While the rest of the mobile phone industry has been producing ever slimmer and sexier handsets, so-called 'smart' phones have struggled to keep up. Hampered by the need for usability (yes, I know it sounds silly), practicality and power - and the fact that Windows Mobile doesn't work that well on small screens - most smartphones have traditionally tended to be on the pocket-stretching side.
That is beginning to change, though. The Palm Centro recently demonstrated that you can fit a usable QWERTY keypad on a device that doesn't require a belt clip to carry it around, and I liked the Asus M930, a beautifully-designed clamshell phone based on Windows Mobile Standard, again with a full QWERTY keyboard, but still small and sexy.
But nothing I've yet seen quite beats Asus' latest, and most exciting, PDA-style handset for sheer pocketability. The Asus P320 measures a mere 100 x 55mm and is 13.4mm slim. It weighs just 105 grams, too, which makes it the smallest, lightest Windows Mobile Professional device I've ever come across. It's more compact even than the HTC Touch and Glofiish X600 - even my small hands look gorilla-like in the presence of this dainty device. Amazingly, given such diminutive dimensions, the P320 also includes a GPS receiver, so you can add full in-car sat-nav via the microSD slot on the side if you want. There's also a Wi-Fi adaptor packed in somehow.
Of course the tiny dimensions do have their drawbacks: you'll not be wanting to type out any seriously long emails using this phone - there's no sliding keyboard, no hardware number pad, and not even any enhancement to the useless on-screen Windows Mobile keyboard. And Windows Mobile's small check boxes and skinny scrollbars are even less usable on a 240 x 320 screen that measures just 2.65in diagonally.
But Asus has made an effort here to mitigate such restrictions. As well as including the latest version of Windows Mobile Professional - version 6.1 - the P320 is equipped with Asus' own Today Screen enhancements which, like the HTC version and SPB's excellent Mobile Shell software, include weather information, plus quick access to other commonly used functions. In this case, you get an attractive snapshot of calls missed, voice messages left, and email plus a scrolling ticker of either recent emails, text messages or RSS feed news stories - the latter supplied via the bundled Newstation RSS tool. Plus there's the obligatory over-sized digital clock and alarm display. Asus has also included its own finger-friendly launcher software that allows you to initiate, if not operate, many of the P320's applications and settings without recourse to the stylus, which is tucked away in a slot at the top left of the chassis.
The phone's physical controls work well. Under the screen on the front there's a clickable five-way thumb control - nothing fancy, but it does the job - and this is surrounded by a familiar-looking array of Windows Mobile smartphone buttons. Here you get Start, ok, pick-up and hang-up keys, plus a couple of hardware soft buttons atop the cluster. I liked the fact that the P320 has a proper lock and unlock switch on the side: it's much more effective and reliable than simply relying on the power button, which can easily be pressed by accident, or an on-screen method to lock the phone, as is the case with most other Windows Mobile devices.