The Symbol MC50 is beyond a normal PDA -- the company claims that it is an enterprise digital assistant, or EDA. Basically this means that the device was designed to be used by managers in a production environment, where standard PDAs are inadequate. The MC50 is far more durable than any other Pocket PC I've seen, and includes a number of features that other devices can only have as add-ons, such as a CCD camera and bar code scanner. That means that instead of buying a standard PDA and attaching a host of add-ons, the MC50 integrates the features that most supervisors need to get away from their desk and out onto the sales floor or into the stock warehouse.
The first thing I noticed about the MC50 was its solid construction. Symbol claims it has been drop-tested to three feet on tile-over-concrete. That's sufficient for most belt-to-floor or desk-to-floor mishaps. The casing is thick, solid plastic, and the recessed screen is well protected from impact. It's also easy to hold due to an integrated elastic strap on the back that you can slip your hand through. It's a good thing that strap is there, too -- at roughly 6.5oz, the Symbol MC50 is a bit heavier than most consumer-grade PDAs.
The stylus is metal with a plastic tip, and it's tethered to the device itself. I found that the tether got twisted if I wrote more than a few words using the Windows Mobile 2003 handwriting transcriber, but aside from that, it certainly kept the stylus from wandering off on its own.
The backlit keypad is comprised of hard, calculator-like buttons, and I found it highly convenient as a complement to the stylus. Sometimes, when the transcriber misses its mark, it's easier to drop the stylus and use the keypad to make a correction.
The SD memory slot comes with a protective cover that requires a Phillips screwdriver to remove. You can leave the cover off if you frequently change SD cards, but I found it to be a great way to protect the slot from pocket lint and other outside contamination.
The screen is a standard 240x320 65535-color QVGA LCD display. A speaker is integrated into the rear of the device, and a microphone on the upper face.
The bar code scanner has a range of a few feet, but it works better at closer distances. Shiny surfaces will have to be set at an angle to get a proper bar code reading. I found that there were a few garbage characters preceding every bar code I read, though it is possible that there were special characters at the beginning of the bar codes that were undocumented.
There are two "trigger" buttons on the MC50, one on either side, about where your thumb would rest if you held the device in either hand, and an extra button on the right side. The two identical triggers are what you would ordinarily use to activate the camera or bar code scanner, though they can be reprogrammed through software if you like. There is also a volume control button that can quickly adjust the device's sound level without having to use the stylus.
A mini headphone jack is located at the top of the unit, but I didn't get a chance to test it -- I don't have compatible headphones.
The power button is easily activated with either your finger or the stylus, and you can configure the device to power on when pressing any of the buttons or touching the screen. I found this behavior annoying, since it is extremely easy to depress the trigger buttons when removing or installing the MC50 in its holster. You certainly wouldn't want to waste battery life unnecessarily (though the MC50 is great with battery life -- I couldn't wear it out in a reasonable amount of time). There is a power lock on the rear of the device, but you need to activate it with the stylus. A key lock that prevents the MC50 from turning on is more easily accessed on the right side of the device, but it doesn't lock the power button -- this was a more useful feature to me than the power lock. There is also a stylus-activated reset button, which you'll frequently need to get out of Windows Mobile 2003 crashes.
|The Symbol MC50 (click to enlarge)|
Onboard memory is limited to 64MB, which is divided between storage and application usage. Though Symbol representatives say that their customers generally find that amount of memory adequate, it's behind the industry standard of 128MB, and you'll really feel the crunch if your custom software is at all memory-intensive, or if you have multiple programs to install.
The CPU is a 520Mhz Intel XScale, which is quite a bit more powerful than most standard ARM-based PDAs. You won't hurt for CPU power with the MC50, but as stated above, the lack of sufficient memory is a significant performance bottleneck.
An 802.11b wireless network chip with an internal antenna is integrated into the MC50. I found its range to be comparable to most internal laptop computer wireless cards. Onboard wireless networking allowed me to almost completely replace my laptop computer when I had to be away from my desktop.
The base unit is powered through an AC adapter, and can connect to a PC via a USB 1.1 connection. The ActiveSync connection software, which is only available for Windows, is required to connect to the MC50. I didn't have any luck connecting to it through GNU/Linux, but I only gave it a minimal effort. The base unit also has an extra slot for charging a second battery.
The Symbol MC50 comes with Windows Mobile 2003 by default, though according to the company it is able to work with Windows Mobile 5.0 (2005). As is typical of most Pocket PC devices, Windows Mobile is prone to frequent lockups and crashes, and doesn't come with an adequate selection of application software. The most annoying shortcoming of the software is the lack of a competent file manager; it is impossible to delete files from the machine without buying third-party file management software.
Symbol includes several test applications to verify and modify the various special functions of the device.
There is no Palm-compatible edition of the MC50, and it is unknown if any other operating systems (GNU/Linux, BSD) will work on this device.
Overall I found the Symbol MC50 to be an excellent portable computer. It successfully extends a business desktop system to remote locations, and could be a valuable tool for managers and executives who need to be in their office and on the shop floor at the same time.
I'd prefer to see a Palm- or Linux-based edition of this device. The general instability of Windows Mobile, its usability shortcomings, and the lack of adequate software makes the operating system the weakest part of the MC50. From a hardware perspective, the Symbol MC50 is among the best and most useful digital assistants I've ever tested. The only possible point of argument is the relatively small amount of onboard memory, but the negative effects of that deficiency can be countered by proper software management and the addition of an SD memory card.
Many people will find the MC50's price to be a dealbreaker -- it retails for anywhere between U.S. $800 (for a reduced feature edition) to more than $1200. This isn't a standard $300 PDA with a higher price tag, though; a large part of the MC50's value is its specialized feature integration, which eliminates the need for many expensive and cumbersome extra peripheral add-ons. I think that was an intelligent decision, and other PDA/EDA manufacturers should take Symbol's example and extend it to other industries and uses. PDAs in their current form could benefit from a little niche market specialization ala the MC50, but I'm not convinced that $1200 is a reasonable price to anyone outside of a large business.
|Device||Pocket PC enterprise digital assistant|
|Device support||One SD memory card slot; one mini headphone jack; and one proprietary expansion connector.|
|Market||Store managers and executives who need a durable, retail-oriented PDA.|
|Price (retail)||US ~$1200 (Buy it from Amazon.com)|
|Product Web site||Click here|