T-Mobile's MDA Vario II is similar to the HTC TyTN that we reviewed back in July. In fact, it is produced by HTC, to T-Mobile's own design specifications.
The MDA Vario II costs a lot less than the TyTN because it is available on a contract -- you can get it for free depending on the contract you choose.
There is also a version of this device available from Orange, as the SPV M3100, but the MDA Vario II has something neither HTC's nor Orange's versions can boast -- live HSDPA. That means mobile Internet at speeds of up to 1.8Mbps.
The MDA Vario II is not exactly a small handheld, but it doesn't take up a lot of room on the desk -- it measures only 58mm by 113mm. It will, however, take up space in your pocket as it's 22mm deep. At 176g you are going to notice its weight, too.
The reason for these slightly portly dimensions is the slide-out keyboard. This is also one of two features (the other being the HSDPA support) that make the MDA Vario II one of the best smart phones on the market, if you are into mobile data.
The keyboard slides out from the left edge of the casing and offers a full set of Qwerty keys, as well as two buttons that map onto the Windows Mobile softmenus and an embedded number pad. There are also a couple of other controls for easy access to some Windows Mobile features.
We found it easy to hold the MDA Vario II in both hands and its large keys allowed us to use the keyboard with our thumbs at a healthy speed. The keyboard size is one of two benefits of this 'sideways on' keyboard. The other is that the screen switches automatically to its wider (landscape) format when you slide the keyboard out, so text is shown in a display closer in format to that of a laptop or desktop computer.
Jog-wheels seem to be making a return to handhelds at the moment, and with the keyboard hidden away and the MDA Vario II in the hand in standard tall PDA format, there is one on the left edge which falls neatly under the thumb. An OK button is immediately below it, and there's a button for using voice speed dialling and the built-in recorder (depending on whether you give it a long press or a short one).
Windows Mobile Pocket PCs usually have a few front buttons for quick access to features. There are no fewer than eight on the front of the MDA Vario II, and that's not counting the navigation button and its central select key. Two of these, above the screen, take you to the Windows Mobile messaging software and to T-Mobile's Web'n'walk home screen. Under the screen are Call and End buttons, soft menu buttons, and two that pull down the Start list and act as an OK button. Between them and the touch screen you can do things quickly and easily.
We quite like the colour scheme. The front is slate grey, the back black. In between these a swatch of plum goes most of the way around the edge. It's not the most exciting aspect of this handheld, but it is distinctive.
The MDA Vario II is a quad-band, 3G handset with a front-facing camera for making video calls. 3G means fast Internet access, and T-Mobile takes this a step further with HSDPA, which is essentially a software upgrade to 3G. Where it is in place, you can get data speeds of up to 1.8Mbps -- that's faster than some people will have on their home broadband connection.
Using Web sites designed to check the speed of home broadband connections we got speeds of around 1.2Mbps regularly. That's not the maximum possible, but it is still very impressive. In places where HSDPA is not yet available, the MDA Vario II will drop down through the sequence to 3G then GPRS.
T-Mobile takes advantage of this 'mobile broadband' service by having a dedicated button above the screen that drops you right into its Web'n'walk homepage. From there you can search the Web using a Google search bar or, for simplicity and speed, just choose one of the many links T-Mobile has pre-configured for you.
There are a couple of pleasant surprises with the built-in 2-megapixel camera. When you switch it on using a button mounted on the bottom-right edge of the casing, the screen turns into a viewfinder in the usual way. Around the screen are icons, which when tapped give you easy access to settings and options. There is a macro mode and this is similarly easy to switch in and out of -- by flicking a switch on the lens itself which sits on the back of the casing.
If we have a grumble about the camera it is that the lens is not protected in any way -- it is not even recessed. This means you'll be advised to carry the MDA Vario II in the provided case to help avoid scratches.
Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are both here and it is nice to see infrared built in, too. Just like any other Pocket PC, the MDA Vario II supports mobile email and it's easy to set up your standard POP email account. Business users might like the Microsoft Direct Push support which means the MDA Vario II can synchronise with a work-based network running Exchange Server 2003. There is also support for another synchronisation service, BlackBerry Connect. Business user or not, the ClearVue PDF reader software that is added to the standard Windows Mobile software might prove useful.
It is without a doubt the fast HSDPA that steals the show. Having super-fast Internet access at your fingertips is fantastic, however there is a price to pay in battery life.
T-Mobile suggests you can get four and a half hours of talk out of the MDA Vario II. Play around with mobile Internet access too much, though, and you'll find this figure rather less. Similarly, if you are a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth fan you'll deplete the battery in under four hours. On balance, if you are going to use the MDA Vario II to its full advantage, we'd suggest budgeting for a daily charge.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield