A symbol of PDAs to come?

Symbol MC70 Rugged PDA

Performance: A

Battery life: B

Features: A+

Value: B-

Price: $2,795 (as tested)

Reviewer's comments: May be a godsend for first responders or maintenance workers who want to communicate over various networks in less-than-ideal conditions. The price tag is a bit high, so it's really only suited for niche uses.

Contact: Symbol Technologies Inc., Holtsville, N.Y., (631) 738-2400, www.symbol.com

The MC70 adheres to military specs for rugged devices.

MC70 is expensive, but rugged and well-suited to specialty tasks

Government workers in need of a powerful handheld will find everything they want in the new Symbol MC70 Enterprise Digital Assistant, including wireless connectivity on virtually all network types.

It looks like a BlackBerry on steroids, with a full QWERTY keyboard along the bottom and a 3.5-inch, 320-by-240, high-resolution touch screen. That's a real touch screen, mind you, like the ones on most tablet PCs; no special radio pen required. And the system runs Microsoft Windows Mobile 2005, so it can handle most Windows business applications.

Still, the average BlackBerry user won't necessarily be looking to the MC70 in a pinch. This bigger, rugged PDA is best suited for special situations. It's three inches wide and about 11?2 inches thick, which actually surprised us at first. But there are reasons for the bulk: It can support 802.11a/b/g WiFi and Bluetooth connections, as well as EDGE cellular networks. Not all models handle cellular communications right out of the box (the unit we tested did), but they're built to, and WiFi radios add bulk. As cellular features go, the MC70 includes push-to-talk capabilities, making it especially useful for such applications as inventory tracking, first response and other field work.

The MC70 also is ruggedized and meets military specifications in several areas. Our test unit survived a series of five-foot drops onto plywood over concrete without noticeable damage. It was also able to survive two hours in the GCN Rain Forest Environmental Testing Area, where temperatures climb to over 110 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity hovers at close to 100 percent. The MC70 is actually rated as high as 122 degrees and as low as -4 degrees Fahrenheit.

If you want to use your MC70 for inventory tracking, two optional, embedded scanners are available: a 1D version with a simple laser scanner and a 2D Pico Imager. With all that technology packed inside, it's no wonder the MC70 is a bit heavy. Our unit with every available option weighed 12.5 ounces, a lot for a standard PDA but not for a rugged, specialty device like this.

The MC70 is also a good performer. In addition to running standard productivity apps, we watched an instructional video and were impressed by the image quality. The audio was loud and clear, and could easily compete with a notebook speaker system.

One of the main reasons for its ability to run diverse applications such as streaming video is the MC70's powerful Intel XScale processor running at 624 MHz. Its 128MB of RAM and 64MB of ROM don't hurt, either.

We were also pleased with the unit's battery life. Symbol has designed the MC70 to take the best possible advantage of power management features, resulting in battery life of nearly 41?2 hours when in constant use. That's pretty good for the standard 1,900 mAh lithium-ion battery, especially considering the way WiFi radios suck juice. You might want to avail yourself of Symbol's 3,800-mAh extended-life battery.

The MC70 has a Secure Digital Input/Output slot with a plastic cover to keep out dust and moisture. The SDIO slot could support a digital camera or a biometric scanner, depending on user needs. The premium model we tested goes for $2,795, but even a low-end MC70 will cost a couple of thousand dollars. Needless to say, the high price reflects its everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink design and niche application status. But for government workers who need this kind of rugged, specialty handheld, the MC70 has few peers.

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