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T-Mobile Dash (HTC Excalibur) Review

February 2, 2007

T-Mobile Dash - HTC ExcaliburI’ve had a love/hate relationship with PDAs over the years, starting way back with the Newton. The fact is, I’m not organized enough to get much use out of organizer features (other than contacts), but I do love a good e-book reader and a collection of e-books, and when PDAs offering a decent e-book reading experience came around, I tried several.

Eventually, though, I’d get tired of keeping them charged, and carrying them around with all my other crud, and they’d start languishing in a drawer.

When PDAs with wifi came around, the idea of being able to read email and do the occasional online lookup (plus read e-books) got me back into it. After awhile, though, I got tired of poor wifi connectivity (and no connectivity away from it), plus the charging and carrying, etc., and there we are again.

I should note that I tend to bounce back and forth between Palm OS and Windows Mobile (or its name-of-the-day); both have their ups and downs (Palm OS is slow, dated, and multitasks poorly; Windows PDAs tend to have a lack of good aftermarket email programs)

The last time around, I got a Treo 650. Hurray! A PDA and phone made for one less gadget to carry around, and it had data service from the phone carrier.

Unfortunately, the data service was slow, the phone wasn’t a very good phone, the bluetooth implementation stunk (well, it worked like ass with the bluetooth hands-free built into my car anyway), the damn thing was big and bulky, and it had the battery life of a mayfly.


One day it finally pissed me off enough that I bought a Motorola RAZR V3i, and stopped carrying the Treo. No ebooks or email (worth using), but the battery went on forever, it had semi-decent call quality, worked in my car and didn’t require a ton of pocket space.

A few months ago, the RAZR developed an annoying habit of occasionally locking up when I tried answering calls, so I started to look around for something new. It was becoming likely that Apple was going to introduce the iPhone, and I knew if I committed to something else first, I’d regret it.

The iPhone announcement came, and while I’ll quite likely get one down the line, my RAZR wasn’t going to last long enough for it to actually come out, get the bugs worked out, and for somebody to work out a plan to take Cingular out of the equation.

So, I decided that since I had a T-Mobile account, I’d give a Windows Smartphone a try, and picked up a T-Mobile Dash.

In the grand mish-mash of Windows mobile naming, Windows Smartphone is essentially a “baby PDA” with a keyboard of sorts, but without a stylus and a touch screen. The Dash (actually an HTC Excalibur, with a bit of T-Mobile jiggery-pokery to modify a couple of features) is a “candy bar” style phone, with a thumb-board at the bottom, below the ubiquitous PDA style D-Pad.

To my surprise, I rather like Windows Smartphone — I have never really been a stylus fan, but I figured that was part and parcel of using a PDA. Windows Smartphone, however, does a very credible job of letting you use the thing through the keyboard without having to use a stylus. It does it so well, in fact, that I really prefer it to having to deal with a stylus.

I’m also reasonably pleased with the Dash itself. I bought mine without ever handling one in person, so I was dependent on the pictures. To be honest, the thing isn’t terribly photogenic — in the pictures the flaring of the metal faceplate gives you the impression of a kind of lumpy, pear-shaped phone.

In person, it was quite a bit smaller than I expected, and actually quite svelte and nicely designed; the whole thing is only slightly taller and wider than a folded-up RAZR, and somewhat thinner. The “pear shaped” impression also goes away quickly. It’s got a slightly rubberized case, and decent enough ergonomics to use as a phone without feeling like you’re holding a bulky PDA to your face. Compared to the Treo, it’s positively anorexic, and far less lumpy.

As a phone, it seems to work quite well — I get at least as good reception (if not better) than the RAZR in the same locations using the same carrier, and call quality a good 25% better.

The Dash’s PDA functionality is pretty much perfect for me. It has a nice, bright quarter VGA (QVGA) screen that works well for e-book reading, and while web browsing is always a pain with Pocket Explorer, it works acceptably well for what I need. Fortunately, Opera 9 is due out for Smartphone soon, which should improve the web browsing considerably.

The Dash handles data over EDGE (GSM’s “2.5G” “sorta-high-speed” data), and while not as fast as EVDO or HSDPA, it is vastly better than GPRS (which is also available if you’re not in an EDGE service area).

Of course, data handling is much better over WiFi, and the Dash’s built-in 802.11g service works reasonably well most of the time (see “connectivity failures” below), making browsing and email quite a bit faster if you’re near an available WiFi connection.

The mail application is (unfortunately) still Microsoft’s message center, which works, but that’s about all I can say nice about it. Hopefully we’ll see something more reasonable aftermarket soon.

