. This means that if the PDA's contacts end up accidentally erased, you can automatically restore all that valuable data to your new device in a matter of minutes. Orange Update seemed to be masquerading as ‘Downloads' on the device I had but offers new and exciting software to trial, or would so if there was any on offer. The help section offers a complete-ish (ironically no help or instruction on any of the Orange products mentioned here) guide to the device on the internal memory, again useful but hardly groundbreaking in innovation terms.
“Packet Video player offers users access to Packets Video's innovative progressive video download service for smoother access to video content”, and this is quoted because it comes from the press release, sadly because the press release was the location I found of any evidence of the application. An oversight I'm sure.
The M500 connectivity is fairly standard. Alongside a Tri-band mobile phone (GSM 900/1800/1900), which is controlled by the call pick-up and put-down keys below the screen and the touch dial-pad, you also get MMS, SMS, GPRS web access, e-mail (POP3 and IMAP4). You can synchronise all your office data, including your work inbox, directly using a USB cable and Active sync or alternatively use either infrared or Bluetooth depending on volume and speed of connection required.
Gripes? Besides looking very pretty the M500 still fails to make that big leap to impress. The camera is nice but not special. The connectivity is practical but not persuasive, once you can get it to work. The e-mail seemed to have some funny quirks about sending messages but seems to shudder to life in the end. The battery life is OK but not dazzling. The M500 is the first mobile device I've seen with a battery lifting tab, and anyone who buys one please pay attention to this, that tab is there for a reason so please use it. If the battery is pushed into place with out the little tab being underneath it, to help you lift it again, you will have to take a knife to the thing to get it out. The screen is clear and easy to see but with a stylus and 4 equally awkward methods of entering large quantities of text (Block Recognizer, Keyboard, Letter recogniser and Transcriber) all the new technology still doesn't make the device ultimately more useable to write with. And all this for a device that turns its nose up at all Macs everywhere. Well honestly!
Overall, If you're after something small, nifty, pretty and practical and you have a love affair with Bill Gates's empire then the M500 is a good product. If on the other hand you already have a smartphone and you are expecting an epoch-defining handheld device that will revolutionise the way you see the mobile internet and connect to you office/live/work space then the M500 isn't it.
To be cruel, the M500 is a lighter, better looking version of the MDA-mini, but the bespoke alterations that Orange have had the design team at HTC make and the dedicated software don't really make it different enough to be really special, especially when you consider that the device it so closely emulates is almost six months old.