Asus MyPal A636 GPS-Enabled Pocket PC

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INTRODUCTION

    A number of
manufacturers have begun releasing Windows Mobile
Pocket PCs targeted at the GPS Navigation market.
These devices usually include a built in GPS
receiver and bundled navigation software. The nice
thing about these types of Pocket PCs is they often
cost less than a stand-alone or in-car GPS
Navigation system… and they’ve got many more
features. The downside is that they may be a bit too
complicated for the average user. The Asus A636 is the first
of such Pocket PC Mobile Navigators running on Windows Mobile 5.0.
We’ll take a thorough look at the execution of this combination. Read on for the review!

WHAT’S HOT

    The Asus A636 has a 416Mhz Intel XScale
processor, 3.5" QVGA screen, 128Mb Flash ROM (60Mb + 25Mb
partition user accessible), 64Mb RAM, built in SiRF
StarIII GPS with 25mm antenna, SDIO slot, Bluetooth
1.2, and WiFi 802.11b. It’s also bundled with Destinator
Pocket Navigator 5 and a 256Mb SD card containing an auto-installer for the software.

(all images link to higher resolution)




Device (no cover)

Size (inches)

Weight (grams | ounces)

Asus A636

4.80" x 2.88" x 0.76"

186 | 6.56


4.25" x 2.28" x 0.93"

160 | 5.64
4.92" x 2.81" x 0.71"
210 | 7.40
4.18" x 2.31"
x 0.68"

150 | 5.30

4.70" x 2.90" x 0.70"

175 | 6.20
4.60" x 3.21"
x 0.58"

138 | 4.80


5.17" x 3.03" x 0.59"

187 | 6.60

4.50" x 2.80" x 0.64"

158 | 5.57

4.48" x 2.75" x 0.53"

120 | 4.23

4.68" x 2.95" x 0.73"

190 | 6.70

4.57" x 2.95" x 0.63"

142 | 5.01

4.71" x 3.01 " x 0.65"

164 | 5.80

5.43" x 3.30" x 0.63"

206 | 7.26

Click on any of the above links to view our
review of a handheld listed.

THE DEVICE

    Let’s take a closer look at the device
itself. The Asus A636 also comes with a USB cable
adapter with power plug,
a car cigarette lighter adapter, an AC adapter,
windshield mounting arm, cradle for mounting arm, software CD and
manual.


    The PDA’s design is a bit retro. Most Pocket PCs
these days have a more hidden speaker, yet on the
Asus A636, you’ve got a big circular speaker grill
that echoes back to the boom boxes of the 80’s. This
is intended to emphasis the high quality speaker that was used
here. In
the center you see the directional pad along with
the action button. When you’re in Destinator PN, the
icons represent


The bottom of the device is where you’ll find the
reset button, the proprietary sync USB port, and the
3.5mm headset jack covered with a rubber flap.


On the right side you’ll see the hinge for the GPS
antenna and the infrared port.


The top of the device is where you’ll find the SD
slot, power button, and stylus silo.


The left side is a set of grooves. There
are notches in these grooves that will make the
device snap securely into it’s car-mounting cradle.


    On the back of the device you’ll see how the GPS
antenna opens and rotates. There’s also the battery
cover and a switch labeled "hold." The hold switch
locks down the device and shuts of the screen so
that it can’t be used. This is a nice feature for
keeping the device in the car as a navigation system
since you don’t have to shut off the GPS software.
If you use the power switch while the GPS software
is running, it will have to be restarted when you
turn the device back on. The hold button can also be
used to get optimized battery life while listening
to Windows Media Player (up to 18 hours).


    One potential problem with the GPS antenna on the
back is when you snap it down into place, the image
on the screen gets distorted as if there was
pressure on the liquid crystals from behind. I’m not
sure if that could eventually damage the screen, but
it’s kind of scary. 


    The suction-based windshield mount and cradle is
very sturdy, and has an interesting side-holding design. There’s a ball swivel where the cradle
attaches to the mount arm which lets you position
the cradle in any way you want. The cradle also has
a power adapter plug so that you can keep the Asus
A636 charged at all times. It does not have an
audio-out port however, so you’ll have to use the
built in speaker instead of your car stereo. That
also means you won’t be able to listen to MP3s in
Media Player at the same time. 


Regarding size, the Asus A636 (second from bottom) is nothing special. It’s
about average in all dimensions compared to other 3.5" screen sized PPCs.






