iPAQ Tribute

 I’m writing this post on my HP iPAQ hx2495b handheld. In fact, I’m using my iPAQ in a way not far removed from the capability of my new HP netbook computer. I have a Bluetooth (BT) keyboard, and a USB mouse connected to it (obviously 3rd party additions). I’m able to save screen shots, and embed them in to this document using Softmaker’s excellent document editor. I’m also running a newer version of WinMo on it (6.1). Not only can I research content from the web (via WiFi), I can also incorporate advanced formatting and objects like tables, etc. All while simultaneously listening to my favorite podcast. When considering these capabilities against the substantial noise generated by lesser gadgets that appear on the tech scene, it is hard to understand how WinMo and the iPAQ line fell out of favor with such an awesome head start. Anyway, the purpose of this post is not to grouse (been there, done that) but to provide a tribute, if you will; a homage to the venerable iPAQ PDA and WinMo OS upon which it is based. One of the first mobile computing devices to popularize handheld computing. If you came looking for information on iPAQ phone model devices, you will be disappointed. I am focusing only on the non-phone versions in this tribute. Maybe I’ll come back in the future and add a phone section as well.

 

The posts will come in many parts designed to not only inform and educate, but to enhance the iPAQ experience as well, hopefully with useful tips, links and downloads. This first post will start with a bit of history and general information regarding the iPAQ line and my experience with it, and at the end will provide some links to interested parties to find their own iPAQs (still widely available). These posts will include information about WinMo apps in general that I have used to enhance my iPAQ experience, so might be interesting to the non-iPAQ user as well. Links and reference info will be provided at the end of the review. As usual, feedback and reader input is most welcome. If I got something wrong, feel free to correct me. This will be the first among a series of posts under the “iPAQ Tribute” category.
 
Ipaq 3955 and 3635… Pocket PC 2003, and 2000 OS versions respectively
 
Introducing the iPAQ… 
My first experience with the iPAQ line came sometime during 2002. A program manager in our company actually purchased several different mobile units for test, and the iPAQ was one of them. He demonstrated the Windows Mobile (then PocketPC or WinCE) OS, which I had briefly seen running on some older clamshell devices. The iPAQs were not only more compact, but they also had touch-screens like a Palm Pilot. The impressive thing was the fact that the OS was a lightweight but very functional version of Windows. The developers at our company could quite easily create applications in VB and C++ for this device! The menu driven GUI was familiar as it was based on Windows. This is a point that has to be made time and time again with critics of the WM GUI today. They simply don’t seem to understand or acknowledge that WinMo looks and works like it does because it is essentially a compact version of Windows. You could argue that the original designers should have scrapped the Windows OS completely, but that’s a different argument (and a stupid one at that...why would MS scrap their own OS?). 
 
I digress... Shortly after seeing this powerhouse handheld in action, I got a present. Our company purchased several of the early Compaq 38/39xx models for development, IR&D (and some for a few executives who had to have them) and throughout the WinMo heyday of the early to mid 2000s, I always had a variety of WM models to play with, tweak or configure in the lab. The model I felt had the best overall stability and performance was the iPAQ 3900 series, of which I finally purchased my own 3955 (still have 2, and they still work fine). It featured an SD card slot, 64M of RAM, and an XScale 400MHz processor. I pretty much tested/tweaked most of the upcoming iPAQ models thereafter (except a few of the VGA-capable models). See chart at the end for iPAQ model types and capabilities. My overall (with a few exceptions) experience with them compared to other PDA models is that they offered the best of the evolving WinMo experience—i.e. speed and stability with excellent options for expansion. 
          
