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(Pocket-lint) - There are a formidable number of players in market shooting to be the most expensive thing in your pocket, and the Ipaq has done consistently well for quite a while. There is, of course, a large ‘Palm’ faction that will shout down any non-Palm attempts at the pocket digital assistant (PDA) market. People still say, “Oh, you have a Palm Pilot”. I don’t bother saying it is a PocketPC, or a PDA, or handheld computer, or anything else, I just nod. Before we start, lets get something clear. I am not really a computer person. I don’t know much about them, or care. I am only interested in what they will do for me. So that was how I drew up my wish list, I wanted a keyboard-less, Word and Excel-supporting, MP3 player, in colour, a travel buddy, a commuter toy and a business partner. I want to be laptop free and travelling light. Enter Ipaq 3970 stage left.

The number basically tells you what model it is. It is a little confusing to buy one of these babies at the moment, because Compaq still has several marques on the go, so you might think you are getting a bargain, when in fact, you’re getting a lower spec machine. They also look similar. In fact, some models are identical on the outside, but wildly different on the inside. At the core of the 3970 is a 400 MHz processor, and 64MB RAM, and it runs the MS Pocket PC 2002 OS. So far so good. As I said, I’m not a techie, so let’s move onto function.

Function is key here. Can I do what I want? Is it easy? Basically yes, or rather, almost. Almost, because unleashing the potential of this pocket lovely takes some fiddling. Out of the box, it was easy to use, and I had no problems with the basic set up. I also had no problem getting it to talk to my desktop PC. In fact, that was the most exciting bit. I followed the instructions, to the letter, and it worked like a dream. I installed the software, plugged it all in … ActiveSync kicked in and we were away. ActiveSync provides numerous options to set up the level of synchronisation you require, as well as looking after the conversion of files, and the Add/Remove software functions.

The next step was getting a handle on scribbling with a plastic pen on the ever so impressive screen (more on this later…). I am a left-hander, so immediately I found that the letter recognition software couldn’t read my writing. My girlfriend is both right-handed and a primary school teacher, so she can rattle off an essay, whilst, apparently, I’m not forming my letter properly. With a bit of practise, and a bit of learning on the Ipaq’s side, we got it together. There are some options so you can customise the recognition, depending on how you write. The Ipaq will then turn it into normal characters, just as if you have typed it in. Warning - this can revolutionise your note-taking forever. You go to a meeting, out of the office, and scribble notes on the Ipaq. You come out, and on the bus home, you read through them, make up some emails to action the points from the meeting. Back to the desktop, Sync the two and it’s all done. Easy. In fact, too easy. In my over-excitement, I entered a dinner party in the appointments calendar, and the Ipaq usefully emailed all the attendees to ensure that the ‘meeting’ was still on. Remind me to fire my secretary. I can just imagine arranging a dirty weekend with my friend’s wife, only for it to email him to check he will actually be out of town!

The Ipaq 3970 also sports Bluetooth and infrared, so you are never short of communication methods, in theory. You can partner your Ipaq with a number of mobile phones (for me the Sony-Ericsson T68i) using Bluetooth and then access the internet on the move. If it works. The bits all seem to be in the right place, but getting everything happy and working is not so simple. Revolutionary it may be, but simple? Oh no. Bluetooth for all it’s potential magic, is still a bit tempromental. Yes, I can send my business card back and forth, but sync’ing the entire contact book with my mobile is causing trouble. Sometimes it goes, sometimes it doesn’t. It is a bit hit and miss, but technology is like that. I’m sure I’ll work it out eventually. Having IR capability also means that it can control a number of other household devices using the bundled Nevo software. Throw the remote away, Ipaq will do it all. Again, let’s indulge in a flight of fancy. You go to a friend’s house. You pull out the Ipaq, and without telling your hosts, you let the Ipaq know what make the TV set is. You then proceed to show your friends the Ipaq - after a few moments, say the TV is disturbing you, and use the Ipaq to turn it off. Magic. That one goes down a treat.

The screen is surprisingly detailed, and for a device the size of your wallet, it ain’t ’alf good. Obviously, the first thing I did was move some images onto the Ipaq for viewing at my leisure whilst on the bus, or on the toilet, or just on my own. Handy, easy, and surprisingly detailed. I then tried the same, with a little help from a free download of a PowerPoint viewing tool, and viewed some slideshows. Awesome. Then greed got the better of me, and I started on the video. That’s where things started to get a little confusing. I couldn’t get a smooth playback, although, it was an unsupported file type, and it did warn me that it wasn’t going to work. Whilst on the subject of media, I also started fiddling with MP3 playback. Using Windows Media Player, it is easy to add or remove MP3s from the Ipaq. Away goes the CD player, I can have the Ipaq do the job, memory permitting. I finally knew I had gone mad when I tried to put a 48MB Liberty X video onto the Ipaq. Needless to say, it told me where to get off.

So far it all seems like good fun, and it is. The range of accessories available for the Ipaq is constantly growing, and like any other normal male, I want more. So far I have bought a travel plug, so I can charge the Ipaq either via a USB, or straight from the wall, using the same bit of wire, the word over. Perfect. And I don’t have to scrabble behind my PC when I want to go away. To be honest, it does like to be near power, and I have already had one flat battery incidence. Keep it well fed and it will be happy. Next on the shopping list, I think a SD card, to go in the provided slot, so I can download the photos from my mobile phone. Why they chose SD rather than CF, I don’t know, but you can get a CF jacket to take more cards. Perhaps I’ll get that, but then it starts to become less ‘pocket’ and more ‘rucksack’. Just to rattle off the top of my head the accessories I have seen - GPS, GSM mobile phone, camera, PCMCIA jacket, modem, battery expansion packs, CF jacket, blah, blah, blah.

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This review could go on and on. Because the Ipaq can be turned to almost any task, I’m not surprised that’s the case. There is a huge range of software out there for you to chop and change what you are doing. The advantage of running PocketPC 2002, is that you are not limited to Compaq/HP products - there are a number of companies supporting the system, so have compatible components and applications. The Ipaq is designed to be a partner to your PC, not a stand-alone computer. The beauty of the thing is how easy it is to add and remove software and files, and this is essential, as if you are going to take it on holiday in the mountains, you don’t need your fiscal forecasts for 2004, so dump ‘em. On the other hand, the GPS and a range of maps would be useful. Things like keeping the tube map .jpeg, or directions to a friend’s house on it make things simple. No need for scraps of paper in your pocket. Just ensure that you don’t get mugged, and don’t put it in the washing machine.

To recap

For the job it’s designed for it’s great but if you’re left handed, expect more time than average on training it to recognise your writing.

Writing by Chris Hall.