INTEGRATED SOFTWARE

    The Asus A636 includes a 256Mb
SD card with the Destinator software and map data
preloaded. There are also a few minor modifications
to the Windows Mobile 5.0 base set of applications.

In the Settings tab there’s a "Wakeup Source"
control panel that lets you choose which items can
make the device wake up from standby mode.

  

    The Mode Switcher settings dialog gives you some
options for the added "Mode Switcher" application
which you can access via a hardware key. The Display
Settings tab lets you choose which applications or
functions you can load quickly from the Mode
Switcher.

Pressing the Mode Switcher hardware button gives you
quick access to a number of applications.

There’s a nifty "Asus Status" application in the
system tray that gives you quick access to various
status-related items in your Pocket PC…

…which can be customized to some degree.

The WiFi manager is pretty basic. The "Link to"
menu items actually bring you to those native system
control panels.

The Asus A636 uses the Widcomm Bluetooth stack and
does support the A2DP high quality stereo audio
profile.

There’s an Audio control panel that gives you some
nice settings not normally found in Windows Mobile
devices.

In the Power Control panel you have some options for
setting the speed of the CPU.

There’s a control panel that allows you to change
the settings for the USB interface.

Destinator PN

The Asus A636 comes with a modified version of the
Destinator Pocket Navigator 5 software. It’s not
bundled in the ROM, but rather on the included SD
card which will auto-install when inserted.

    The map view shows a lot of icons on the sides that
are hard to understand. They’re transparent though,
so you can still see the map underneath. Another
nifty feature is that green arrow changes its
pointy-ness depending on how fast your going. For
example in the above screen shot, you can tell I’m
not moving because the bottom of the arrow is flat.
Another cool thing is that the shadow there is based
on the current time of day and my location on the
Earth. That’s right, it calculates the angle of my
shadow!

    The second icon down from the top left corner
toggles between display modes. Here we are in the 2D
night mode. The icon actually indicates the mode
that you WILL switch to if you press it… not the
current view mode like you would expect.

Here we are in the 3D daylight view mode.

And this is the 3D night view mode.

    The two icons on the lower left corner of the screen
toggle between showing different types of
information in those two transparent bands next to
them. I don’t have time to learn what the icons mean
while driving, so I’ll just keep tapping them until
they show the information I’m looking for. These
icons also represent the type of information that
will be displayed when you press them, NOT the type
of information currently being displayed.

    When you’re moving, most of the icons become even
more transparent. That Compass-like icon on the left
shows which direction is North. It functions like a
button, but pressing it doesn’t seem to do anything.
The little red part just points North all the time.

If you’ve set a destination, your recommended route
shows up as a blue and white line. How do you enter
a destination, you ask?  You have to press the
little car button underneath the compass.

When you have a destination set, some other options
become available as more info bars which you can
show and hide.

    If it’s time for you to make a turn soon, Destinator
will show a big arrow for the direction you’re going
to turn. Notice how my map has disappeared again. 
One thing that’s not easily toggle-able is the info
band on the top. You turn this on by pressing the
button in the upper left corner, but tapping that
area again brings you to the following screen.

    Now, how do you get back to the map screen from
here?  I don’t know. The "Show" button shows
you the selected turn. You would think the "Cancel"
button would get you back to where you want to be,
but actually it cancels the whole trip and will stop
directing you. Anyway, this screen lists all the
turns on your trip, and you can select certain areas
to avoid as well.

    Getting back to entering a destination: after you
figure out how to press the little car button on the
map screen, the above screen will show up. The
buttons are selectable with the D-Pad, but the two
side-arrow buttons on the bottom are not. They are
not mapped to the Windows Mobile soft keys as you
might expect either. You have to press those with
your finger.

    The interface for entering an address is a bit
confusing. That button in the upper left, just below
the left arrow. It looks like a house with an arrow.
That button lets you toggle between which type of
data you’d like to start searching by. Right now
it’s set as City first. Once you select a city, you
tap the "Street" text at the top to select a street
in that City and so forth. When you finish, you have
to press the "Navigate" button at the bottom left.

The History buttons gives you quick access to places
you’ve already entered.

    The Contacts button lets you select an address from
you Contacts database. I really dislike the keyboard
interface here. If you pause too long between taps
for accessing a specific letter, it starts over from
the beginning of the set. It might be okay if it was
T9 predictive text input, but it isn’t.

