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Dell’s axim X5 pocket PC. Pocket PCs are still trailing Palm OS devices in the handheld market. Pocket PC 2002 devices tend to cost more and do less (or less effectively) than Palms. But the gap between the two handheld platforms is eroding, and the introduction of Dell’s Axim X5 series closes the gap further. Both models in the Axim X5 series are relatively inexpensive. The 400MHz model retails for $349. There’s a 300MHz model for $249. And the Axims are more than capable than most Pocket PC devices. Both models feature two batteries with outstanding battery life, a bright 3.5-inch color screen and two expansion slots–one for MMC cards and another for CompactFlash devices.

The basic specs on the 400MHz Axim X5 we tested are normal for the latest wave of Pocket PCs. Its 65,000-color, 16-bit TFT screen displays at 320-by-240 pixels. It sports 48MB of ROM and 64MB of RAM. It supports infrared communications. It’s loaded with the Pocket PC 2002 Premium Edition and Portable Office apps. And it comes with Outlook 2000 for installation on its host PC.

But its extras are out of the ordinary. The 400MHz model comes with a cool blue USB/rapid battery-charging cradle, and although it was only recently released, there are already dedicated devices on the market for it. TravRoute, for example, has released a GPS navigation system that slips into the Axim’s CF slot. In our field tests, the combination Axim-and-CoPilot worked flawlessly as an in-car navigation system, even while running other demanding programs, such Pocket Media Player cycling through audio files. There are also more traditional extras available for the device, including external keyboards, Wi-Fi network adapters, and replacement styluses.

Dell rates the battery life of the Axim at 8 to 10 hours. We found that in continuous use, it would stop playing Windows Media audio files after about seven hours with the screen brightness turned down, but continue to compute for almost another hour. Slipping extras like the CoPilot GPS receiver in the CF slot drains the battery much faster. But that’s a moot point, since in-car use lets you run the Axim off a cigarette lighter adapter.

The public reaction to the Axim seems to be split down the middle. Its 3.5-inch screen and flattened stylus, which looks like a scaled-down figure-8 ski, are too small to convert anyone to the handheld game. But some Palm aficionados have called it “a brick” and “Cold War machinery” because it’s so much larger than the current wave of shirt-pocket computers. Its 5-by-3.2-by-0.7-inch dimensions and 7-ounce weight may not fit in a shirt pocket but will fit nicely in jacket or trouser pockets.

There are other downsides. Playing WMV files designed for Pocket PCs resulted in frequent stalls and jumps in the audio and video. The speaker’s a bit tinny and quiet too. Voice recording wasn’t ideal either. Though the tone and range of the voice was acceptable, playback whooshed and crackled like an overplayed vinyl record. And finally, it’s hard to find Axims. Online message groups are littered with complaints about lost orders, back orders, and all-round unavailability.

If you can get one, though, and can live with a bulkier-than-many Pocket PC, there’s a lot to like about the Axim X5.

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