O2 Xda Atom Life (GSM Triband) Handheld - Review

O2 Xda Atom Life (GSM Triband) Handheld - Review

The Xda Atom, Atom Pure and Atom Exec have been charmers and, if you ask us, a handheld that looks good is already half the battle won. With the Atom Life, a faster processor, a generous 1GB onboard memory and loads of connectivity features such as 3G and HSDPA (3.5G) completes the equation. But at a sticker price of S$1,428 (US$939.03), the Windows Mobile 5.0 handheld isn't for everyone on the street.

Design of the O2 Xda Atom Life Handheld

Ok, we confess we're not big fans of glossy handhelds, but if you have a high tolerance for smudgy surfaces, the O2 Xda Atom Life is undeniably sexy. The first Atom had a highly successful design, as did the Atom Exec that came after it. So it's not at all surprising that this latest iteration commands the same head-turning effect.

We have no gripes with the size and weight of the Atom Life which is 0.5mm slimmer than the Atom Exec, though the difference is barely noticeable. Below the 2.7-inch LCD is the main control pad of the handheld. A circular directional pad pulls double duty as volume keys and music track selector and, accompanying the Call and End keys on the sides are a pair of stereo speakers that croon music. Unlike handhelds that have their speakers on the underside which could possibly muffle sound, audio output on the Atom Life isn't much better, bordering on the soft side. Bass, too, is also rather weak with the bundled earbuds.

The Atom Life uses the same 2.7-inch QVGA screen as its predecessor. It's not exceptionally large, and we find it a comfortable (barely) size for daily texting, Web surfing and document viewing. The screen washes out slightly in direct sunlight, though, and we had to turn it up a few notches on the brightness scale. Above the LCD is where you find a VGA camera for video telephony and a sunken grill where you hear the voice of the other party on the line. In idle mode, an intermittent green light flashes to signal that you're connected to the operator's network.

On the back of the Atom, you will find a 2-megapixel CMOS camera, a self-portrait mirror and a white LED strobe flash. The handset comes with 1GB of onboard flash memory and there's an option for you to switch to a miniSD card for extra storage on the top edge of the unit. Should you decide to see the 1,530mAh Lithium-polymer battery in its full glory which, frankly, isn't very exciting to look at, slide down the battery cover. The good thing is the handset doesn't power down like some others when you do that.

What we didn't fancy were the dedicated buttons on the sides of the Atom. Yes, they look nice with embossed symbols pointing to the different functions, but that's about all there is to it. The keys didn't respond too well to our presses and often we had to consciously push the buttons in for the unit to register the key press. When we had the device to our ear, it was hard to feel the volume keys since they sit almost flushed with the surface. On a different note, the stylus stayed firmly in its holder and removing it required a little bit of effort and, occasionally, your nails.

Features of the O2 Xda Atom Life Handheld

As we mentioned earlier, the Atom Life runs on Windows Mobile 5.0, so you get the standard office applications such as Word Mobile, Excel Mobile and PowerPoint Mobile to create new, edit and view Word and Excel documents on the move. You cannot to edit PowerPoint slides with the application, yet, but you can rehearse for your presentation while on the way to your next destination.

Face it, no one wants to carry a dodgy, 1980s era mobile around these days. A flashy handheld that ups your fashion quotient is almost a prerequisite, but the innards that power the handset complete the equation. Here, the Atom Life runs on the Intel XScale processor at 624MHz, inching it ahead of the comparatively slower 520MHz Atom Exec. While you cannot specify what speed the processor should run at, you can select for better performance or power in the CPU profile. Flash memory also got a generous five-fold increase from 192MB to 1GB on the Atom Life--that's about 250 MP3 tracks of 4MB each for your daily dose of music.

Connectivity-wise, the triband (900/1800/1900MHz) Atom Life is a bundle of joy. There's 3G and HSDPA (High-speed Downlink Packet Access) which is capable of reaching claimed speeds of up to 3.6Mbps. The catch is you'll have to subscribe to a data plan with your local telco. Alternatively, you can tap on Wi-Fi networks via the wireless manager if you're near a hotspot. The thing about hotspots is they are usually detected only within a certain perimeter and, once you're out of the zone, the signals drop and the handheld will automatically try to connect to a GPRS network instead. If you're browsing graphics-intensive sites, be prepared to wait slightly for the pages to load.

There's also the more mundane infrared and Bluetooth; the latter supports Advanced Audio Distribution (A2DP) for streaming to your Bluetooth stereo headset. O2 bundles a travel adapter with four plugs (UK, US, EU, AU) for use in different countries and connects to the Atom Life via miniUSB, the same port used for synchronization with ActiveSync. Synchronization with our desktop and Outlook is a breeze. Once connected, the program is activated and goes on to sync data between the two terminals and, at the same time, trickle charge the handheld. You can also synchronize with an Exchange server and the Atom is Direct Push-enabled so your emails are delivered to your handheld once the server receives it.

Other entertainment goodies include an FM radio and a 2-megapixel camera. The bundled headset which doubles as the antenna for FM reception, goes into the 2.5mm hole beside the miniUSB port. During our tests, the Atom Life managed to detect most, if not all, of the free-to-air frequencies. If the station supports Radio Data System (RDS), then you'll also get the station name and its genre on the screen.

On the digital imaging aspect, don't expect the Atom Life to replace your compact digital camera with its barebones feature set and average image quality. Pressing the camera and video key activates the 2-megapixel shooter on the rear and the screen promptly changes to landscape orientation. Although you can still adjust settings such as white balance, saturation, contrast and sharpness, at 1,280 x 1,024 and 1,600 x 1,200 resolutions, you cannot zoom in on your snaps. If for any reason your photos didn't turn out the way you wanted them to, there's an Image Editor program that won't perform miracles, but will save your shots with fancy frames and clipart.

Several programs come preinstalled on the Atom Life. If you live your life in a mess (or simply cannot be bothered most of the time), you'll appreciate the O2 MediaPlus--a single interface from which you can access and categorize all your multimedia files. There's a hard button on the control pad on the face of the handheld for this purpose, but it doesn't light up like the Call, End keys and the soft buttons. You don't need a rocket scientist to figure out how the application works. For example, in My Music, selecting the update library option prompts the handheld to search and add music files to the library. Pressing up/down on the circular navigation dial cycles between the various folders and the center button confirms your selection. Or you can also go the idiot-proof way of tapping on the screen with the stylus.

Other useful applications such as the O2 Connect keep your Atom up-to-date with software upgrades and downloads; the O2 SMS Plus allows you to schedule when a particular text message should be delivered--especially important if you want to score brownie points with your other half to show that you actually remembered when was the first time you kissed her. There's also an Equalizer program but it doesn't work with A2DP.

Performance of the O2 Xda Atom Life Handheld

As with most touchscreen handhelds, sans a physical or QWERTY keypad, getting used to the onscreen keyboard can be trying at times when you type blind. If you're in a moving train, you become an instant hazard to other travelers since your eyes will be perpetually fixed on the LCD. In addition to the O2 Connect and O2 SMS Plus, there's also the O2 Phone Plus that enables smart dialing on the Atom Life. Unless you can remember all 500 numbers of the people on your contact list, you'll need this program. Let's say you want to call TechTaxi. You have to key in 8, 3, 2, 4, 8, 2, 9, 4 on the onscreen numeric pad, after which you get a filtered list of phonebook entries that have the letters "TechTaxi".

On moderate usage, the Atom Life kept us entertained for about three days before calling it quits.

Phone reception and call quality were generally good although audio on our side was a bit hollow. The party on the other end could hear us fine, but once we switch to the speakerphone, audio quality dropped and it sounded like we were in a big room, with us and the phone on opposite ends. Video calls, on the other hand, weren't fantastic but it got its job done.

Loading applications overall was decent. We had a video file running in the background and still managed to open Word Mobile in about 2 seconds. Like other handhelds running on Windows Mobile, clicking the cross on the top-right corner only minimizes the application. Users have to periodically clear the running programs either by using the O2 shortcut application button (which is much faster) or the memory setting in the menus. Powering up the camera was sluggish at 3 seconds and there's a noticeable shutter lag of about 2 seconds.

We ran a 116MB, 320 x 180-pixel video file at 24bits smoothly on the Windows Media Player 10 Mobile. Like we mentioned earlier, audio output with the onboard speakers could do with a little more power. Transferring the same clip out to our 1GB SanDisk miniSD card took 5 minutes, which isn't lightning fast, neither is it a major minus. Watching videos on the Atom Life is what we call a one-man show since the 2.7-inch screen has a narrow viewing angle, which means your friends beside you won't really enjoy the show.