Half phone, half PDA, with some laptop functionality thrown in for good measure, the Benq P50 is the mobile executive's dream, at least on paper. Combining a quad-band GSM cell phone, Windows Mobile-powered PDA with QWERTY keyboard and touchscreen display, and Wi-Fi enabled Web and Email capabilities into a handheld unit is no easy task. Was Benq up to challenge when it designed the P50? Yes ... and No.
The P50 has been called a "Treo knockoff," and while its screen-over-keyboard layout and overall dimensions are reminiscent of the Treo 650, to me it has something of a unique look and feel. At 122 x 60 x 20 mm and weighing 5.3 oz, the P50 is no featherweight, but it is quite comfortable to use and surprisingly well-suited to one-handed operation.
Housed in dark grey plastic, the P50's looks belie its all-business attitude. A 2.8" (diagonal) screen takes up roughly the top two-thirds of the front panel, with the bottom third given over to a row of silver controls - four soft keys flanking a center joystick - and an all-grey 39-button QWERTY keyboard below that. The alphanumeric keys are labeled in silver, with dual-function buttons sporting orange numeric labels as well. All front-panel buttons are backlit for better visibility during use. Two LEDs in the top right corner of the front panel provide battery and connectivity feedback, and small slits for the speaker (top) and microphone (bottom) are visible as well.
The phone lacks the scroll wheel found on some PDA phones, but this does make it equally suited to left- or right-handed users. Instead, a stylus that serves as the key to touchscreen functionality slides away into a holder molded into the upper right corner of the phone's back panel. I found the included metal and plastic stylus to be quite comfortable to hold and use. A rather large housing for the phone's 1.3 megapixel camera sensor takes up the top portion of the rear panel, and virtually the rest of the back is alloted to the 1240 mAh Li-On battery that powers the device.
A silver rocker switch for volume and one programmable soft key are found on the left edge of the P50, as is the battery lock switch. The right edge of the phone houses a dedicated camera key as well as the USB and headphone jacks, which are concealed by a rubber cover tethered to the body of the phone for safekeeping. The top panel of the handset has a single power button and an infrared port, while the bottom panel houses the AC adapter jack and SD/MMC memory card slot.
The overall look of the phone is business, business, business. While certainly not unattractive, the P50 lacks the flash and pizzazz so common amongst today's hip new handsets. Then again, the understated grey definitely carries some class with it. As the P50 is only available in an unlocked version, no carrier symbols or other branding is present save for a silver Benq logo just below the screen.
As mentioned, while the P50 is on the larger end of the mobile phone scale, it's quite comfortable in hand during use. Somewhat narrower and longer than competing devices like the T-Mobile MDA and Treo 600/650/700, the P50 felt very balanced in one hand during calls and stylus use. The QWERTY keyboard was another story, however, as the narrow body necessitates keys too small and too closely packed together for comfortable use. In fact, I wound up adopting a thumbnail-only technique on the keyboard since my thumb naturally spans two or three of the small, domed buttons. For the same reason, I also found myself using the virtual keypad on the touchscreen for phone dialing. Seeing as the QWERTY board is a major draw to a device like the P50, the too-small buttons proved a major design flaw in my eyes.
Another note: While many users will no doubt opt to leave the P50 tucked away in a pocket or case and use it for voice calls with a Bluetooth earpiece, I tested the phone primarily by holding it to my ear in the "conventional" manner. Since the touchscreen stays in phone keypad mode during calls by default, this led to many inadvertent cheek-to-screen key presses which, in turn, led to many key tones rather annoyingly interrupting my conversations.
Anyone considering a Benq P50 would be doing so for its extensive feature set. Running Microsoft Windows Mobile 2003 for Pocket PC SE (a version of the Win CE operating system), the P50 comes with mobile versions of MS Word, Excel, Internet Explorer, and Outlook pre-installed, and is capable of running hundreds of other productivity and entertainment applications. It should be noted that newer devices, including the TMobile MDA, now run Windows Mobile Version 5; the P50 cannot be upgraded to WM 5, though the forthcoming Benq P51 should run it.