The iPAQ110 Classic PDA...
 
iPAQ Features 
The iPAQ PDA is probably one of the more flexible and extensible Pocket PCs ever to come out. They were not only designed to allow one to essentially carry around a small version of Windows in their pocket, but Compaq/HP also added useful apps to manage the OS and backup data, and enhance the user experience. From the first models, the iPAQ had 4 buttons (#1,2,4,5 above) along the bottom of the face of the unit, that could be mapped to the application of your choice (*default from L-R: calendar, contacts, mail, task manager). The Directional-Pad (d-pad) could be used for scrolling and navigation, or when used in concert with the buttons, as an effective game controller. The D-Pad (#3 above) has markedly morphed in size and shape over the years from model to model, and the 3900 series had about the best size and feel to it’s d-pad, IMO, especially for games (the small round d-pads like in the 5000 series were the worst). It was essentially a wide oval, with very tactile feedback. The later models have more compact d-pad's (like on the 110 Classic model depicted above), and are also a little tight for games. The internal speaker of the older units produced impressively good quality sound at a reasonable level, and practically all units had a standard 3.5mm headphone jack (some later units like the 1900s switched to a 2.5mm jack). The iPAQ includes a record button (#3) located on the side of the unit that allows you to quickly enter voice notes as well. 
 
*Note: The older models had QStart, and QUtilities apps (forerunner of iTask) mapped to the far right buttons for quick task management actions, but later iPAQs started including the improved iTask application, and mail and iTask became the default actions/icons for the 2 right buttons. The latest models in the line (110, 210) now have the WinMo Start menu and OK (close) mapped to the buttons left/right of the D-Pad as you see in the diagram above.
 
Editing the WinMo soft-key selections--shortcuts at the bottom of the home screen--with a registry editor (the excellent MemMaid application
 
Operating System
The Pocket PC/Windows Mobile OS is quite open to be tweaked via registry, config files, etc. A PDA like the iPAQ does not have to be “unlocked” or jailbroken to get to these functions. There are even scripting environments, DOS and terminal emulators available that add to this functionality. A registry editor program, for example, will allow you to greatly tweak performance characteristics as well as the look and functionality of WinMo. Much of this is simple enough that by following on-line guidance, a novice user could figure it out. The filesystem is largely open to access, which is another example of how WM is set apart markedly from the iPhone or iPod Touch. Many freeware utilities are available to aid you in this process (if you don’t have the time or inclination to go climbing around in the registry). That’s not to say there isn’t danger involved. Any OS that provides an elevated level of access to an ordinary user is at risk of being corrupted because of this, and WinMo tweaker forums are full of lamentations that testify to this fact. I have “bricked” a few devices myself (one had to be shipped back for maintenance to be fixed, in fact). Compaq, and HP have a good record of adding their own internal and installable apps to the provided ROM image. HP was amongst the first to include more advanced security tools like the Credant Mobile Guardian (HP Protect Tools) suite that provided encryption of PIM data and folders stored in the filesystem, though the security software could create some goofy behavior if not configured just so. Let’s take a look at some older devices, and move on to newer iPAQs. 
 
Linux running on my old 3970…note the wired Ethernet network card added via expansion pack.
 
iPAQ History 
The iPAQ 3600 came out in 2000, featuring a 12-bit display, 32/64 MB of RAM, 16 MB of ROM, and a 206MHz processor. Because of the memory restrictions of these early units, a limited amount of programs or data could be stored on the unit in volatile memory. This also meant that if the battery ran out, you lost pretty much everything except the base OS. The unit ran the Pocket PC 2000 version of WM, which included PIM applications as well as Pocket Internet Explorer, a media player application, MS Money, Word and Excel, etc. Pretty much everything you would find on a brand new device today. The Windows and menus looked more like Win 95 and earlier versions of the PC OS. Early WinMo developers were quickly adding to the lineup of 3rd party apps, making the devices more useful. Not long after, Linux distros started popping up as well. I have successfully run Familiar and Angstrom Linux (mobile versions of Linux for mobile devices) on the 3900 units as well as the various versions of Windows Mobile. Using an add-on application called StyleTap (a Palm emulator), you can also run Palm applications. Usually when Microsoft came out with a new version of WM, the OEMs would follow suit by making a new ROM image available for consumers to install to their devices (at least sometimes). For example, Compaq offered a 2003 upgrade for the 3900 series, which I have applied and found to be quite stable, but by and large HP became stingy with the iPAQ upgrades. This led to some..ahem..custom cooking of updated ROMs by enterprising individuals (markedly at XDA forums). I have used all versions of Windows Mobile over the years on the iPAQ line, including the latest 6.1 cooked versions circulating (I have not found a 6.5 ROM for my iPAQ hx2495b. The 6.1 version I am now using is superior in many respects to the factory build that came on the unit, but of course, bugs have been noted.
 
Various Expansion options…L-R: PC storage adapter, WiFi card, GPS, PC Card and external battery
 
External Expansion
Almost all of the early iPAQs had non-removable batteries, but several repair sites offered both memory and battery upgrades/replacement, and many are still providing replacement parts, repairs or enhancements for aging or ailing iPAQs (see links at the end). The early 3xxx series were exandable by adding external sleeves that could be slid onto the back of the iPAQ. This single feature of the older models made them much more attractive to me than many competing products. By using the added expansion, it was easy to move data between storage cards, or to archive large amounts of data without swapping cards in the unit itself. This also provided the abilty to connect PC, wifi or network cards as well as external batteries, storage cards and GPS peripherals. I still have several of these sleeves, along with useful peripherals (including a micro-hard drive, a GPS, PC card expansion, CF converter, battery, etc). 
 
Targus keyboard…you attached directly to the base of the 3600 unit.
 
The external hardware expansion packs were phased out, as more and more capabilities like SD/CF slots and wifi were added to the device itself. The next (HP-branded) iPAQ that I owned after the 3900s was an H5555. This was the first iPAQ to have integrated wireless capability and a biometric fingerprint scanner, which was practically like science fiction on a PDA. The model was plagued with problems (most of which were ironed out in firmware updates), but I ended up installing and running Linux on it. This too proved to be more trouble than it was worth. Not long after the H5555 finally died on me, HP brought several devices to market that hit what I would consider the sweet spot for a PDA. Some of the new features included enhanced expansion slots (SDIO*) and VGA screens (hx4700) as well as GPS (rx5900). Some models also included a 1.2 megapixel camera (rx3400 and rx3700). Most of the high-end devices started featuring ample memory to protect and run programs and games as well as 400mhz and higher X-Scale ARM processors. Choosing a unit (old or new) can be important to consider. Many peripherals and programs are built to work on a specific line of processor. The Linux distros that are available typically have ROM images for a limited number of devices. I finally decided to settle on--and continue to use until present day--the iPAQ hx2495b. The unit has a 520Mhz X-Scale processor, 128M of memory, wi-fi, bluetooth and 2 expansion slots (SD, and CF). It’s a very capable PDA, but there is also a higher end model (hx27xx). Both models can still be purchased from HP. I carry it to work every day with me (and I have a Blackberry and an iPod touch). It provides too many useful services to give it up yet (more on that later). 
 
*SDIO is a combination storage and input/output capability. With an SDIO capable card slot, not only can you insert/use a standard SD storage card, but also peripheral devices like network cards, FM tuners, etc.
 
The Trusty hx2495b with connected mouse (via CF adapter from SolarExpress) and iGo BT keyboard
 
Suffice to say, as mobile technology advanced, Microsoft and the OEMs started to improve aspects and features available for WM devices; the screens and Windows Mobile GUI improved markedly. The iPAQ and the soon-to-follow Dell Axim line practically owned this market in the US. 12-bit graphics gave way to 16-bit graphics and to larger screen VGA devices (see iPAQ 210) and many developers added VGA versions of apps to take advantage of the higher screen resolutions. Several games were notably upgraded/developed to exploit the better screens to amazing levels of clarity (Flux Challenge, Need For Speed, etc). 
 
Flux Challenge…one of the hot games for the Pocket PC featuring 3D graphics…
 
However, many puzzling Windows Mobile issues were left untended, like the much-complained about “close” button or Windows “X” that appears in the upper right corner of an active application window. In normal Windows, clicking the X would normally close down the application and stop the related processes. In WinMo, this action simply “minimizes” the application leaving it to use up precious memory in the background (usually unkown to the user). The iPAQs were equipped with an effective task manager (iTask, for example) to address this problem, but it requires opening essentially a separate application to close the first one. MS didn’t make things easier by burying the utility to clean-up running apps a couple of levels deep in the device settings, where many users would rather not venture. Several add-on applications sprung up to address this need as well (by making the X actually stop the app), but it remained a common gripe.
 
The iPAQ devices, like most WM-based devices, are especially sensitive to running out of program memory. If enough apps are using up resources at the same time, the device will become unstable and tend to freeze up or act erratically and have to be soft-reset (like a reboot). The older pre-WM 5 models used volatile RAM for running as well as storing installed apps and data. A non-volitile ROM area was provided (called the iPAQ File Store) for data that you wished to be protected from hard reset. Additional memory and enhanced program storage in the WM version 5 (and later) devices make it much easier to protect critical data and programs, and make program storage a lesser concern for many of these PDAs. Still, maintenance utilities are a useful addition (like MemMaid and SKTools) for cleaning up memory, the OS, and storage in general.
 
 
L-R: 3000, 1000, 4000, 5000, and 200 series devices.. 
 
iPAQ Model Variants 
The early iPAQ units were not exactly positioned as cheap or budget devices, but as the line matured, cheaper models were added with lesser capability to attract more consumer attention (there was even an early 3100 with a monochrome display). Several models featured the underpowered 200-300Mhz Samsung CPUs. The h19xx and rz1700 were notably in this category. They featured a single SD card slot, and less memory to store data. As apps became more prevalent, and because of the limited processor/memory combination, many WinMo power users started installing apps to external storage cards. This is an okay workaround, but can have drawbacks as well. Some apps start up with WinMo (like a service), for instance, and will encounter issues when the card isn’t mounted prior to this--like after a soft reset. Uninstalling is also a common problem, due to applications not finding files expected to be in a “default” location on the device, and thus leaving behind junk. Some clean-up utilities exist to remedy this problem, but often have trouble finding everything that inevitably gets left behind (esp. registry keys). Cleaner apps can also delete information required by other apps (like in temp), if not used carefully. In the case of my 3900, I install most games to SD card, and they usually work fine there (which saves more space for program memory). I have tried a few apps like XCPUScalar to overclock the processor of the unit. I can’t say that I noticed any marked improvement until I pushed the processor to more than it’s maximum, which usually resulted in an eventual crash. 
 
My HP netbook
 
iPAQ over a netbook…why?
So, you might be asking yourself why in the world would anyone want to buy an old iPAQ (or a new one). Why not just buy a WinMo phone, an iPhone, Palm Pre or G1, maybe? The latest phone devices feature hands-free and touch-sensitive control, as well as high-quality, and super high-res screens. Good question. With a contract you can get a phone device for almost nothing. The highly capable iPAQ form factors are mostly overpriced, regardless of the features added. The lower end models not capable enough. I guess the answer is ultimately up to you. Running Linux is pretty cool, and not a bad way to get exposed to both the iPAQ and Linux, but admittedly the Linux distros are rife with bugs and problems (Linux is also available for newer Phone models). The iPAQ bluetooth stack was considered superior than what was used on many other models, but maybe still not a compelling reason to buy one. You can add small hardware keyboards and even use a mouse with the iPAQ, as I pointed out in the opener. Why not just buy a netbook? It’s probably more capable and several vendors are selling netbooks now cheaper than some iPAQ models. You will find that an iPAQ is quite useful. I can do a ton of stuff with my iPAQ that I can’t do as easily with other devices (which we will delve into in coming posts). I feel that the reason the iPAQ is still sold today, is because it’s a hearty PDA unit, and who knows, maybe it might yet find a new niche, akin to what Apple did with the iPod touch. Let me know how you feel about the iPAQ. Love it or loathe it, you have to admit, it has managed to survive. 
 
Choosing an iPAQ
So, you’re sold… To hell with iPhone, and G1 and all the rest. You want to become a curmudgeonly iPAQ geek like me. Okay, well where do you start, right? Not an easy question, cause as you look at the chart below you see there are a ton of iPAQs out there (in many flavors). And HP is still charging high prices for the new ones. I list several used sites at the end, but even the better used models are garnering small fortunes. As I have pointed out, the hx2495b has provided the best iPAQ experience in my case. The CPU is compatible with most of the apps and peripherals I use, like the USB adapter that lets me use a real mouse/keyboard, and so for a PDA, is quite powerful. I have not completely run out my program memory yet, even when installing loads of apps during our best software award tests, but there is not a stable Linux release for it that I have found… :( , but there may soon be an Android build (more on that effort in an upcoming post), and there is an excellent cooked WM 6.1 build as noted before. The 2495 has a removable battery and HP offers replacements/externals (often one of the first things to wear out). I have a second battery and additional charger for it (which is very handy when on trips). Buying a used unit is a good option, but I would inquire (if possible) on the state of it first, and ask to see an actual picture if possible. If the screen is a wreck, and the buttons are all gummed up or worn out, you are not going to be very happy with it. I am also very fond of the the hx4700 models as well, but don’t currently have one. It sports a high-res VGA screen, and there are Angstrom Linux and cooked 6.1 images that support this highly capable PDA as well. The unit is also the only model that has a touchpad (like a laptop touchpad), in place of a traditional button-oriented d-pad. When the touchpad is used, a mouse-like pointer appears on the screen. How cool is that?
 
More factors to consider: 
HP has traditionally had good BT support incorporated into their iPAQ models (those that have it). This means access to a lot of different profiles, like file transfer, serial port, PAN network, etc. This is important if you wish to actually use your PDA connecting to a lot of various stuff-- for instance, add an external keyboard, GPS (via BT) and such. The newer 110/210 models include BT version 2.0 (which adds higher data rates). Obviously buying a new toy is no different than anything else. If you want a Mercedes, you have to pay for it. Just like with buying cars, HP also offers a trade-in program as well. Sadly, I can only get $51.00 for mine--the site will give you a quick quote. That’s a crappy price based on what other sites are asking for them used. So, you will likely do better on eBay or a similar site. The important thing is to do your homework, and pick a model that truly fits your needs. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to post a comment on our blogs, and I’m sure one of us can help make a recommendation. Start with some of the links at the end, and if you don’t find what you are looking for, there’s always Google. 
 
Note: The highlighted models in the chart below are considered top of the line (for that series) or have unique features.

**Note: Newer units now provide a larger flash ROM area for storage, but the bottom line is that in any model, a good backup tool (Sprite, or SPB) should be utilized to ensure that your data can be quickly restored. A good idea is to create a backup on an SD card, and keep the card in a safe place. As pointed out previously, you can also install programs to external storage cards, but that may present the problems mentioned above.

 

Applications and Products Mentioned here:

SKTools:  SKKV Software (great cleanup/tweak/backup utility)

XCPUScalar: immiersoft,com (for overclocking)

MemMaid: dinarsoft.com (tweak, cleanup and manage memory and much more)

Sprite Backup: spritesoftware.com (One of the first backup apps provided gratis with iPAQ units)

Spb Backup: spbsoftware.com (another great backup product)

StyleTap: Styletap.com (Palm emulation)

USBInput: Teksoftco.com (use mouse with iPAQ)

Flux Challenge: PDAMill (excellent pod racing)

Softmaker Office: Softmaker site (real mobile editing)

Solar Express Adapter card: twin-paradox site (adds a USB port to the iPAQ for mouse, etc.)

iGo Bluetooth Stowaway Keyboard: Hits from Amazon

 

Used iPAQs and repair sites

UsedHandhelds: iPAQs at UsedHandhelds

PPCTechs: ppctechs site (repairs, expansion, accessory)

Expansys (parts reseller site): expansys parts

eBay, Amazon, etc. or search Google….

 

New iPAQs:

iPAQs at Newegg: newegg.com

HP iPAQ PDA pages: hp.com

iPAQ Trade-in at HP: hp.com

 

Linux Distributions (work with some but not all iPAQs):

Familiar: familiar.handhelds.org

Angstrom: Angstrom org site

 

Credits (stuff I used to help me research, etc)

HP iPAQ handhelds: hp iPAQs sold today

Pocket PC Central (great info site): PPC Central site

Wikipedia: iPAQ on wikipedia

A New PDA: New PDA site (used for some of the table data above)

CNET Reviews: hCNET site

Mobility Today: Mobility Today

XDA developers: XDA site (get ROMs, info, hacks, etc)

I want to thank all the great gadget sites out there that made this post possible. I tried to give proper credit, but I simply couldn't remember all the sources I might have touched on to get information for this post. In the next post, I will focus more on iPAQ OS hacking/cooking efforts in the wild, so stay tuned for that. We might actually get to brick something for that one!! haha...iPAQ on!

 

Camille, please read my post

Camille, please read my post here for the information on doing this (also has DL links). The ROM should work for all hx2000 series devices. It is important to follow the steps provided (both in my post or at XDA devs), and make sure you have a backup of your data, in case something goes wrong. You also need to understand the risk of possibly screwing up your unit, which myself or nobody else should be expected to be responsible for...

Disclaimer: I am trying to state (pretty clearly) that I am not advocating using cooked ROMs. I'm simply reporting on it for journalistic purposes. I do not advocate software piracy of any kind, nor endorse such. Not only can doing this maybe void your warranty, it could be considered infringement upon HP or MS proprietary software that you have not licensed or paid for (put bluntly). I have to spew this disclaimer, because honestly I don't really don't know where the legality issue stands when using cooked ROMs. My gut says that HP or MS probably turns a blind eye to it for the benefit that tweakers like us provide, but it might also be considered a violation of the EULA that comes with practically all mobile technology. I don't honestly have an answer, but must err on the side of caution. I am not aware of any litigation or public announcements from either HP, or MS to this effect.

That said, good luck if you do intend to do this.

I must say W, that was the

I must say W, that was the hardest part of the review. That section at the end dicussing why pick an iPAQ at all. I musta changed it about 10 times, because honestly I can't come up with many compelling arguments in favor of it over other handhelds today. I personally hope to see a new iPAQ released (something akin to a G1-minus-phone) with truly innovative modern features incorporated. The 210 is impressive for a PDA, but most people will yawn when they note that it doesn't have an accelerometer, internal compass or a touch-sensitive/capacitive screen. I wanted to focus the first post on the history of the iPAQ. Personally, I think the older units are more interesting (with their expansion sleeves, etc).

I don't know what is on the horizon for newer iPAQ PDA's (if anything). Whatever it is, it would be nice to see it kick butt. I've often wished that my handhelds were "cable-ready" out of the box. I have wondered at ways to make them function as a small portable slingbox, for example. Maybe with an adapter or some IPTV/DVR app on the unit itself with a huge amount of internal storage. There are some app solutions out there, but I mean actually have a portable encode/decoder and storage (like a mini media server), right on the unit. I want something that goes and grabs all my favorite content (via subscription service). TV shows, movies, tech magazines (e-zines), blogs, etc through a high-speed local network connection (wireless or wired). The device might have to be a little larger than normal, but can be easily disconnected and taken with you. A plethora of A/V adapters/ports to send the view to an in-car viewing system or hotel room TV. That's one of my ideas, anyway. A truly useful iPAQ mobile entertainment center, you can easily dock it with your TV/stereo or PC as well (without Active Stink in the way).

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