Sprint PPC-6700

I’ve been playing around with the PPC-6700 from Sprint (otherwise known as the HTC Apache), their latest EV-DO Pocket PC handset. There’s plenty to like about the device — QWERTY keyboard, 3G, Wi-Fi — offset by some minor annoyances, but overall, it’s pretty nifty. If you’re looking for a PDA phone, or an alternative to a Blackberry, it’s worth checking out.

The PPC-6700 sports a smaller footprint than other Pocket PC phones I’ve used, though its slide-out keyboard makes it a fair amount thicker. My only issue with the form factor is the external antenna. It’s not only goofy-looking, but sticks up about 3/4 of an inch from the top of the device, plenty of room to get caught on things and be bulky in the pocket. But, I guess at this point, you’ve still got to accept some tradeoffs for all the functionality.

There’s an impressive list of features here (visit Phone Scoop for a comprehensive list). At the top is the EV-DO data functionality. Surfing the web and checking email with it is almost enough to make you forget the pain of CSD, the perpetual waiting of GPRS and the inevitable disappointment of WAP, and it blows away my (albeit limited) experience with UMTS in Europe. The Wi-Fi works well enough, but to be perfectly honest, I really didn’t use it much. The EV-DO was plenty fast, but I guess if you’re wanting to save on bandwidth bills, it could come in handy. I was also able to tether the device to my Mac, which was great.

Probably the most striking physical feature is the slide-out keyboard. It’s decent enough, but not great. The white and red backlighting of the keys was particularly problematic for me, especially outdoors. Like most mobile keyboards, it’s not something with which you’d want to write a novel, but it’s perfectly fine for short emails and text messages. I’ve got a few other hardware quibbles — the camera button on the side acts only as the shutter button; pushing it any other time doesn’t open the camera application (ah, I just discovered you have to hold it down for a good 4 or 5 seconds to fire up the camera app). That’s okay, I guess, except that it’s the opposite reaction of the voice recorder button on the other side of the device. This button has been the bane of my experience with Pocket PC devices — any time you hit it, the voice recorder application starts up. Should the button get held down, which seems to happen quite often, it starts recording. Is that feature really popular enough that it demands a dedicated key? There’s one below it for Internet Explorer; I imagine users would like to have one for the messaging app. To be fair, all of these buttons are programmable, but that may be asking a bit much of many users.

The real problem buttons, though are the PPC-6700’s two power buttons. Yes, two — which is especially curious given that neither one of them actually turns the device off. The one on the top turns the screen and backlight off and on, while the end call/power button will turn the radios off and on if held down. Okay, that’s great, but how do I shut the damn thing off? As far as I can tell, the only way that’s possible is to take out the battery.

Let’s talk about the software. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Pocket PC user interface, and that hasn’t changed, but there are a significant number of improvements here both in the software itself, but also in how users interact with it. There’s one major change in the latest version that gets rid of another personal bugbear: significant data’s no longer stored in volatile memory. Older Pocket PCs stored everything in RAM, so when the battery died, all your data disappeared. It was a stupid arrangement, doubly so in a mobile phone. Fortunately, it’s no longer a worry.

I also like some of the lengths to which HTC’s gone to make it possible to control the device with one hand. I’m no big fan of stylus-driven UIs for mobile phones, but obviously with a PDA-type device, it’s a necessity. But, at their heart, these devices are still phones, and you should be able to control them as such. The PPC-6700 has two soft keys to access the on-screen menus along with the usual Windows and OK buttons, as well as a nice joystick that makes navigating everything with one hand manageable, if not perfect.

Also very welcome is the addition of landscape mode, which makes web surfing and messaging much, much better.

The included software is fine, nothing too outstanding or disappointing. The email client is fine, setup is easy and it works well. Internet Explorer is okay

I installed a few third-party applications with little trouble. Skype downloaded and installed fine; it has a few quirks but those are issues of its own rather than with the device. I couldn’t get Opera to download directly to the device, and had to transfer it over from my computer via Bluetooth. Once installed, it beats Pocket IE hands-down. I don’t know how many times it needs to be repeated, but Opera has figured out mobile browsing and should come as the default browser on high-end devices, if not all of them. Opera’s lack of support for WML and XHTML remains problematic, though. But for HTML, it can’t be beat.

All things considered, the PPC-6700 is pretty solid. Much of its charm comes from the zippy EV-DO connection, but along with the new version 5.0 of Windows Mobile, it’s got some significant UI enhancements that, for me, dull the pain of Pocket PC. It remains too bloated and overwhelming for general users, but for business users, PDA fans or people looking for a Blackberry alternative, it’s a good bet.

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