The operating system is what sets a smartphone/PDA like the P50 apart from your average cell phone. Mobile data and document management is a big draw for smartphone users, and the P50 will let you view and edit Word and Excel documents, photos, Emails, calendar entries, and more wherever you are. While using a smartphone isn't as fast or easy as using a full-on laptop computer, it does open up a world of possibilities for on-the-go productivity on a day-to-day basis. The P50's 416mhz Intel Xscale processor coupled with 64mb of both RAM and ROM provides plenty of horsepower for most anything you'd want to do with the device, though you'll want to add additional document storage memory via an optional SD memory card as the 12MB of built-in memory allotted to user storage will fill up quickly.
The Benq P50 is one of a small handful of Pocket PC devices to offer both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity. Bluetooth allows the P50 to communicate with wireless headsets, computers, and other devices over short range. 802.11b Wi-Fi lets the P50 connect to wireless computer networks and Internet Hot Spots for broadband Web surfing, emailing, and other computer-like networking functions.
Having Wi-Fi on a phone is something of a dual-edged sword. On the one hand, while I was waiting for someone at a store the other day I was able to find an open Wi-Fi network, hop online, and check my email. How cool is that?. On the other hand, prolonged use of the Wi-Fi antenna is a real battery drain; after about an hour of Web surfing the P50 warned me that I'd better connect it to a charger or else risk some serious data loss.
Email and Web surfing both worked very well on the P50, though the layout of the QWERTY board makes it hard to use the available "landscape "(horizontal) screen layout mode, which is more naturally suited to browsing Websites. The Pocket PC version of Internet Explorer can't handle every Java and Flash-rich Website out there, but it let me see most pages I really wanted to view on the go.
With the proliferation of high-speed EDGE and EVDO data services in the United States, I can't help but wonder if paying an extra five dollars or so a month to T-Mobile would be a better way to access E-mail and basic Web services on the go than using a Wi-Fi phone like the P50. While Wi-Fi is certainly faster, open networks aren't as widely available as carrier-sponsored mobile web coverage, and EDGE connectivity (or EVDO in the case of Verizon or Sprint) uses battery power less quickly than Wi-Fi. Unfortunately, while the P50 supports GRPS data transfer, it lacks the faster transfer speeds offered by EDGE-capable devices.
The P50 is also a very capable multimedia device, using either the pre-installed Windows Media Player or a number of third-party and shareware media players now available. The integrated speakerphone is good for voice calling but doesn't do much justice to music or other stereo audio content. Photos and movies looked good on the QVGA screen, and the included stereo headset worked very well for music playback as well as handsfree calling. It's too bad Benq built the P50 with a 2.5mm audio jack, as a 3.5mm port would have allowed the use of any standard stereo headphones without the need for an adapter.
For a 1.3 megapixel sensor with flash, the P50's camera actually isn't all that impressive. Images captured by the camera are often blurry with somewhat washed out colors. Though the camera software offers myriad image settings and the included Pocket Studio application is capable of quite a bit of in-camera image editing, they ultimately couldn't compensate for weak hardware. The camera is certainly serviceable for taking photos for caller ID and mobile messaging, but far superior quality is available from other handsets with 1.3mp cameras.
The camera can also capture video in MPEG-4 format at resolutions up to 320 x 240. Again, the image quality here is serviceable but not particularly impressive. Given the P50's wealth of other features, the lackluster camera is either a major disappointment or not that big of a deal, depending on whether you're looking at the device as a multimedia powerhouse or pure business tool
The P50's functionality is really centered around its 2.8" touchscreen. Capable of displaying 65,00 colors at a QVGA resolution of 240 x 320, the screen is not quite state of the art, but is more than sufficient for a handheld. The touchscreen functionality works well, and the Windows Mobile software includes user calibration functionality. As with most handhelds, the screen exhibited some readability problems in direct, bright sunlight, but in general performed quite well. Benq includes a peel-off screen protector with the phone, and I highly recommend its use to keep the screen scratch-free. A cleaning cloth and leather case with belt clip case are also included.
Call quality on the P50 was good. With the one exception of a friend who said I sounded "like I was calling from a wind tunnel," I experienced satisfactory results using the earpiece, handsfree stereo headset, and built-in speakerphone. The quad-band 850/900/1800/1900 MHz GSM radio performed well on T-Mobile's network in the San Francisco area, pulling in reception on par with other quad-band phones I've tried in this area.
Stereo audio played using the included Windows Media Player software sounded good using the included stereo headset. As mentioned before, the P50 has a 2.5mm headset jack, which is standard for mobile phones but not compatible with standard 3.5mm stereo headphones.
