T-Mobile's MDA Compact III is the first handheld with a built-in GPS antenna to be announced by a network operator in the UK. That's not to say there aren't other handhelds with GPS built in, but this is the first time you can get it with an operator subsidy.
The MDA Compact III has some other goodies, including an FM radio -- extremely rare for a Windows Mobile Pocket PC. There's a clever user-interface system that we like too, comprising a wheel and tiny trackball rather than a boring old blocky navigation button.
T-Mobile has a longstanding association with navigation software specialist ALK, and you can get the MDA Compact III with its CoPilot software for tariffs from free to £250, and without it from free to £160.
Slate grey is the order of the day for the MDA Compact III, the colour only punctuated on the left and right edges by silver metal strips containing various buttons and on the front by button markings, device logos, and the curious and extremely effective wheel and mini trackball that sit beneath the screen. The overall effect is stylish and understated.
For a handheld with GPS built in, the MDA Compact III is quite small. No taller than many candybar phones (108mm), it's 58mm wide and 16mm thick, and should feel comfortable in all but the smallest of hands. At 160g it's not exactly light, but if you're after a navigation device it's certainly lighter than carrying both a standalone sat-nav and a phone.
The touch-sensitive screen is bright and sharp. Its 240x320 pixels are squeezed into a rectangle measuring 71mm diagnoally. Beneath it is a bank of buttons for getting around the device.
It should be no surprise to anyone who's seen Windows Mobile Pocket PCs with phone capability before that these buttons include Call and End buttons, as well as two softmenu buttons and two more, one of which pulls down the Windows Mobile Start menu, while the other acts as a back button.
This being a T-Mobile handheld, there's also a button for going directly to the network's Web'n'Walk service, while another launches the GPS antenna. If you have CoPilot installed on the MDA Compact III, then this button starts the software running.
The most interesting, innovative and clever part of the hardware design is the combination of a navigation wheel with a miniature trackball. The wheel can be turned clockwise or anti-clockwise to scroll up or down items on the screen.
The trackball is very similar to that on the BlackBerry Pearl and can also be used for scrolling. If you prefer, you can enable an on-screen cursor that you control with the trackball -- rolling the ball under your thumb to move the cursor around and pressing to 'click'.
There are not many side buttons. On the right edge, embedded in that silver strip of metal we mentioned earlier, is the main power button and one for use with the built-in camera. On the left is a volume rocker and a button that if held down lets you make a voice recording, and if tapped lightly gives you access to voice speed-dial.
As far as telephony goes, the MDA Compact III is stuck on GSM and GPRS rather than the much faster 3G. It also rather disappointingly lacks Wi-Fi. The absence of those two features make it a dimmer star in the handheld firmament than it could be.
The FM radio is definitely a plus point, though. As usual, you have to use the provided headset as an antenna. This connects to the MDA Compact III by the same mini USB connector that's used to charge the battery and synchronise with a PC. As the headset has no 3.5mm connector you're forced to use the provided ear buds rather than your own, which is a disappointment.
There's another irritation when it comes to music. The Windows Media Player caters for playlist management as usual, and will play tunes stored on the internal memory or on a flash memory card, in the microSD format. The irritation is that cards live under the SIM, which is itself under the battery, so you'll have to power the MDA Compact III down to put the card in its slot.
The camera, whose lens is on the back of the casing, has been made quite easy to manage thanks to tappable icons around the screen that lead to all the settings. It's relatively quick and straightforward to change image resolution, set the self timer, take a quick snap to attach to somebody in the contacts database, and so on. The camera has a self-portrait mirror, but there's no flash so it's better outdoors than in.
Even if you don't choose the version of the MDA Compact III with CoPilot, you get a couple of other useful extras in the shape of the ClearVue PDF reader and a zip file manager.
Call quality was fine, and the relatively small size of the MDA Compact III meant we didn't feel silly holding it to our ear during calls.
We managed a shade short of 9.5 hours of continuous music from a full battery charge, with the screen forced to stay on throughout playback. This is decent figure -- and it will need to be if you intend to use either the radio, Windows Media Player, Bluetooth or the GPS antenna while walking around, as each will cause more battery drain than simply having the GSM phone turned on: in a car you could use a car charger with the GPS, though T-Mobile doesn't provide one.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide