T-Mobile MDA Review

Hybrid devices have always captured the hearts and minds of mobile enthusiasts around the world. Ever since the unsurpassed success of the Palm Treo, smartphones have been an object of interest to anybody that wanted to a little more of their phone than calling and text messaging. The T-Mobile MDA is just one of those devices, and is a worthy addition to the lineup of a carrier like T-Mobile USA. Known in Europe as the T-Mobile MDA Vario, I-Mate K-Jam, Qtek 9100 for more than half a year, it has already been a huge success with consumers over there. T-Mobile decided to bring it stateside as a replacement for the HP h6315, which has not been part of their lineup for a long time now.

The MDA itself is a little smaller than your regular PDA, but nonetheless it combines all the features that you might need . Sporting Windows Mobile 5.0 it has business and entertainment down - email, internet browsing, instant messaging, MP3 and video player ... oh wait, it's actually a phone as well.

The design of the MDA is an evolution of the I-Mate Jam, which was the smallest Pocket PC for its time. Although the footprint remained essentially the same, the MDA is actually a little thicker, which is due mostly to the added slide-out keyboard.

The screen is a nice and bright QVGA (240X320), touch sensitive TFT display, that's worthy of your photos and videos. It is surrounded by some of the shortcut and soft keys and fits in very well with the overall design of the device. In bright sunlight the screen gets washed out easily even at it's brightest level. If you happen to put a screen protector on there things get even worse. However the sheer size of it is great for videos and pictures.

As far as the size of the MDA is concerned you'll find it bulkier than most phones but right down small compared to other devices of this niche. It fits very well in the palm of even smaller hands, and although thick it's quite bearable in a pocket. The material that the phone is made out of is plastic, but it doesn't feel cheap, and that's good. Actually overall it feels quite solid. Even the sliding keyboard clicks nicely into place when it's slid open or closed. 

MDA and a credit card

The QWERTY keyboard itself although a nice addition especially to a phone like this leaves some things to be desired. Many people try to compare it with the similar keyboards of other devices – e.g. Treo 600, Sidekick II, various Blackberries. Well, it could be both considered better and worse than some of these. The area over which the keyboard is situated is pretty large and is comparable to the Sidekick II. The keys however are larger and thus feel a bit cramped. All letters of the Latin alphabet are fit on there; however the numbers don't have dedicated keys, but are sharing keys with the letters, and some commonly used symbols are on there as well. You have a little function key on the bottom left corner that lets you select between the numbers and symbols, and the letters with the one or two strokes depending on whether you need the selected function once or more. One more complaint about the keyboard that we have is that the keys are almost flush with the plastic surrounding them, so although they feel very nicely to the touch, it's just a little uncomfortable to use and you'll find yourself looking at the keyboard maybe more than you wished. I guess with a sliding design like this some compromises had to be made.

If you happen to find yourself using the keypad in the dark, you'll see that it is supported by an uneven and dim backlight, which goes out after a couple of seconds of down time. Unfortunately it is not adjustable, so you'll have to deal with it.

The sliding action of the keyboard feels nice, although it's not spring assisted, it's not hard. And with it clicking into place when you slide it open or closed it is really giving a lot better feel to the overall design

Another way to input information with devices like that is with a stylus. The MDA has one built in. Its silo is located on the bottom of the device, and most people look for it for a while until they find it. The stylus itself is extendable from just over 2 inches to just over 3 inches, so even at that extended length is a little uncomfortable to use, and you might wish it was a bit longer. It does not fit in the silo very tight, so there's always a chance that you might lose it. But T-Mobile have thought of that, and have included an extra stylus in the kit. Now you just have to remember to take it with you everywhere you go.

Like all Windows Mobile devices the MDA features a 5-way scroll key, as well as 2 soft keys and 5 programmable shortcut keys, which can be really helpful through the menus, and can immensely aid one handed use. The Send and End keys under the screen are standard for all phones and are not programmable. All buttons have a nice and soft responsive feel to them, no hard clicks and cheap plastic here. 3 of the programmable shortcut keys are located on the sides of the device. Out of the box they're assigned to Voice Dial and Camera on the right side and Communications Manager on the left side. On the face of the device above the screen you'll find the Browser and Messaging keys. Now all of these are programmable, so you can set them up to your taste with your choice of programs. Below the screen are the two softkeys, the navigational pad, and the phone keys. Those are not programmable.

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Also on the side you'll see a volume slider key, an infrared port, and on the top are the Mini SD card slot and the power button. The charging port and the headset jack are on the bottom of the device. That's where you'll find the stylus, as well as the battery door release.
 On the back of the device is the 1.3 Megapixel camera joined by a little self portrait mirror, as well as a photolight, which I would not dare call a flash.


Well, to anyone that is familiar with Windows Mobile and its daddy - the Pocket PC - the MDA will be an easy upgrade. In it's attempts to make it as user friendly as possible Microsoft have copied as many things as possible from your desktop at home. The “Start” menu is probably familiar to everybody, and fortunately it works much the same way it does on your PC.

Start Menu

The “Today” screen puts together all of the most often needed information and displays it so it's in clear view of the user, and informs him of his appointments, messages, calls, etc. It is programmable as well, so you can customize exactly the kind of information you want to have (or not have) displayed on there.

Home screen

Going through the “Start” menu you will be able to access everything that is not already on your home screen - File Manager, Programs, Settings, Messaging, even Help.

Programs Menu

One thing that is different for the MDA compared to your regular mobile phone is that operating with one hand is hard and sometimes impossible. Too often you'll find yourself grabbing for the stylus, or sliding the keyboard open to type a message. Some things are simplified though, and for example calling can easily be done with one hand. The Dial screen on the phone is well thought out. Purple buttons on white background are easy to see and distinguish. Also you have the Options on there from where you can set pretty much anything that has to do with the phone (network settings, ringtones, forwarding, call waiting, etc).


Dialing from the Contact List is also very well accommodated for single handed use. Going into the Contact list you have an option to view contacts just by name, or you can have their phone number and their picture show up next to their name. By highlighting the Contact entry and pressing the Send key you'll automatically be able to call them. If you open the contact and select their email address that will take you automatically to the email application, which will let you continue working on the message. Of course since you're using a Windows based device you can just transfer your Outlook contacts to the phone. With the included Active sync software you can also synchronize your Outlook Calendar. This synchronization can also be done wirelessly through Bluetooth.
The Calendar is also pretty elaborate. You can set up appointments, tasks, etc. - everything that you can do in your Outlook Calendar. To put in a new appointment all you need to do is go to the date that you need (this you can do from pretty much any Calendar screen, be it Year, Month, Week, or Day view). Just tap the time that you have your appointment and enter the info that you need (name, type of appointment, place). Right there is the option to set up a reminder as well. Once that is done the Calendar entry will show up in you Today screen on that day automatically.
Using the Notes is also easy. Just press the soft key for New, and type away. One neat addition is the ability to use the notepad as scratch paper. Just take the stylus and start writing, or drawing, or sketching. It's easy to use and all your saved notes are accessible by just going into the menu or in the File Manager.

The 128 MB of memory in the MDA should be enough for all your contact and calendar information, but just in case you need more memory you can use a Mini SD card in the memory slot, for extra storage. Those come in different capacities up to 2 GB.


The MDA supports every kind of messaging you can think of - e-mail, SMS, MMS, Instant Messaging. It has its own scaled down version of Outlook which handles emails, text and picture messages. Now, by default going into Outlook takes you directly into the account you used last, but going through the options you can switch the kind of account you want to use (this is how you switch between  the different email accounts, SMS, MMS). Another option that takes you into Outlook is highlighting a contact into the Contact list and than through the Options select whether you want to send them a text message or else. For the IM though you have a dedicated IM client, which supports AIM, Yahoo! Messenger and ICQ. For all you poor Hotmail users, Microsoft has thought of you and the device ships with Pocket MSN, which is a small program that can handle your Hotmail email and MSN messenger. So with all of this, and the added QWERTY keyboard you pretty much have all your humanly possible messaging needs covered. Additional convenience is the fact that when you get a message (any kind of message) a little pop-up notification comes up on your screen and by taping on it you can work on it from there (replying, forwarding, saving, etc.).

Instant Messenger

For added ease of use T-Mobile have added their own e-mail setup client, which works beautifully for most email kinds and is really easy to use - just enter the email address and the email password twice and you're done. It couldn't have been easier. One thing that not many people don't know is that e-mail alerts through T-Mobile are done with text messages for which you get to pay, so you might want to consider having the Pocket Outlook do an automatic Send and Receive at a certain interval of time. Not many difficulties were encountered while using the emails and the text messages. The great thing is that going into that function can be done through the phonebook by tapping and holding down the stylus on the contact that you want to use. This is an equivalent to the right button click on your desktop mouse.

