Dell updates its do-everything Axim

NEW YORK – Dell Inc. is everywhere these days – selling not only computers and servers but also digital music players, printers and personal digital assistants based on Microsoft’s Pocket PC operating system.

Competitors, frustrated by Dell’s efficient direct-sales model, have been known to dismiss the Texas company’s offerings as “low-cost and low-tech.” But it would be wrong to put Dell’s new $379 Axim X3i digital assistant in either category.

Sure, there’s nothing dramatically innovative about the silver-and-black Axim X3i. It is a slimmed-down second generation of the X5 hand-held Dell released a year ago. This new model comes with built-in wireless Internet capability, but so do others.

Still, Dell deserves credit for making a powerful and convenient digital companion that does most everything right.

In my test, setup was easy. Using the device was easy.

The Wi-Fi network sniffer was appropriately sensitive at detecting hot spots of wireless Internet access, and glowed a pleasant blue when active. One nice touch: Under default settings, turning the Wi-Fi on and off merely requires pushing a button on the Axim’s lower-right side.

The Axim’s dimensions were a pleasure: it’s thin (a half-inch) and light (5 ounces – same as a baseball).

Its color screen (3.5 inches on the diagonal, slightly smaller than a credit card turned on its side) is big enough for most tasks, although its rectangular shape makes for some slightly awkward Web browsing unless you opt for pages specially geared toward mobile devices.

The onboard microphone was fine for recording brief voice memos as e-mail attachments. The onboard speaker, however, produced tinny sounds when I checked out a movie clip and fashion show online.

The battery life lived up to Dell’s promise of eight to 10 hours under typical usage conditions, and much longer when dimmed and standing by. I also found I could keep the Axim on for several hours with the energy-sucking Wi-Fi sniffer running the whole time.

Behind the scenes, the Axim X3i packs plenty of power: a 400-megahertz processor, 64 megabytes of read-only memory and 64 megabytes of random-access memory. (Dell also offers those same specs in an Axim without Wi-Fi for $329; or for $229, you can get half the memory and a 300-megahertz processor.)

Overall, the device does a fine job of getting out of the way and letting Microsoft Corp.’s Pocket PC operating system do its thing, reproducing familiar desktop programs such as Internet Explorer, Outlook, Word and Excel.

Then again, that’s not always a great trick. During my test run with the Axim, the system irreparably froze once – and lo and behold, it happened when I visited a Windows Media Web site specifically geared for mobile devices.

So if you’re Microsoft-phobic or a Palm or Blackberry devotee, this might not be for you.

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