It's been a few months since I've reviewed a laptop for Windows IT Pro UPDATE, but this week's subject--the stunning Dell Axim X50v Pocket PC--threatens to forever blur the line between full-fledged Windows XP-based portables and PDAs. The Axim X50 is the first Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition (SE)-based family of PDAs to offer both a VGA 640 x 480 screen--twice the resolution of most PDAs--and the software improvements Microsoft made to its latest Pocket PC OS. The almost surreally powerful X50 is hobbled only by Microsoft's lazy approach to updating its Pocket PC software. If Microsoft would just get on the ball, the Axim--and a coming generation of similar Pocket PCs--could replace notebooks for many business travelers.

The Axim X50
From a hardware perspective, the Axim X50v is the most powerful PDA currently available, with a 624MHz processor (The midlevel X50 has a 550MHz processor, and a low-end model features a 416MHz processor). It also includes the aforementioned VGA screen which, thanks to Windows Mobile 2003 SE, you can use in either portrait or landscape mode. And unlike Dell's inexpensive Axim X30 line, the X50 supports dual expansion slots, with both Secure Digital (SD) and CompactFlash (CF) slots. Thanks to today's Crazy Eddie pricing on memory cards, you can outfit the X50 with an astonishing amount of storage. For example, I added a 1GB SD card and a 4GB CF-based microdrive to the review unit for less than $300. Amazing.

However, these expansion capabilities will likely go unused by many people, thanks to the equally incredible amount of onboard technology. The X50v and midlevel X50 include 128MB of ROM storage and 64MB of RAM, and features integrated 802.11b-based wireless and Bluetooth radios. The low-end model sports 64MB of ROM, 64MB of RAM, and Bluetooth, but not 802.11b wireless.

From a form-factor perspective, the X50 is the spiritual successor to the excellent HP iPAQ 4155 Pocket PC, which debuted last fall. Like the 4155, the X50 includes a curved bottom end that makes holding the device more comfortable. However, the X50 is slightly longer, thanks to its 3.7-inch screen, and is arguably more attractive, with black and silver highlights. I found using the device in landscape mode to be slightly more awkward than using it in the more typical portrait mode.

Finally, in another a bid toward notebook replacement, the X50 supports VGA out with an optional VGA presentation bundle, which would make the device perfect for Microsoft PowerPoint presentations on the road, if the company ever creates a Pocket version of that application (third-party solutions are available). And like most Dell handhelds, you can equip the device with an optional high-capacity battery for longer battery life away from home. I didn't test either of these options.

The X50v is the fastest handheld I've ever tested, and the bundled version of Windows Media Player (WMP) 10 Mobile--along with the aforementioned additional storage--means that I can leave the iPod and its accompanying cables at home when I travel. However, the Axim doesn't offer a digital camera option or come in a Pocket PC Phone Edition version, which would further reduce the number of devices you need to cart around. The screen on the device is so clear that many observers thought it was fake, and the onscreen text display is amazingly good.

Windows Mobile 2003 SE: What Went Wrong?
The X50's ability to display natively in landscape mode is particularly important because the Pocket PC's standard portrait display, with its low-resolution screen, is unsuitable for many tasks, including Web browsing, email, word processing, and spreadsheet work. And with its excellent VGA screen and blazing processor, the X50 should be a natural at these tasks. Sadly, that's not the case. But the blame falls on Microsoft not Dell, because the software giant's latest Pocket PC software version, Windows Mobile 2003 SE, is largely a pathetic update.

Yes, Windows Mobile 2003 SE offers the landscape display mode, although I'm surprised to report that many of Microsoft's own utilities don't display scroll bars while in landscape mode, making some options invisible and unreachable. But Microsoft hasn't updated significantly the core Pocket applications--Pocket Inbox, Pocket Word, and Pocket Excel-- for years, and we're still waiting on a Pocket PowerPoint solution. So all that power and display acumen goes for naught, unless you don't mind using the limited applications Microsoft still provides or finding better third-party solutions.

This neglect is particularly appalling when you consider that Dell and other companies are now shipping inexpensive Bluetooth- and IR-based keyboards that, when combined with a landscape-positioned Pocket PC, would provide all the notebook-type hardware many people would need on the road. In other words, all the pieces are in place except for that most crucial component--the software.

Windows Mobile 2005
On the good news front, I'm hearing rumors that the next version of Windows Mobile--allegedly to be named Windows Mobile 2005 and code-named Magneto--will solve some of these problems. The OS will supposedly feature an embedded Microsoft SQL Server-based database, Direct3D-type graphics capabilities and, perhaps most important, major updates to the Pocket applications. It's about time.

Sadly, Windows Mobile 2005 won't ship until next summer, I'm told, and will likely suffer from the most bone-headed decision Microsoft ever made about its Pocket PC software updates: It will permit its hardware partners to distribute only major Pocket PC updates to customers, and often those partners simply choose not to, leaving existing customers in the lurch. For both Microsoft and its partners, I'm sure the matter involves the cost of supporting such updates, but with Pocket PCs quickly encroaching on the performance and capabilities of PCs, I think it's time to revise this strategy.

In short, the Axim X50v is the best Pocket PC you can buy, and it's hobbled only by Microsoft's weak software selection. Come on, Microsoft, it's time for you to stop being the bottleneck that prevents your mobile platform from succeeding. Your partners are up to the task. Are you?