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Asus MyPal A686 PDA with GPS

(Updated Jul 24 2011)

Introduction

The last summer I decided to buy a GPS device for these purposes: First, I had to choose between PDAs with GPS and handheld GPS devices (like Garmin eTrex and Geko, Magellan eXplorist, Meridian and SporTrak). I made a list of the disadvantages and advantages of PDA with GPS over handheld GPS:

I easily chose to buy a PDA with GPS instead of a handheld GPS because the choice of the software and the opportunity to use it for other purposes than navigation only were very important to me, nonetheless I didn't want to spend more than 300-350 Euro.

Given this limited budget, the choice of the PDA was quite restricted: the MITAC Mio P350 and P550 and its twin Airis T620, the i-mate PDA-N, HP Ipaq RX 5720 and the Asus MyPal A686, A696 and A639. I initially reduced the choice even further to models with 802.11g (54 Mbps) wireless: the Asus A696 and A639 and the Mio P550. Searching on the net, I discovered that there is a defective lot of Mio P550 coming with an unstable GPS signal, while the Asus MyPal A639 has some problems regarding screen alignment. Instead the A696, the Asus newest model, other than having no known problems, impressed more than a reviewer (for instance, mobile-review.com) for its battery duration, which allows usage for 5 hours when the gps is active and more than a day if it's used for reading only; it's nothing, compared with the 40 hours (yes: fourty) of my former 1997 Psion 5, but it's quite enough for most of my hiking sessions: if the purpose is to follow a map, it's not necessary to always keep the PDA switched on; if the purpose is to track the path, it can be used in 10 hours hikes too, 5 hours to go and 5 to come back (the path is tracked only on the go or on the return).

I was finally quite decided to buy the Asus MyPal A696, but the few shops where it was available were selling it at more than 350 Euros; my holidays were approaching and I found the A686 for 276 Euros in an online shop I trust.
What are the differences between the A696 and the A686? Shall I wait to find the A696 or take the A686 now?

Therefore I bought the A686.

Package

The package includes: It doesn't include a SD card: that's not necessary for using the pda, and many users prefer to choose one themselves, so if it was included in the package it may only have increased the tag price.

Pictures

A686_box_front.jpg
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A686_Package.jpg
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A686_fronthoroff.jpg
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A686_fronthoron.jpg
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A686_frontverton.jpg
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A686_vs_A636N.jpg
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A686_vs_A636N_height.jpg
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A686_buttons.jpg
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A686_bluetooth.jpg
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A686_gps.jpg
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A686_up.jpg
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A686_down.jpg
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A686_left.jpg
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A686_right.jpg
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A686_pen_hold.jpg
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A686_pen.jpg
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A686_pen_short.jpg
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A686_back.jpg
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A686_antenna.jpg
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A686_Battery.jpg
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A686_protection_case.jpg
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Note: The other PDA in the comparison pictures is the Asus MyPal A636N.

Features and performance

The Asus MyPal A686, together with its big brother, the A696, is the last model of Asus A600 series PDAs, whose specifications you can see compared here (pdadb.net). It's a bit smaller than the A636N, its predecessor, especially in height, and its dimensions make it comfortable to keep in the hand or in the pocket: neither too large nor too small, and not heavy. I kept it in my hand during the first walk to check every now and then my position and the only discomfort I had was to have my hand occupied; I didn't find it so heavy or so large that I would feel the desire to put it in my pocket or waist pouch. I am a bit discomforted with its size only when I sit with the A686 in my pocket because its length make it push against my stomach.

The processor is a 312 MHz Intel Xscale, memory is 64 MB RAM + 128 MB ROM. The speed of the cpu is quite limited but the only slowness I found is loading the pdf reader, PocketXpdf; while some users experienced slowness problems using TomTom navigator on older PDAs, on my A686 it runs smoothly. A reviewer found the A686 and A696 performance better than other PDAs with the same specifications and speculated that Asus optimized these models for usage with Windows Mobile.

Indoor the GPS receiver usually doesn't get the first fix, it's necessary to go outside or on a balcony. Outdoor it takes some minutes to view the satellites and obtain the first fix: sometimes it requires even more than 10 minutes, other times it gets it in 2 minutes. That depends on how long the GPS has been disabled and how far is the current location from the last location I used the GPS: technically speaking, a cold start requires about 10 minutes, a warm start 2 minutes.
Once the A686 gets the fix, it doesn't lose it easily; for instance, if I was outdoor and I enter a building, usually the gps communication is maintained; until now the only occasions I lost the fix were when I entered a tunnel.
When I switch off the PDA while the GPS is active and then I switch it on again, the A686 gets the fix in a matter of seconds; the same happens when the fix is lost entering a tunnel and then I exit the tunnel. This is very useful, especially when there is an intersection after a tunnel or when I walk on the mountain and I switch on the PDA only when I need to consult the map, keeping it switched off for most of the journey, to spare the batteries.

Talking about batteries, the expectations I had after reading some reviews have been totally fulfilled: last August I went to do some trekking and I used the A686 to first consult a map I got from Google Earth to reach my destination and then to track my path on the journey to come back. In that occasion I was able to use the pda, with the gps receiver active, since 12:00, when I disconnected it from the car adapter, to 18:00, taking a 1-hour pause for me to eat and rest and for the pda to spare the batteries. That makes a full 5-hour autonomy with the GPS active and as little processor usage as it's needed by WinGPS 4L Mobile and odgps. What makes the PDAs with GPS amazing is that after trekking I plugged the A686 in the car lighter and I used it as a car navigator.

Backlight is quite good, but when the sun is high and strong I have to make a shadow over the screen (with my hand or with my body) to see the map, especially if it has dark colours, like maps taken from Google Earth (TomTom maps with the default colours are much more visible). Desktop The process to change the backlight brightness is quite long and annoying to do when the screen is difficult to read: Start, Settings, Systems, Backlight; but fortunately Asus provided the Asus Status icon on the bottom right angle of the screen (the red "A"): tapping this icon a menu appears, and a tap on the Backlight item will open the backlight settings, where the backlight brightness can be increased or decreased. The Psion 5 comes to my mind again because the backlight could be activated simply pressing two keys (it had a keyboard and the backlight settings were only "on" and "off"); a good solution for the Asus MyPal models could be providing backlight settings as a function to be assigned to one of the customizable buttons and then using the navigation button to increase or decrease the brightness level - AsusTek, are you reading?

The A686 comes with two pens, a good thought by Asus; even if I never lost my previous Psion 5 pen, I understand how easy is to lose it. When the A686 is used vertically, the pen is located horizontally in the bottom side, coming out from the bottom right corner; when used horizontally, the pen is in vertical position and comes out from the top right corner. This way the pen can't come out by itself. Moreover, the pen makes some resistance when it's pulled out because when it's inside the pda it's shortened: the upper half of the pen goes inside the lower part, so that when I pull out the pen the upper part comes out of the lower part first, extending the pen, then it stops and I have to pull again to make the lower part coming out of the silo. I think it's almost impossible for the pen to come out accidentally.

The A686 has a navigation button (the large circular one at the center), with 4 functions (move up, down, left, right), a confirm button (that at the center of the navigation button) and four additional buttons whose functions can be customized in Start, Settings, Buttons; they are numbered, from left to right, as this: 3, 4, 1, 2. There are many functions that can be assigned to a button:

The HOLD button, that locks the PDA to avoid accidental pressure of buttons, is located on one of the longest sides of the A686. Unfortunately, in this position it could be accidentally switched to the HOLD position when putting the A686 in its protection case: this is what happened to me once and made me lose some hours trying to figure out what the problem was (I had already forgot there was a HOLD button, and I was already suspecting a failure of the PDA), until I "accidentally" saw the HOLD button and breathed a sigh of relief.

The car cradle can be attached to the windshield using the gooseneck sucker. There is a locking mechanism which helps the sucker to always be firm against the glass: that avoids that an accidental hit on the cradle with the hand or a road bump taken too fast would make the sucker lose its grip and fall with the cradle and the pda. Moreover, the hard to flex gooseneck makes sure the position of the pda can't be accidentally moved from the supposedly well studied position the driver placed it when mounting the gooseneck and cradle.
On the contrary, the 12v adapter seems cheap and it doesn't plug firmly in the car outlet: taking some bumps or fast turns it happened it came out.

GPS accuracy

The precision of a path tracked using GPS data and the accuracy of the current position displayed on a map by a navigation software depend on many factors (accuracy of the gps receiver, correctness of the map, precision of the software that uses gps data) and it may be good for some people as long as it may be insufficient for others. Here are some examples of such accuracy or inaccuracy:

Connecting to internet via bluetooth phone

The Asus MyPal A686 cannot connect to the internet directly like a smartphone, and has no wifi connection. So, if you want to browse the web on the A686, you have two options: you can use a usb cable to connect this pda to a pc already connected to the internet and surf the web through the pc, or you can use a bluetooth phone's modem feature.
Here is how to configure the Asus MyPal A686 and a generic bluetooth phone (pictures show Windows Mobile 6 italian version dialogs, but you can find the english translations in the explanation).

Preliminary configuration

Steps to connect

Have fun!

Troubleshooting

Conclusion

Even though the Asus MyPal A686 is slower and has half the memory of its more desired big brother, the A696, its hardware is more than adequate for regular PDA and navigation tasks. The gps is accurate enough, sometimes cold starts are slow but warm starts usually require less than 2 minutes. The battery autonomy is above average. The package is complete for people who want to choose the navigation software: to start using the A686 as a car navigator, a SD card and the navigation software must be bought too.
With a price of 276 Euro when the A696 costs 295 Euro, it's quite expensive and I would have bought the bigger brother if it was in stock. However, after 6 months of use I have nothing to complain about the A696... for now.



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Posted by: z24 | Sun, Dec 09 2007 | Category: /hardware | Permanent link | home
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