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T-Mobile MDA Vario III Review

I’m quite a fan of HTC handheld devices. Personally I feel that HTC has done more to promote the smartphone than any other company, producing some truly excellent products along the way. Despite not being won over by the consumer focussed HTC Touch, I did feel that the TyTN was one of the all time greats. In fact when I reviewed the TyTN, in its Orange SPV M3100 guise I gave it an award and proceeded to use it as my personal data device for quite some time.

Recently HTC launched the P4550 Kaiser handset, now known as the TyTN II, which took everything that was good about the TyTN and just made it better. But now I have the first operator branded HTC TyTN II, in the form of the T-Mobile MDA III, and I have a feeling that this could well be the best smartphone option out there.

The great thing about the Vario III is that the changes are subtle, but at the same time significant. Basically, nothing has been done to spoil the recipe of the previous model, but a great deal has been done to improve it. First up, it’s ever so slightly slimmer than the TyTN, or the Vario II – not enough to make a massive difference in your pocket, but it is noticeable when the two devices are placed next to each other. Actual measurements are 110 x 58 x 18mm (LxWxD). That said, the Vario III is heavier than the older version, weighing in at 191g compared to 178g.

The whole front fascia of the Vario III is finished in brushed silver, while the back matches this. The central portion of the device is black, creating a sleek and stylish contrast to the design. The 2.8in 240 x 320 is no different from the old model, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Yes, a higher resolution would make browsing standard web pages more convenient, but that’s far from the main duty of a smartphone. What you have got is a clear, bright and vivid screen, making it very easy to navigate through the Windows Mobile 6 menus.

Below the screen there’s a plethora of buttons to play with. There are the obligatory two soft buttons, along with the Call and End buttons. There’s also a Windows button, OK button, a shortcut messaging services and a Web ‘n’ Walk shortcut, for T-Mobile’s mobile data service.

Talking of mobile data, the Vario III is fully HSDPA compliant, so you’ll be getting lightning fast download speeds for web pages and email – if you get as much email as I do, having a high-speed download facility will make life on the move far easier. In fact, having been using the HTC Touch as my main phone lately, I can confirm that a big email download over GPRS can be mind numbingly slow, even if you cap each message at 2KB.

The HSDPA/3G support also means that the Vario III is a great device for video calling, much like its predecessor. As always, I decided to call Benny to test the video calling, which inevitably meant that I had to look at his face! This was a cross network video call, since Benny is on O2 and equipped with a Sony Ericsson K800i. Benny commented that the image quality being sent from the Vario III was excellent – so much so that he was able to clearly read car number plates when I pointed the device towards them. This would indicate that the front facing 640 x 480 camera in the Vario III is a cut above the norm.

While I’m on the subject of cameras, there’s a 3-megapixel camera mounted at the rear of the device. The original TyTN or Vario II only had a 2-megapixel camera, so this should be a significant improvement, but in reality it didn’t really appear to be. The camera on the old device was supported by a self portrait mirror, a flash and a macro switch – the camera in the Vario III has none of those things. How much of an issue that is, depends on how important your camera phone is to you. Personally, I never take photos of myself, so I don’t need the mirror, flashes in camera phones are invariably poor, so I never use them and although the macro switch in the SPV 3100 produced impressive results, the only time I ever used it was to take the test shot for the review!

Unfortunately, like the camera in the old TyTN, the Vario III snapper has real problems metering scenes with dramatic contrast changes. As you can see in the pictures on this page, the shot of my car in the bright sunlight has completely thrown the Vario III’s metering. The area of the bodywork that’s reflecting the sun is completely whited out, while the colour of the car itself is totally off. The second picture of the car in the shade, shows that the camera can get the colour pretty much perfect, but even here, the top of the frame is completely overexposed.

If camera quality is paramount to you when purchasing a smartphone, then the images produced by the Vario III may be a disappointment. I would however, be very surprised if anyone considering a device like this would have the camera as a key consideration. Especially considering that the Vario III does just about everything else incredibly well.

One of the best features of the Vario range was always the slide out qwerty keyboard, and of course this is all present and correct in the Vario III. The screen now slides from right to left to reveal the keyboard instead of left to right – this means that you can’t hold it in your left hand and push it open with your thumb, but I had no problems sliding it open with my fingers instead.

The full keyboard and surround are finished in black, rather than the rather garish pink and silver finish of the Vario II – although I imagine that the colour scheme was to match T-Mobile’s corporate colours. Once in landscape mode, with your thumbs positioned over the keyboard, you’ll find the first major improvement on the Vario III – the tilting screen. Whereas with the Vario and Vario II, the screen remained flat when the device was slid open, with the Vario III the screen can tilt upwards to around 45 degrees, allowing you to look directly at the screen with the device in front of you, rather than having to look down onto it.

The tilting screen makes a massive difference to the usability of a device like this, especially if you have to answer a lot of emails on the move, or if you want to actually take notes on your smartphone as I often do. You can even position the screen at any point between zero and 45 degrees, allowing almost anyone to achieve the perfect viewing angle. It also means that if you like to use a portable Bluetooth keyboard with your smartphone, you won’t need any kind of cradle or stand for the Vario III.

