Following in the footsteps of the O2 XDA Mini S and i-mate JAM, T-Mobile's MDA Vario is a small but highly usable handheld. It has all the functions of a mobile phone and a PDA, plus it has a clever sliding keyboard that lets you get the most out of its included productivity software.
The Vario is available direct from T-Mobile for free on a £29-a-month tariff, or for £140 on a £13-a-month tariff, plus a number of other options.
The MDA Vario is based on the HTC Wizard, the inspiration for many handsets, including the JAM and the Mini S. It's quite a small handset given its list of features. It's only slightly larger than a pack of playing cards, but its 58 by 109 by 24mm frame looks distinctly chubby next to handsets like the ultra-thin Motorola Razr V3.
Its relative bulk can easily be forgiven once you realise it's hiding a rather neat trick up its sleeve -- its screen slides horizontally away from the body of the handset to reveal a Qwerty keyboard. The orientation of the display then automatically switches from portrait to landscape, and you an use your thumbs to navigate through menus or enter text into the handset's various applications.
It's not essential to use the keyboard, though: the MDA Vario has a wealth of shortcut buttons scattered on almost every corner. There's an on/off switch at the top of the unit, camera and voice-dialling/application launching buttons to the right, a volume control slider on the left, and four face buttons for one-touch access to Internet Explorer and the message inbox. The other two face buttons are context-sensitive, changing function depending on where you are in the menu.
The screen itself is large at 71mm (2.8 inches), and is touch-sensitive. The MDA Vario includes the requisite stylus tucked away in its rear quarters. This impressive little tool extends with a satisfying, hydraulic-like action complete with whooshing noise. On the whole, the entire unit is aesthetically pleasing, with our only real gripe being the slightly plastic-looking outer casing.
The MDA Vario is built on Windows Mobile 2005 Pocket PC Phone Edition. This is a versatile platform that has much in common with desktop Windows systems like XP. Most of the navigation is done via the Start menu button positioned at the top left of the screen. The device comes pre-installed with Mobile versions of Microsoft Excel, Internet Explorer, Outlook, PowerPoint and Word. Like BlackBerry handsets, the Vario supports Direct Push technology, which means your emails are sent directly to the handset without you needing to instruct the software to check for new messages.
The Qwerty keyboard makes a great accompaniment to the above applications, and makes entering emails a breeze. With it you'll be able to type lengthy documents quickly and with ease. Unfortunately, there is no three-by-three number keypad, just a horizontal strip of numbers. This means dialling can be unintuitive, unless you use the somewhat fiddly virtual keypad that appears onscreen.
Even more annoying was the lack of a shortcut key to access phone features. In order to make a call you'll need to use the stylus or Start button to access the Start menu, before clicking the Phone option -- hardly ideal if you're in a hurry. The MDA Vario is a quad-band handset, and can therefore be used to make and receive calls in most countries.
The MDA Vario has many connectivity options. USB and Bluetooth links are available, as is 802.11b wireless, and for those who refuse to let go of the past, there's an infra-red receiver on the right of the handset. Disappointingly, this device isn't 3G-compatible, so you can't make video calls or surf the Web at near-broadband speeds unless you're connected to a Wi-Fi network.
The Vario comes with just over 47MB of usable storage space, with a further 44MB dedicated to storing applications. That's not an awful lot of space to play with, so we recommend you buy an add-on miniSD memory card. This plugs into a slot at the top end of the handset -- which is a better arrangement than some mobile phones that require you to remove the battery before inserting a memory card.
In a world where 2-megapixel cameras on phone handsets are becoming more commonplace, the Vario's 1.3-megapixel offering is a minor disappointment. It's still good enough to take the odd snap here and there, but it's a poor substitute for a dedicated digital camera. On the upside, images look great on the 71mm 240x320-pixel 64k-colour display.
The MDA Vario's audio quality during voice calls is poor. The sound is muffled and tinny in comparison to even basic handsets, and things get even worse when you're using it in areas with poor signal coverage. Its battery life isn't particularly bad -- T-Mobile claims five hours of talk time and 200 hours of standby time depending on individual usage, but you'll probably need to charge it nightly to avoid running flat unexpectedly. The handset can be charged over a USB cable, so you won't need to lug the three-pin mains adaptor around.
On paper, the device isn't particularly quick, but it works just fine in practice. It uses a 200MHz CPU, which is perfectly adequate for running the applications it ships with. You may struggle to run some third party programs, though. Skype for Pocket PC, for example (a Voice over IP application) requires a 400MHz CPU.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide