Review of the T-Mobile MDA

After my less than inspired experience with the new T-Mobile Sidekick 3, I decided to try something completely different. I do this every now and again — try to ween myself off the Sidekick platform. I’ve tried it with Treos, I’ve tried it with Blackberries, and I’ve tried it with phones from Nokia and Sony Ericsson. But in the end, I always come crawling back to the Sidekick.

The form factor of the T-Mobile MDA is pretty nice. The size is great, and the overall feel is decent. It doesn’t exactly feel bulletproof, but it also doesn’t feel like it’s going to come apart in your hands, either (like the Sidekick 3). It feels good as both a phone and a PDA, and is small enough to disappear into a pocket, or to rest comfortably on your belt (I’m one of those geeks who wears his phone on his belt since there’s something unsettling about keeping a high-powered radio transmitter down deep in my front pocket).

I like the way the keyboard slides out and the screen automatically changes orientation. The keyboard is usable enough — not as nice as the Sidekick’s, but good enough. It’s missing the dedicated row of numbers that the Sidekick has, however since it has a touch screen (unlike the Sidekick), you really only miss the number row when typing IMs or emails, or when entering addresses into Outlook. The screen is bright, and while it’s not huge (240 x 320), it’s definitely sufficient.

The first problem I had with the MDA was connecting it to my wireless network. Although I’ve never had a problem getting any WiFi-enabled device to connect at home, the MDA simply refused. I made the mistake of calling T-Mobile tech support for advice, and they explained to me that the WiFi functionality is only supported for T-Mobile Hotspots, and that they had no idea how to get it to work with any other network. Within the last 30 days, I’ve connected a Pharos Traveler GPS device (running Windows Mobile 5), a Nintendo DS Lite, my Xbox 360, and about 6 different computers to my network without a single problem, but the MDA simply would not budge. I decided to move on since connecting via GPRS typically makes more sense, anyway.

That brings me to T-Mobile’s EDGE performance. I criticized the Sidekick 3’s poor data performance which I now realize was unjust. I should be criticizing T-Mobile’s EDGE support in general. It’s just as slow on the MDA is it is on the Sidekick 3. In fact, it’s slow enough that you have to be paying very close attention to see any difference whatsoever between EDGE and plain old GPRS, and that’s in San Francisco where you’re supposed to get good speeds.

On a more positive note, I found that I liked the 1.3 megapixel camera on the MDA; it’s clearly better than the Sidekick 3’s. And I liked the fact that the MiniSD card is easily accessible, unlike the Sidekick 3. That means I can easily use my SanDisk USB 2.0 card dock to transfer media to and from my phone’s MiniSD card which isn’t a practical option on the Sidekick 3 since you actually have to remove the battery cover to get to the card.

I wasn’t overly impressed with the software on the MDA, though that’s more of a reflection on Microsoft than T-Mobile. Windows Mobile 5 is clearly much better than Palm OS, but still not nearly as nice as the Sidekick’s OS. The little “x” in the upper right-hand corner of Windows Mobile apps doesn’t actually close the application — it just hides it so that the next time you access it, it launches quickly. The idea is that the OS is supposed to manage memory automatically, and close applications once the device starts to run out of available RAM. I don’t think the MDA ever shut down a single application, however, and it felt extremely slow from the very beginning. At first I attributed its sluggishness to it’s 200 MHz processor until I played with my friend’s brand new HP iPAQ hw6915 which boasts a 416 MHz processor, and still manages to run Windows Mobile 5 poorly. The problem clearly seems to lie with Windows Mobile 5 rather than the hardware.

I was also a little surprised at how bad the mobile version of Outlook is. I tried setting up a couple of POP accounts, and was amazed to discover that I couldn’t configure it to only download new mail (I have thousands of old messages on the server that other POP clients are smart enough not to download, but Outlook wanted to download every last one of them), and I couldn’t specify whether I wanted messages removed from the server or not. (Apparently, it doesn’t remove messages from the server, but how would I know that since there is no configuration option?) I also don’t like the way the SMS client is integrated into Outlook. SMS is very different from email, and should be treated differently with an entirely different application which is optimized for SMS rather than email.

The multi-protocol IM client is also, to put it mildly, a complete joke. I believe it actually sends and receives IMs as SMS messages, so they take several seconds (as in 10) to be sent or received. That’s hardly instant. I could probably have faster conversations via email. I installed another client called Agile Messenger which I’ve been happy with on Symbian phones in the past, but I think it still needs a year or two to mature on Windows Mobile.

Being already unsatisfied with the phone, I should have just quit right there, but for some reason, I was determined to forge ahead and see if I could get the T-Mobile MDA to sync with my Mac (Address Book and Calendar). I bought and downloaded The Missing Sync for Windows Mobile 5 from Mark Space, and promptly proceeded to waste about four hours of my life. I can’t even remember everything that went wrong, but I think it went something like this: since WIndows Mobile is supposed to work with ActiveSync, The Missing Sync basically spoofs ActiveSync, or at least tries to. In my case, it didn’t do a very good job. When I paired the MDA with my MacBook via bluetooth, The Missing Sync kept failing to fool the MDA into thinking it was an ActiveSync client. After following all the troubleshooting guides in the Mark Space knowledgebase, I finally resorted to reinstalling the software which actually fixed the problem, but lead directly into the next problem, which was that the data copied from my computer to the MDA was completely screwed up. Among other things, there were five old iCal events which got scheduled every day, indefinitely, on the MDA. I was so determined to get it to work that I completely recreated my iCal calendars, removing all obsolete events, and when I tried again, I was back to my first problem of the MDA not being able to connect to the Missing Sync. That’s when I performed a hard reset on the MDA, packaged it up for return, uninstalled The Missing Sync, asked for (and got) a refund, and crawled shamefully back to my Sidekick 2.

So in short, I don’t recommend the MDA. I think it’s too slow, and Windows Mobile 5 is just about as compelling and interesting to me as Windows XP. That said, if your computing world only consists of Windows, and that’s all you’ve ever known, you might like Windows Mobile and the MDA. It does a lot of very nice and impressive tricks, however it doesn’t have a coherent and consistent story like the Sidekick. The Sidekick is a collection of hardware, software, and services which all come together into the best mobile experience I’ve every seen. Windows is a platform designed to support as many disparate pieces of hardware and software as possible in an attempt to be all things to all people. The key to a usable mobile device is to focus on a small set of functionality, and do it exceptionally well. Windows Mobile tries to do everything, and is content with doing it passably.

7 thoughts on “Review of the T-Mobile MDA

  1. Your review (and the experiences driving it) are unfortunate. I own a Cingular 8125 (the same phone with a slightly different case and keyboard config) and couldn’t be happier.

    The first problem I had with the MDA was connecting it to my wireless network. Although I’ve never had a problem getting any WiFi-enabled device to connect at home, the MDA simply refused.

    I don’t know what the specific problem is in your situation, but I suspect it’s a quick setting (or two) away from working. Mine is a champ with WiFi. Additionally, once you get the device to connect to your wireless router, you’ll want to uncheck the box that indicates that Internet connections should use a proxy server (which, obviously, won’t be available when you’re connected via WiFi and not via GPRS).

    The little “x” in the upper right-hand corner of Windows Mobile apps doesn’t actually close the application — it just hides it so that the next time you access it, it launches quickly.

    I don’t agree with this approach either. Fortunately there are a number of aftermarket options available. Personally, I use software from SPB Software House that lets me control the behavior of the X button.

    I tried setting up a couple of POP accounts, and was amazed to discover that I couldn’t configure it to only download new mail (I have thousands of old messages on the server that other POP clients are smart enough not to download, but Outlook wanted to download every last one of them)…

    The email client has no way of knowing what’s “old” and what’s “new” until it’s seen all messages at least once. After getting over the initial hump, I have multiple POP accounts handling “old” and “new” mail admiraby.
    I can’t speak for your syncing issues. The fact that you’re attempting to do this from a Mac is probably a sign that you’re trying something you shouldn’t be. I’ll agree that Windows Mobile-based phones/PDAs are far better suited to being used in a Windows to Windows scenario. However, overall, I think you gave the MDA a poor review that’s in sharp contrast to most every other review out there of it. Compared to every other offering in it’s class, the HTC Wizard (the model used for the MDA and Cingular 8125) is head and shoulders above everything else.