T-Mobile adds on top of this a little routine that encourages you to set up your email, but which really goes out and configures a T-Mobile service to grab email out of your real mailbox and feed it to your phone, without having to understand how mail works. This is fine for a casual user, but a pain in the butt otherwise.

Fortunately, you can ignore all of that and set up “real” email; I prefer to use IMAP, so that my computer and my phone share the same mailbox, unread messages, sent messages, etc. Setting up IMAP was fairly straightforward, and it seems to work well enough to be useful, although it misses “brilliant” by a couple of large steps.

The Dash & Windows Smartphone also have provisions for doing “Blackberry Style” Push Email from an Exchange Server. Since I’d rather have my eyes gouged out with a dull spoon than use Exchange, I didn’t have an opportunity to test this (I’m fresh out of dull spoons).

The Bluetooth (2.0) implementation seems to work well also, or at least it works flawlessly and with good sound quality on my Plantronics 510 headset, and the UConnect feature in my car. Supposedly, it also supports stereo audio through bluetooth headphones, but since I’m unlikely to own bluetooth headphones until I have an iPod with bluetooth built in, I didn’t test this either.

All in all, not a bad little phone.

Of course, there are always the gotchas.

Way back in some conspiracy theory-laden part of my hindbrain, I always suspect that the reason so many gadgets like this fall just shy of being perfect is that if they were perfect, you wouldn’t have a reason to buy the next one.

Battery Life — this thing sucks through power like a 3rd grade hall monitor with delusions of grandeur. Turn on WiFi and Bluetooth, and you can almost watch the battery meter go down. This isn’t terribly unusual for this kind of device, and my routine is the same as it’s been for most — I keep a charging cradle in places where I tend to spend much time (desk, nightstand, etc.) (eBay is your friend for cheap charging cradles), and I turn off wifi when I’m not using it. Mail works well enough over EDGE that I don’t feel obliged to keep wifi on to get mail. Still, an extended battery would be quite welcome; unfortunately nobody seems to be offering them yet.

Connectivity Failures — Every now and again (perhaps once every day or two), the phone will seem to lose its ability to do data connections; turning on Wifi says “connecting” but never shows the network name, and when trying to check mail or use the browser, you get a “cannot do that on this connection” message, whether you’re attempting to use either Wifi or EDGE. A soft reset (turning the phone off and back on) fixes the problem, but it’s annoying.

Mysterious Death — For some reason, every 3 – 4 days I’ll pick up the phone, and it won’t come on when I hit a button to wake it up. Again, there’s an easy fix — slide open the back, lift the battery, put it back down and turn it back on (I can do it one-handed by now), but it’s annoying — particularly when you have the phone in a pocket and assume that you’re reachable, and you’re not.

Volume Slider — The HTC Excalibur has a touch-sensitive “JogBar” (aka “JOGGR”) on the right edge adjacent to the screen, which by most forum reports doesn’t work terribly well. T-Mobile lobotomized this on the Dash, and turned it into a Volume Control, which also doesn’t work well (it never seems to work when I want to change the volume, but if I touch it when I don’t want to, it goes nuts). There are utilities around for turning it back into an Excalibur-style JOGGR, but I just try to avoid touching it and edit my profile to adjust the volume, which I do seldom, once I have it where I want it.

No Vaja Case — Last, and probably least for most people; I’m addicted to Vaja cases — I love them to death, and my purchase of any sort of mobile widgetry is usually quickly followed by ordering a Vaja case. Vaja doesn’t currently offer a case for the Dash/Excalibur, and I haven’t found one by anyone else that I like (the Vaja Evolution case styles are just perfect for the way I tend to use these devices). Oh well.

Cost — In the grand scheme of things, the Dash is fairly cheap (really cheap, if you compare it with an iPhone). If you’re a new T-Mobile customer, or an existing subscriber that’s already worked off your phone subsidy, you can pick one up for $150. That also gets you a two year contract. Alternatively, you can buy one off-contract and unlocked on E-Bay for $300 – $350. Since the T-Mobile early termination fee is $200, it’s pretty much a wash for me; if I buy it from T-Mobile I can take the insurance and let it be their problem for awhile.

Of course, you can buy an unlocked phone (or unlock a locked one) and use it on most any GSM carrier. A little Googling will find instructions for removing the branding, and even reverting it to the stock Excalibur ROM if you want to.

All in all, not a bad little phone; I’d give it 4 stars (out of 5), which is fairly high praise from me for this kind of thing.

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