Email inbox
Writing an email


Communication Manager

On the connectivity side the MDA is just as complete as in every other department. For voice calls it is a quad-band GSM phone, which will work virtually everywhere in the world where there's GSM coverage. For data transmission you have GPRS and EDGE, where it is available, and to complete the package the MDA also has an 802.11b module on board, so you can use Wi-Fi connections where those are available. Besides those you get Bluetooth 1.2 with all available profiles except for A2DP, which enables transfer of stereo sound to Bluetooth headphones or speakers. You can even use the voice dialing with a Bluetooth earpiece, which is immensely useful especially when driving. Or if your car happens to be Bluetooth enabled you'll be able to take full advantage of the MDA's voice abilities. The voice dialing itself is a simple program that works by enabling voice tags for your contacts. MS Voice Command is a lot more elaborate program and is highly recommended because it's giving you full voice operation (not just dialing, but operating programs and features and such), however you'll have to buy that one.


For internet browsing the MDA is equipped with Pocket Internet Explorer, which unlike its desktop counterpart is not as graphically entertaining, but does the job just as well, and is very smartly designed to give you the maximum of the webpage especially considering the limited real estate you have on a PDA screen. HTML pages are designed to fit the screen by default, but you can select desktop view, which will have you scrolling probably more than you like. Rendering pages is pretty good, graphics are very well handled and if you're using EDGE or Wi-Fi the pages should be loading pretty fast. Now, Pocket IE seems to stand up among its mobile competitors a little better than it's desktop sibling. It loads pages relatively fast, renders picture well, and the only real complaint is that scrolling through the page with the navigational pad is not really smooth.

Many people would probably be disappointed with the fact that the MDA does not have 802.11g, but only "b". Well, good news is that you can enable the "g" with a little bit of registry editing, but on the negative side that will void the device's warranty, and you won't see much of a boost in the performance. The processor is too slow. Also, even with 802.11b the device gets pretty warm after about an hour of use, which means that it's really heavy on the processor. So that's something to consider before doing.


On the fun side, the MDA is quite complete as well. The 1.3 Megapixel camera is actually useful. It gives you a bunch of tools and options to manipulate the image. You start it by pressing on the Camera Button on the right side of the device. You also use that same button as shutter release. Holding the MDA horizontally in the bottom right corner you will see a couple of options that you select with the stylus. One takes you to the camera options, another one takes you to the photo gallery on the device, and a third one is used to exit the camera interface. The options on the camera themselves are pretty good. You can set up the resolution that you want to use, the picture format, those use little drop down menus, further you can select the contrast, brightness and color options. For those the MDA uses little sliders and a little picture window showing you how your adjustment will affect the picture. Overall, the camera interface is good although somewhat cumbersome; you might find yourself reaching for the stylus.
Compared to other cameras of this resolution the quality does not stand out, but is not bad either. The camera button is also very well situated, so that taking pictures brings you closer to the real camera experience. The video however is just as good as the video taken with any other mobile phone, so it's nothing to write home about. There are actually two different video modes. One that records regular video clips at 176x144, and Video Message Mode which records in different format. For email, we would recommend using the regular Video Mode, Videos, as well as pictures can be viewed in a thumbnail gallery. Taping on the thumbnail will open the picture in a manner similar to the Picture Viewer on your desktop. From there you can send pictures, apply them to contacts. You won't be able to do much editing however, so reserve that for you PC.

Camera Samples


If you lost your iPod on the last family trip, do not hurry getting a new one, but first consider the musical abilities of the MDA. As part of Windows Mobile, you get Windows Media Player 10, which gives you MP3 and video playback, as well as streaming audio and video. With a high capacity memory card you can easily fit a couple of hundred songs on there and enjoy those with the included stereo headset. If you are a movie maniac, you can transfer your movies on the Mini SD and enjoy those on the MDA as well. Now, although the MDA is advertised as having two stereo speakers, we really wouldn't recommend using it as a stereo. The sound is loud enough, but at high volumes it sounds distorted, and thinny overall. Not a problem for voice calls, but definitely not the best way to enjoy music.

Windows Media Player


Now, if you prefer to stay on the business side of things you should be happy with the rest of the software that comes included with the MDA - Pocket Word, Pocket Excel, Powerpoint - all scaled down versions of the popular MS Office programs, and ClearVue PDF Reader, which will let you view even PDF files. Now, those will allow you to do some editing, but they won't let you do all the crazy things you can do on your PC. For an example if you're sent an Excel file you'll have no problem assigning and filling out values, saving the file, and attach into an email. But if you want to do pie charts it might be a better idea to wait till you get to your home or office. Similar abilities are incuded in the other programs.

Much like your computer's folder directory here you have a File Manager, which basically as the name suggests lets you manage all the files that you have on your device. Moving back, and forth onto the storage card, or just between different folders, also deleting and searching for files. Simple Copy/Paste of files can be done by the afformentioned process of tapping and holding down the stylus. Also this is a great way to manage your memory, because you'll find running a lot of programs does slow the phone down. And maybe here is the place to mention that, just clicking the little 'x' on the top right corner does not shut the program, but just keeps it running in the background. What's nice is that even some of the keyboard shortcuts are available, so your life is a little bit easier.


