Like Windows Mobile, the PH's core operating system is Windows CE, version 4.1. Bsquare's decision to replicate the Windows XP user interface again signals the type of user it's targeting: someone who wants the immediate familiarity of the Start Menu, My Computer, My Documents, Control Panels and so on. True to PDA users, the PH also features the usual PIM applications, though the contacts database is an adjunct to its phone application, which provides all the mobile phone functionality you'd expect.
Alongside it there's an Outlook-style combined email and SMS messaging application, plus Microsoft's own pocket versions of Internet Explorer and Word. Rather than license Excel too, Bsquare bundles its own, compatible spreadsheet, but it does look to Microsoft for the device's media player utility.
Other applications can be downloaded or zapped across from a host PC via the PH's bulky USB cradle and Microsoft's ActiveSync. The unit ships with 128MB of RAM plus a 64MB Flash disk, so there's plenty of space for documents and apps. Processing horsepower is delivered by a 400MHz Intel XScale, but Bsquare thoughtfully provides a control panel to drop it down to 200MHz to help conserve battery power. Neatly, the switch takes place on the fly.
Like PalmOne, Bsquare is pitching PH at mobile phone networks rather than users themselves. Not only are carriers likely to buy in larger volumes, but they're better able to swallow part of the up-front hardware cost in order to put the device out at a more affordable price in the hope of recouping the subsidy through GPRS data tariffs.
In the UK, Bsquare's first and so far only partner is Vodafone, and the PH's Today screen - the equivalent of PocketPC's readout of current appointments and unread emails - is suitably red of hue. In a mood of typical Reg iconoclasm, I ignored all this and used my official handset's O2 SIM. The radio is a dual-band 900/1800MHz unit, but Bsquare also provides a model with a 900/1900MHz transceiver. Using the Phone application to choose the right network was easy, and setting up a new GPRS connection shortcut wasn't much harder. For corporate users, the PH supports VPNs using IPsec and PPTP clients.
One problem: opening a GPRS connection in an application breaks that link when the app is closed - even when there's a second application running that's also using GPRS. It's easy to quit the email app, having read your new messages, only to find that the browser you had running in the background suddenly has to re-open the connection.
GPRS doesn't provide great download speeds, but it can't be beaten for coverage. Surfing the web isn't zippy, but with a 640 x 480 display at least you get most sites to appear the way they do on a notebook or desktop. The real benefit of the screen is not for Internet access but the ability to get a decent view documents, typically sent as email attachments. These open in PH's office apps, where they can be edited and sent back. Bsquare's Spreadsheet doesn't display all the cell formatting data, but it doesn't remove it either, so it's all there when the file is returned.
PowerPoint users will be disappointed. Editing presentations isn't supported - a big omission - though there is at least a viewer app, which can also display PDFs. Bsquare also provides a Zip tool for archives.
Editing a file or writing an email requires the keyboard. The slider mechanism is smooth with a positive lock when the keyboard is fully extended. The keys give the PH the feel of a classic palmtop. They're small, and there's an audible click when they're pressed. The numeric keys are inlaid into the QWERTY layout and selected using a Function (FN) key.
Holding the device in both hands and using my thumbs to type proved comfortable and enabled reasonably fast text entry. It's certainly much easier to use than a Treo or Blackberry micro-keypad. You might not want to compose your magnum opus on it, but I was able to bash out a good portion of this review on it.