  2. Regarding WiFi: I suspect the T-Mobile MDA has a different network configuration since it’s primary function is to work with T-Mobile hotspots. I have a Linksys SRX wireless access point, and apparently several other people have had difficultly getting the MDA to work with it. I’m sure it’s possible, and I don’t necessarily fault the phone for the fact that I wasn’t able to get it to work, but I was surprised to find that it was so difficult.
    Regarding closing apps: Next time I get a Windows Mobile device, I’ll check out the SPB software. Thanks for the tip.
    Regarding POP clients: The POP protocol does allow you to get the most recent message, so clients don’t have to download everything on the server the first time they connect. Most desktop POP clients do download everything, which I think is fine since desktop computers typically have high bandwidth connections and plenty of storage space, but if I were designing a mobile POP client, I would add a configuration option for only grabbing messages that were new from that point forward (I recently wrote a server-side POP client that does precisely that). In other words, at the time the account is created, I would go to the server and get the ID of the newest email, and then only download emails that are new from that point forward. I guess it’s partially my fault for allowing thousands of emails to accumulate on my POP server, but with mail accounts like Gmail and with the amount of space that Yahoo! now allocates, more and more people will stop deleting email, and just start filing it away which means mobile POP clients will have to get smarter about how much email they download.
    Regarding synching with my Mac: I’m not criticizing the MDA for not syncing properly with my Mac. It was obviously never intended to be Mac compatible. If anything, I’m giving The Missing Sync a poor review (I think they just have a few bugs to get worked out). I was primarily just relaying my experience for other Mac users out there. If you’re using Windows, I’m sure the MDA works fine with ActiveSync.
    Regarding the fact that my review is in sharp contrast to other reviews: This doesn’t surprise me. I’ve also never seen another poor review of the Sidekick 3, and I was very disappointed with it. Unfortunately, I don’t have an explanation for why I tend to disagree with other reviewers out there. Frankly, I think it’s because I have much higher expectations. Most people are content with using Windows even though I think OS X provides a superior experience. Most people are content with Palm or Windows Mobile even though I think the Sidekick platform provides a much better experience. The other day, a friend of mine showed me a new phone that he got that he was really happy with. After I played with it for about 20 minutes, I pointed out all the things I didn’t like about it, and suddenly he liked the phone a lot less. I don’t mean to overemphasize the faults in devices, but I just don’t think most people think all that hard about how their devices work, and about how much better most of them could be. I think too many people are content to conform to their devices when I believe devices should be designed to conform to us. However, at the end of the day, my reviews are just one person’s opinion, and I certainly don’t claim that my opinions are any more valid than anyone else’s. They are simply one more data point among many others.
    Thanks again for providing your perspective.


  3. I have been using PDA phones for 3 years now: Treo 270, Treo 600, Treo 650 and the Tmobile MDA. When I first received the MDA I thought my distaste for it was because I had Palm-itus. I have wasted countless hours of my life trying to get this thing to do anything its supposed to do.
    IM: The IM client is a huge mess, for some reason it cant stay online. People are always texting “whered you go”. I load Verichat, having used this with palm platform I new this would solve the problem. It also failed to stay online. With the palm system it would log you off if you were getting a phone call, the chat gateway server would then SMS you to make you appear on line. This would not work with the MDA.
    BLUETOOTH MODEM: I used the Treo 650 as blue tooth modem for my laptop in the past and had no problems with it. I only did about an hour of setup. With the MDA it is a crazy sink hole of time. Wont stay connected to PC via blue tooth. The radio is so weak that cell signals drop if you move seats in a building. What a joke.
    ERGONOMICS: Using the thumb direction keys and moving through your contacts list is like trying to hold two ice cubes together. The phone is meant for two handed or voice dialing options. If you like using voice dialing then you are in business but if you want to actually dial a call then your in for it. The on screen key pad is bogus.
    RADIO: Slide the keyboard open and use the WIFI for any amount of time and you can actually feel your hand getting cooked. The radio is just under the left index finger in the open keyboard mode. Use this for any long durations and you will be looking at some serious tissue damage. Using it in EDGE connection is just as bad. A Treo, SX-66 or Q has the keyboard on the opposite side of the radio.
    Bottom line: Stay away from this device a Palm system is much more powerful. With a palm device you will have no problem using it with a MAC, PC, or Linux machine.
    If anyone is reading this and still wants the MDA write me at my email address and I will lend you mine, its a paper weight as soon as I find an UNLOCKED 650 or 700p. This device has very limited audience.


  4. I just picked up an mda to replaze the POS Ipaq phone i’ve had for about a year or so. I’m stoked! This phone is amazingly better than my old one at everything.
    I’m on a mac myself and used to work with PocketMac but have swapped to The Missing Synch due to compatibility issues with Windoze Mobile 5. Yah.. it’s a bit quirky but so far it seems to do fine. This is afterall a product designed for windoze machines so you can’t expect it to be perfect at syncing with an apple machine.
    The size is great, the wifi rocks, the phone is much better then the old PPC’s from t-mobile. now all i want is to figure out how to get it to work as a modem for my apple laptop!
    Bad reviewer, no cookie!


  5. Im adding this extremely late, however I feel the MDA is getting a little unfair treatment on behalf of T-Mobiles horrible out of the box settings for it. Upgrading the ROM to the latest version this phone can really zip. I I’ve had the MDA since February, and really have had no problems which couldnt be worked around. Even now, I have moved to cingular, and just unlocked the phone so I could use it on Cingulars network. Edge on the better network is much snappier, cell reception everywhere recieve a serious kick in the pants. And since the MDA variant of the Wizard hd slightly better graphics performance than the 8125, I would say that the MDA can knock off the 8125 on its own network.
    As for close “feature” that microsoft included, SPB pocketPlus does the trick for me, not only does it put all my favorite apps and settings programs in organized tabs on the today screen, you know that when you close down a program, it will stay closed.
    As for WiFi, to be honest I rarely use it for that, my laptop is with me 24/7, and i despise such a small screen for steady browsing periods. In short bursts it works fine.


  6. I think this was a comprehensive review of the phone. I appreciate the fact that you point out the problems with the phone. I wish more reviewers would do that so that folks understanding what they are getting into.
    That being said, here are my 2 cents.
    First, WiFi did not work for me either. I upgraded the ROM and it has worked like a champ ever since.
    Second, configuring the email was a pain in the neck. However, once configured it works just fine. No complaints.
    The close key is really maddening. I would strongly recommend a free program called Smartskey. Smartskey does a couple of things; (1) overclock functionality (2) close key actually closes (3) volume rocker changes to up and down scroll tool for web, word docs, etc. With Smartskey I never have to use 2 hands for general use (outside of typing).
    As others have mentioned, SPB has a line of products that can also close apps. I use the Pocket Plus, Backup, and Weather apps. They all integrate nicely into the Today screen.
    Overall I have been very happy with my MDA. It does everything I need it to do. That being said, I don’t IM and don’t do a ton of typing. If I did my opinion might change.


  7. Interesting. A good critical review. I have an Imate JasJam (HTC Tytn) which won’t hook onto my WIFI (Linksys WRT54G AP). It’s like there’s a setting missing or something. It sees the network, trys to connect, but then disconnects. Update the ROM eh? Well, perhaps that’s the go, I’ve tried everything else more than twice! The Network settings are illogically all over the place, and seems to lead you in ever frustrating circles.
    After 4 months, I’ve found the jasjam a nice piece of hardware (mostly). I’ve gotten used to how to handle it without hitting any buttons, but it’s let down mostly by WM5 quirks. SPB fixed some of them for me too :)
    Playing music from the Micro SD card is an illogical chore to start off, but once it’s going, provided you “lock” the device so hardware buttons don’t accidentally set something else off, it work well. The sound level is just loud enough and reasonable quality thru headphones, but a bit tinny and distorted at top volume thru the built in speaker. I haven’t been able to play any video, AVI or MPEG, presumably the wrong format, but it takes and plays it’s own well enough, and the audio recording is good.
    I’ve missed a number of calls because something else pops up, like the camera or email when you try to answer the phone, sometimes even when it seems I haven’t hit any wrong buttons.
    The keyboard I’ve gotten used to, but I think the “Tengo” screen entry system would be faster. It would be nice if the device turned on when you slid out the KB, instead of having to hit the power button too.
    2MP camera is um, reasonable – sharp pic, but shadows/dark areas are always too dark, upping the exposure helps only a little. 4 way nav button is no good for fast paced gaming if that is your want. Screen is nice and clear, I’ve only had trouble reading some PDF’s, requiring zooming and lots of scrolling. Pushes Hotmail OK, and IM seems to be instant.
    If I can just get the bloody wireless working …


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