The T-Mobile Ameo walks a tricky tightrope between smart phone and ultra-mobile PC. Yet it somehow manages a neat balancing act, impressing with its vast screen and blistering HSPDA connection, despite its finger-torturing keyboard.
The Ameo is made by HTC and is available only from T-Mobile, from free on its Flext 75 contract (£70 per month) to £430 on pay as you go. Unlimited Web access via T-Mobile's Web 'n' Walk package costs from £7.50 a month on top of your voice plan.
In spite of its admirably tough metal casing, the minimalist Ameo is no looker. It comes in two separate parts -- a streamlined main body, home to a huge 124mm (4.9-inch) touchscreen, and a slim, magnetic Qwerty keyboard. You can place this over the display to protect it in transit, with a transparent window that acts as a secondary time, date, reception and battery indicator. Or tug it off and slide it under the Ameo's short edge to support the display and type on the keyboard.
If that sounds unstable, it's because it is. Jab at the screen with the stylus or a finger and the Ameo topples backwards like it's starting a world-breaking domino run. But slip the Ameo into its surprisingly classy Filofax-style case and the brown leather wrap-around supports the rear of the screen, letting you prod it in safety.
The keyboard itself is a pain to use, with flat, unresponsive keys that have far too little travel for touch-typing. It's just slightly better than a BlackBerry for thumb typing. One further word of caution -- the keyboard magnets are very strong, hoovering up (and potentially corrupting) stray metallic goodies such as USB keys.
The Ameo has a spread of dedicated controls, including one-touch buttons for the 3-megapixel camera, Web browsing, Start menu, volume and a handy miniature joystick. Of course, you'll spend most of your time navigating via the sharp and speedy VGA display. While it doesn't have as many colours as Nokia's N-series handsets, its size and resolution mean that Web pages burst with detail and most icons are large enough to dispense with the stylus and use just your fingers.
T-Mobile is unlucky to have started shipping the Ameo with Windows Mobile 5 just as version 6 is arriving. But don't worry too much, as you've got a suite of tried-and-tested PDA features, letting you work on Word, Excel or PowerPoint documents, read Acrobat files and -- especially -- master surfing and messaging.
There are two browsers on board: Internet Explorer Mobile and Opera. T-Mobile has wisely chosen the latter, offering tabbed windows as the default browser for its all-you-can-surf Web 'n' Walk service. The Ameo is enabled for 3G and nearly-next-gen HSDPA surfing, promising speeds of up to 1.8Mbps.
The Ameo also has VueFlo, a motion sensor that allows you to steer your way around Web pages by simply tilting the device up, down, left or right. This is a little sticky and unresponsive to use, and would be much more impressive if it also worked in Office documents and emails.
All email and text messages are handled through a single, efficient Outlook-alike interface. Mail junkies can set up push emails, which are branded as T-Mobile Instant Email (£17 per month) but actually use good old BlackBerry technology.
Imaging is above average. The camera has autofocus and comes with a powerful LED light for night portraits. There are a handful of scene modes, metering options and a modest movie mode capable of fun little 352x288-pixel movies. You've also got Bluetooth for sending to compatible inkjet printers.
T-Mobile isn't making a big fuss of the built-in SiRF Star III GPS receiver, mainly because it has disabled it in units currently shipping. To activate it, you have to splash out an additional £187 on CoPilot's Navigator 6 software -- but expect reasonably priced bundles to hit T-Mobile stores in the next few months.
As a mobile Web device, the Ameo is hard to beat. Wi-Fi is easy to set up and T-Mobile's HSDPA service reliably delivers a 3G-stomping 600 to 800Kbps downstream, with the Opera browser easily able to keep up. You'll have trouble with Java and some streaming sites but for sharp, well-formatted, speedy browsing, there's little to rival it for broadband on the move.
The 3-megapixel camera isn't as good as those on Sony's Cyber-shot phones or most of Nokia's N-series handsets, but it delivers detailed, cartoon-bright stills in a range of conditions, even low light. Small, jerky movies are fine for shorter clips.
The stereo headset is predictably painful, both to look at (very plasticky) and to listen to (plenty of hiss and mush). You'd hardly think of using the Ameo as a phone, but voice calls are actually clear and strong, even if audio does emanate weirdly from both of its stereo speakers simultaneously. If you do have to make calls without a headset, talk into the joystick end of the device and get off the line quickly before passers-by start pointing and laughing.
Battery life is very good. After a fairly intensive 7-hour testing period, the Ameo intelligently shut down the power-draining Wi-Fi, but allowed HSDPA data traffic and PDA functions to continue. Still, you should probably charge it every day.
The Ameo keyboard is far too small and slow to allow real touch-typing, so it's no real competition for genuine laptop computers. But at the same time, and even with its GPS functionality disabled, it's faster and more powerful than almost every other smart phone out there -- and with a screen that's simply stunning.
Nokia's N800 has a faster, more colourful display, but it lacks cellular communications and suffers from weak, buggy PDA software. In contrast, the Ameo offers genuine broadband Web surfing and instant email on the move, either via Wi-Fi hotspots or lightning-fast HSDPA.
Of course, for the Ameo's SIM-free price, you could easily buy a budget laptop. But if you want to re-live the '80s experience and fit your entire working life into one Filofax-shaped device, the Ameo is well worth checking out.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Nick Hide