The keyboard on the Vario III is slightly larger than the one on the Vario II, but only by a few millimetres. There are also indicator lights for the Function button and Caps Lock, both of which are very useful additions. The keys themselves have a solid feel to them, with a reassuring click. I found that I could pickup the Vario III and type reasonably fast straight away, but then I’ve been using devices with slide out keyboards for some time now.

On the right side of the chassis you’ll find the power button, a shortcut to the camera and the stylus. The stylus is another improvement over the previous model – I was never a fan of the stubby telescopic stylus that shipped with the Vario II, so it’s good to see a long, slim, metal stylus hiding inside the Vario III.

Along the bottom edge you’ll find a mini-USB port for synchronisation and charging, along with a recessed reset button. There’s also a rubber flap which covers the micro-SD card slot – once again, this is an improvement over the older model, which had no protective cover for the card slot. Missing from the bottom edge is the infrared port, but I haven’t used IrDA in years, so that’s not a significant loss.

On the left hand side there’s a shortcut button to the voice command functionality, a second OK button and a jog dial. I’m a big fan of jog dials, especially on devices where you may need to navigate through long lists. This makes the Vario III incredibly versatile when it comes to navigating pages – you can scroll through pages using the jog dial, you can use the four-way pad below the screen, you can use the scroll bar with your finger or the stylus, or you can resort to HTC’s TouchFLO interface! As Jon mentioned in his review of the HTC P4550, the TouchFLO functionality feels far more beneficial in this handset because it’s not the main focus of the device, as it was with the HTC Touch.

Inside the Vario III is a Qualcomm 7200 processor, running at 400MHz. That’s a pretty fast chip for a handheld device, and the Vario III definitely feels swift in use. There’s 128MB of RAM and 256MB of flash – the result on my review sample was about 66MB free for programs and around 125MB for storage. That’s a hefty amount of built-in memory, and considering that you can pick up a 1GB micro-SD card for under a tenner, storage most definitely isn’t a problem on this device.

Connectivity is superb with the Vario III – you get HSDPA/3G support, along with EDGE, GPRS and Quad Band GSM (850, 900, 1800 and 1900). On top of this, you’ve got Bluetooth 2.0 EDR and 802.11b/g Wi-Fi. There’s pretty much nothing that this smartphone won’t connect to, and with HSDPA running at up to 3.6mbps, you’ll be getting lightning fast data downloads without having to look for a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Another major addition over the Vario II is the inclusion of a built-in GPS receiver. This really does mean that the Vario III can do pretty much everything. Knowing that you’ve always got a sat-nav device in your pocket is pretty reassuring, especially if you have to spend a lot of time out at meetings. Of course you’ll need some kind of navigation software to go with the GPS receiver, and ALK was kind enough to send me a preview build of CoPilot Live 7. T-Mobile has quite a strong relationship with ALK, so you’ll probably see a bundle on offer with a Vario III and CoPilot Live 7 soon after the full version launches.

The GPS receiver seemed to be every bit as good as a dedicated sat-nav, locking onto satellites quickly, and rarely dropping the signal, which is more that can be said for a great many GPS devices. CoPilot is, in my opinion, the best Windows Mobile based navigation application and it worked flawlessly with the Vario III. When you factor in the cost of a decent dedicated sat-nav at around £160, the Vario III looks like a bargain of epic proportions.

All in all the Vario III, like the standard HTC TyTN II, is a stunning device with more functionality than you could shake a stick at. The usability is first rate, the call quality for both audio and video is excellent, the connectivity is second to none and as with all Windows Mobile devices, the synchronisation with your PC desktop just works.

The only negative point when Jon reviewed the TyTN II (Kaiser) was the price – nearly £500 is a lot of money, no matter how good a smartphone is. But with the Vario III, you’re not going to have to pay that kind of money. Although T-Mobile isn’t listing the Vario III yet on its own site, there are a couple of retailers taking pre-orders. If you go for something like a Flext 35 + Web’n’Walk contract at £37.50 per month, this handset will set you back £69.99 – this will also give you unlimited data, and a monthly allowance of £180, which equates to around 900 minutes or 1800 texts.

Put simply, if you’re in the market for a smartphone, this is the one to go for.


The Vario range goes from strength to strength with this third generation unit pushing the smartphone envelope. I’d be hard pushed to think of any features that are missing from this device (bar a 3.5mm headphone jack), and perhaps the next incarnation will just see the same hardware squeezed into a thinner and lighter case.

For me, the Vario III represents the perfect mobile device. It’s a phone, a diary, a web browser, an email device and a sat-nav all rolled into one. Whoever coined the phrase “less is more”, obviously didn’t have the Vario III in mind. I have actually been waiting for this device to arrive, since I will be picking one up as my own, personal handset – so in this particular case, the Vario III literally is the Editor’s Choice.

Trusted Score

Score in detail

  • Usability 9
  • Value 10
  • Features 10

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