The POI button gives you a number of categories for
points of interest.

The Trip planner lets you enter multiple
destinations.

On the Destination screen, pressing the right arrow
gives you an options screen.

Pressing the right arrow again gives you the
Settings screen.





BENCHMARKS

   Since Spb Benchmark from

Spb Software House
has
not been updated for use with Windows Mobile 5.0,
which includes many changes for increased
performance and battery life, we can only compare
Windows Mobile 5.0 devices to other Windows Mobile
5.0 devices.

In real life, the Asus A636 does have decent
performance and tends to handle multi-tasking
operations better than the imate K-JAM, yet lacks
the graphics performance and speed of the Dell X51v.

BATTERY
    We
tested the 1,300 mAh battery on 50% backlight during
normal usage with GPS on. 
The battery lasted for about 8 hours 23 minutes in
that scenario. With zero utilization and 50%
backlight the
device lasted 16 hours 24 min. With video playback,
the battery lasted 2 hours 55 min.  During
normal usage, there is
certainly an excellent increase in battery life for
an Intel processor based Pocket PC.  

HELP SUPPORT

   

While the

Asus website
can be large and unwieldy in terms
of navigation, there is an excellent

download section
for updating your device. A new
ROM version has already been posted here. A nice
thing about Asus’s method of upgrading the ROM is
that it can be done by launching a file downloaded
to the SD card. That means you don’t have to search
for that USB sync cable if you’ve got an SD card
reader. There are also plenty of other support
options available on

their website
.

BUGS AND WISHES

   
One issue with the Asus A636 is that the Destinator PN
GPS navigation software that comes with it can
become a bit slower if you’re using
map sets that are larger than 100Mb. While it’s
still usable, the best way
to optimize the speed is to use a bunch of smaller maps by
cutting up the data using the Destinator Console
software. There’s also a USA streets map set that
can be used to link all of your smaller map sets
together for traveling longer distances. One other problem I had was if
you’re in a parking lot that’s pretty far from the
street, Destinator might not be able to create a route
to your destination because the origin is "not
drivable." Destinator is scheduled to release a
new version of the mapping software in the second
quarter of 2006 and Asus is hoping to provide a free upgrade for users who have already purchased
an a636 device. 

     I
wish the car mount and dock would have an audio-out
port so that the device could be used as an audio
player for the car as well as a navigation system.
Right now you can only hear Destinator’s voice
prompts through the little speaker on the front.

PURCHASING

   

The Asus A636 can be found at couple of online
retailers right now. At

Expansys
and

MobilePlanet
you can get it for $599.95. It includes a 256Mb SD card and a set of CDs that
include the Destinator software and maps of North
America.


PROS



  • Built in SirfSTAR III GPS receiver


  • Widcomm
    Bluetooth stack with A2DP


  • Great battery life


  • Included windshield mounting system


  • USB settings options



  • Built in SirfSTAR III GPS receiver


  • Widcomm
    Bluetooth stack with A2DP


  • Great battery life


  • Included windshield mounting system


  • USB settings options


  • Built in SirfSTAR III GPS receiver


  • Widcomm
    Bluetooth stack with A2DP


  • Great battery life


  • Included windshield mounting system


  • USB settings options

CONS

  • No
    dedicated soft-keys
  • Car mount
    doesn’t have audio out port
  • Proprietary sync cable
  • No VGA screen
  • No
    built-in TMC support
Value
Ease
of Use
Features

Overall

What
do these ratings mean
?

OVERALL IMPRESSION

    Overall, the Asus A636 is an excellent multi-use
device for in-car navigation. While the form factor isn’t
exactly innovative, the large screen is good for
viewing maps while driving. A VGA screen would have
been nicer, but would have also made the price
prohibitive and the battery life dismal.


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About The Author
Adam Z. Lein
Adam has had interests in combining technology with art since his first use of a Koala pad on an Apple computer. He currently has a day job as a graphic designer, photographer, systems administrator and web developer at a small design firm in Westchester, NY. His love of technology extends to software development companies who have often implemented his ideas for usability and feature enhancements. Mobile computing has become a necessity for Adam since his first Uniden UniPro PC100 in 1998. He has been reviewing and writing about smartphones for Pocketnow.com since they first appeared on the market in 2002.Read more about Adam Lein!