About us

MDA Vario vitals

   MDA Vario
   Contract dependant
Available at

   16 September 2006
   Lawrence Latif

Scan Windows 7

The right balance
Last year I wrote how a smartphone spoilt my life; in the weeks following its publication I got a number of people querying me whether they should purchase such a phone themselves citing some of the problems I faced. A year on my contract was up for renewal and as is customary, the renewal came with the opportunity to 'upgrade' to a newer unit at subsidized prices so which did I go for? A smartphone of course!

More specifically, I went for the T-Mobile MDA Vario which is based on the extremely popular HTC K-Jam. So why after such a negative article on my previous smartphone, the SDA III, did I choose to live with another one? The thing with smartphones is that if you really need them then you really get used to their company. It's just like any relationship, you put up with the bad habits just so you can enjoy the brief moments of joy. Thanks to advances in hardware and software, those moments of joy are more frequent.

In mobile phone terms the Vario is old, in fact T-Mobile have released the Vario II a couple of weeks ago. So why am I writing about a phone that's already out of date? Well, the latest Vario is very expensive even with a new contract, and high-end handsets usually take 8-10 months before they reach a price point which is deemed acceptable when you factor in the line rental. The Vario is at that stage and still manages to pack a good punch.

Having lived with the Vario for a couple of months I can say it's a more rounded product, offering much greater portability and reliability without loosing much of its functionality. Sporting Windows Mobile 5, the operating system is more polished and doesn't need a reset everyday. In the last two months I've only had to reset it once.

Click to enlarge Click to enlarge

Externally the smaller unit is pleasant to work with, being a bit on the chunky side it fits well in your palm. Even with the keyboard slid out, your left hand nicely cradles the device (vice versa for lefties). All this miniaturization means that it now fits in your trouser pocket without causing too much self-consciousness. Thanks to advances in the screen and keyboard, the cost of shrinkage hasn't seemed to adversely affect functionality.

The Vario sports a 2.8" screen which has a resolution of 240x320 making it a joy to work with. Brightness is fine although working in bright sunlight still requires careful positioning to catch the shade to aid legibility. The orientation of the screen from portrait to landscape mode occurs automatically when the keyboard is slid out.

Click to enlarge Click to enlarge

Featuring a QWERTY keyboard which is actually usable, the Vario suddenly becomes a very usable device for writing text messages, emails and even short documents. Much improved from the stupidly small and devoid-of-feel unit found in the SDA III, it makes long text entry less of a chore. Having used the HTC TyTN on which the Vario II is based, I can say the keyboard on that model is a further improvement featuring larger keys. Nevertheless, I find myself using the keyboard much more than the dinky stylus.

Due to the petit dimensions of the Vario, it must have been deemed that a full size stylus would simply not stow within the device. So we get lumbered with a tiny retractable one which even when extended I find almost useless because of my long fingers. For reasons unfathomable to man (or woman) they have put the stylus slot on bottom of the phone maybe trying to gently hint at using the keyboard instead.

T-Mobile have adorned the Vario with subtle hints of the company's livery. The top right hard button directs you to their 'T-Mobile favourites' service and a simple, if rather large T-Mobile logo is also present on the front. Thankfully the ghastly T-Mobile Windows Mobile theme can be altered within a matter of minutes after initial setup.

Sporting a 1.3 megapixel camera, the quality of which is fair but only in conditions that afford it lighting commonly found in a Jean Michel Jarre concert. Thanks to the miniSD slot providing excellent storage capabilities, movie clips of decent length can be recorded and stored on the phone. T-Mobile don't offer a version of this phone without the camera, so you'll have to make sure your organization allows phones with camera functionality before purchasing.

Battery life varies wildly with usage but stand-by times are very agreeable. Generally I manage to go three days without charging although that's without using many of the features such as the camera or wireless. Expect it to last about a day when under heavy usage.

Wireless connectivity is well catered for with infrared, Bluetooth and WiFi. They all work well except WiFi which seems to take an age to find networks. The range isn't bad from the integrated antenna. I have a feeling the time taken to find networks is more to do with the software than the hardware, so here's hoping the next software release will fix that.

A somewhat glaring omission, but one that T-Mobile have said they will fix, is the lack of Blackberry e-mail support. Push email is enabled but a Blackberry client isn't currently included. However T-Mobile now offers a site where to download official "ROMS", which are the basic software that makes your Vario work. A future release is promised with Blackberry support. In the meantime you still have POP3 and IMAP support, both of which work absolutely fine.

The voice activation feature deserves a special mention as it is excellent. You can launch applications as well as call people in your address book utilizing only one button and your voice. It works very well even in noisy environments and you have to work quite hard in order to catch it out. Similarly during phone calls voices can be heard clearly and the microphone picks up noises very well.

So am I happy with the Vario? It's a good phone and corrects many of the problems I wrote about a year ago. It isn't the panacea of smart devices just yet but considering that it is relatively cheap on a new contract or upgrade, it represents good value for money.

Clearly the smartphone platform is maturing nicely, with Microsoft going the right way with its operating system too. Physically the Vario is very well proportioned and manages to pack its considerable feature set neatly. Memory expansion is ample through the miniSD slot and connectivity options are all there. Battery life is fine, no more than that. Once a Blackberry e-mail client becomes available, the Vario creates very few excuses to go with a Blackberry device. Couple that to much improved reliability then this Vario owner is one appeased chap.