The P50 also paired easily with Bluetooth headsets, though stereo Bluetooth is not supported. Audio quality of calls over Bluetooth was quite good.
Running Windows Mobile 2003 for Pocket PC SE, the P50 comes with mobile versions of Microsoft Outlook and MSN Messenger pre-installed, and can handle SMS and MMS messaging and POP3, IMAP, and push Email right out of the box. Connections can be made via GSM/GPRS cellular and 802.11b Wi-Fi networks, and the phone can sync with your PC's Outlook client via Bluetooth and/or USB. A plethora of other email and messaging clients are also available for Windows Mobile 2003, including AOL, Jabber, and Google Talk-compatible programs. The P50 is also capable of tunneling into home or office VPN networks (Virtual Private Networks).
A built-in 802.11b antenna supports connections to any Wi-Fi (WLAN) wireless broadband network. While the Windows Mobile connection manager isn't the most user-friendly program I've ever used, it is easy enough to configure the phone for use with your home or work networks (though I did have to enter a manual IP address for my home DHCP network). When the WiFi connection is switched on, the P50 automatically sniffs out any visible WLAN networks and offers you the choice of connecting to them; I used this feature several times to hop onto open WiFi networks when out and about. The phone also comes with a Skype installation CD for making Internet calls when connected to a wireless broadband network.
The drawback to using WiFi on a handheld device is battery drain. The P50's battery life is about average on par, but leaving the WiFi antenna on is a surefire way to run the battery down in a hurry. A power-saver WiFi mode is offered at the cost of slower connectivity, but if you're planning to use the P50 for WLAN connections, plan also to recharge the battery every night.
The P50 also supports GPRS data transfer over GSM cellular networks, but not the faster speeds of EDGE. The phone can also be used as a Bluetooth modem with your PC, though I was unable to set it up for similar use (or any sort of synching) with my Mac. The onboard SD/MMC memory card slot also supports SDIO connectivity via optional cards.
With built-in Bluetooth, USB, IR, and a removable SD/MMC card slot, the P50 will sync with your PC using the built-in ActiveSync software (a Windows-only application CD is included), and transfer files to a computer or other Bluetooth-equipped devices. Windows Mobile 2003 includes a remote control program which lets you control compatible PCs and home entertainment systems via Infrared, which is nifty. Mac users beware: I couldn't get the P50 to transfer files to/from my Mac, let alone sync via iSync or using shareware sync apps.
On paper, the Benq P50 offers just about everything a power user could want from a PDA phone: WiFi, QWERTY keyboard, Touchscreen, Megapixel camera, Bluetooth, and an operating system that supports Web browsing and Email out of the box and is customizable via myriad downloadable applications. While the phone didn't entirely disappoint me, I'm sorry to say that it didn't live up to my expectations, either.
The main problem I had with the P50 lay in its industrial design. For a device so large, the keyboard was frustratingly difficult to use. As such I found myself writing on the touchscreen with the stylus much more than typing, which made me wish I had a device that gave up the QWERTY board in favor of a smaller overall size. Though the Treo 600/650/700 phones have similar designs, they are overall wider devices with easier to use keyboards. Newer Pocket PC devices like the T-Mobile MDA feature horizontally-oriented keyboards that slide out from under the screen and are also more comfortable to use, though the phones are overall thicker and heavier than the P50.
The other issue with the P50 is the reality of using WiFi on a phone. No Pocket PC or Palm OS device can do everything a can. As such, the utility in mobile Internet access comes in quick bursts of access to text-heavy content such as checking Email and downloading driving directions, movie times, news./stocks/sports updates, and the like. High-speed cellular networks aren't as fast as WiFi, but they are fast enough for basic information retrieval. Additionally, most cellular data users will have network access wherever they have phone service, whereas an open WiFi network can't always be found. This may change in the next few years, but for now I found using a WiFi-enabled phone more of a novelty than a practical solution any connectivity problem; if I really want mobile access to the Internet, I think I'd be better off spending my money on an EDGE-equipped phone and T-Mobile's $6/month mobile Internet plan than a WiFi handheld like the P50. There's nothing worse than thinking you've got the Web in your pocket only to find that you've got to go back home in order to connect to a network.