Of course one of the beautiful things about Windows Mobile, and smartphones in general, is the ability to install extra software for extra productivity, or more fun. And since it is the most popular mobile operating system in the world, alongside with Symbian, there are literally thousands of applications available to use on the MDA - from internet browsers, through remote access programs, to bible readers. Just keep track of the memory, because the MDA has a ROM memory of 128 MB, and a RAM of only 64 MB, so getting a memory card is a worthy investment. Then again that's true for most phones of this class, so it doesn't come as a surprise.  


The processor of the MDA is a Texas Instruments OMAP 850, clocking at 195 MHz. That appears to be enough for a device like that, so that it would be functional and responsive while still giving decent battery life. Actually the MDA felt very responsive at first, but when more than 5 programs were running at once it started to become anemic, and sometimes just wouldn't open some programs. So it's a good idea to keep track of all the programs that are running at a given moment and exit the ones that are not in use anymore. As long as that is done the phone will be working flawlessly with few complaints. Skype actually can run on the MDA even though its minimum requirement for the CPU is 312 MHz, it is a little sluggish, and voice quality was not the greatest, but it worked.

Using the MDA as a phone was overall a good experience. The reception on T-Mobile's network around Southern California was above average, and sound quality was excellent. It actually was able to hang on to a call through spots where many other phones would actually loose reception. That's way better than most PDA phones, and is above average for mobile phones in general. T-Mobile got this one right. One little annoyance could be the speakerphone - it's not as loud as most other cell phones and is virtually unusable if you're in a noisy environment. When you use it to play music or audio on a video clip volume is a bit louder, but the sound gets distorted at its higher levels. For that purpose the best thing is to use the earpiece, it's louder and distortion is lower. Even on a call if you are unable to hold the phone we recommend the earpiece over the speakerphone.

All in all, the MDA is a very good phone, and is light years ahead of T-Mobile's previous offering - the HP h6315. Even if you didn't want to use the PDA functions, you'll still be happy with the MDA as a phone. Just like that one, the MDA is also quad-band, so it will work pretty much any civilized place on earth with the exception of South Korea and Japan.

As far as the data connectivity is concerned, the MDA was pulling its weight very admirably. Speeds of about 130-150 kbps were common on T-Mobile's EDGE network. That was enough to make the internet surfing a comfortable experience. EDGE coverage was stable enough to stream internet radio to the MDA while out and about. Once connected to a WiFi network things got even better and speeds went up to 1.5 Mbps. With T-Mobile having close to 7000 Hot Spot locations in the US, and almost 30 000 in the whole world it's like taking your DSL line at home with you anywhere you go.

Now with all these connectivity options you need a battery strong enough to match. And the MDA doesn't disappoint. Talk times were upwards of 3 hours, depending on the signal strength and whether or not there was a Bluetooth headset. Standby time was about a week. In normal usage the MDA should last you at least 2 days of emails, internet surfing, some music and 30-40 minutes of calls a day. Actually we got 7 straight hours of internet surfing on WiFi, which is excellent considering the fact that 802.11 connections are a pretty big power consumer. Again, the MDA did better than most phones of its class.


The MDA felt great throughout the testing process. It didn't take long to get used to the size, especially considering that it's smaller than most PDA phones. The setup was beautiful and the only real complaint is the necessity for the constant use of the stylus. But that's something that could be expected from a device like this and is not really a huge problem. In all other areas it was near perfect, and was a worthy competitor to any Treo or Blackberry. If multitasking is a priority, then the MDA is pretty much the only device on the American market that's affordable enough and sophisticated enough to handle the job. It's a step closer to the perfect hybrid device (PDA, phone, MP3 player, digicam in one), and is a bright promise for things to come. Bundled with T-Mobile's affordable voice and data plans, they have a winner on their hands and they know it.

Bundled with their affordable data and voice plans T-Mobile have a winner on their hands and they know it. There's no perfect phone, and there probably will never be. But the MDA should be near the top of the list for every mobile professional.

T-Mobile MDA

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  • Small size for a PDA, fits very well in the palm of a hand
  • Except for 3G, which is not available in the US yet, it has all the
  • Excellent software bundle - great for both business and entertainment
  • Sliding QWERTY keyboard


  • Requires the stylus too often, not all that great for use with one hand
  • Buttons on the QWERTY keyboard could be better designed
  • Sluggish OMAP processor, but that can easily be cured with overclock programs available for free

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