Hands-on with i-mate's Ultimates

Even as we marvel at the HTC Touch Diamond's gorgeous VGA display, let's not forget that 640 x 480 resolution (buried within the larger context of a monster spec sheet, no less) is old hat for some Windows Mobile devices. i-mate's Ultimate line has been reppin' the high res displays for a while now, starting with the 6150 and 8150 models that were announced well over a year ago; more recently, the 9502 was added, offering shoppers a grand total of three distinct form factors from which to choose plus a more traditional QVGA setup with the 8502. Hate on Windows Mobile all you want, but you have to admit, it's hard to find this kind of hardware diversity with any other platform out there.

We just had an opportunity to play with all four models side by side -- an especially rare opportunity, considering that neither the 8502 nor 9502 are officially being sold in the US (despite their support for HSDPA 850 / 1900). Follow the break for some quick impressions with each of the fearsome foursome.


Software-wise, these devices are very similar to one another. There's not too much going on beyond the core Windows Mobile 6 load other than some minor customization, so we're not going to spend much time discussing it. If you're looking for TouchFLO 3D's spit and polish, these four aren't for you, but if you just need the enterprise workhorse mentality of WinMo and the ability to install a few extra apps, they'll suit you just fine. The VGA displays make fonts look smoother than a baby's bottom, but don't expect to get much extra screen real estate out of the deal; by and large, text would be too small to read anyway.

Let's get the craziest, most anticipated model out of the way first, shall we? The 9502 jumps out not only within the Ultimate range, but within the WinMo ranks as a whole; it's been commonly described as a Sidekick for adults, and after playing with it, we'd say that's a pretty accurate assessment. In some ways, we'd also describe it as an HTC Advantage that actually makes sense: like the Advantage, it makes no apologies about its bulk (seriously, this thing is thick) or utilitarian design, but unlike the Advantage, it actually makes sense. It can actually be held to the face just like any other phone (imagine that!) and fits comfortably in the hand without sacrificing usability of the keyboard or a beautiful display. We found the tiny space bar to be a bit tricky, but we imagine we'd have no trouble getting used to it if this were our full-time device, and the remainder of the keys were a cinch.

We wanted to like the 8502, we really did -- especially after having just used the 9502, which left us longing for the touch of something just a little thinner and sexier. The 8502 fills that bill (within the Ultimate line, anyway), and we were particularly struck by how narrow the phone felt in our hand. Problem is, that same narrowness puts a serious cramp on the QWERTY keypad, which i-mate opted to stuff up front below the display. Frankly, it's one of the least ergonomic keypads we've tried to use in recent memory. The buttons have a bizarre pointy pyramid shape to them, which we think was an attempt to make the exceptionally small, tightly packed layout more usable, but we found that it didn't really help and just made the keys feel weird. What's more, the 8502 is the only Ultimate with a QVGA display, yanking one of the key advantages of the line. We could maybe see 9502 owners picking up one of these for their weekend excursions to Lake Tahoe, but that's about it.

The 8150 doesn't suffer from the 8502's QVGA affliction, but it does share the curse of a nasty keypad. We found the older model's numeric keypad to be a brutal combination of unattractive and difficult to use -- fortunately, that's exactly where the 6150 comes into play.

The 6150 is, for all practical purposes, an 8150 without the numeric keypad. If any other pair of models from another manufacturer shared this same relationship, we'd instinctively say, "it's a no-brainer, take the keypad." Indeed, fat-fingering digits on the inset touchscreen (which was never really designed for finger use, by the way) isn't our favorite activity, but the 8150's keypad is seriously pretty awful, so we'd have to think twice here. What's more, the 6150 wins the beauty contest between the two -- the clean look won by ditching the keys seriously adds some hotness, especially combined with the downright mean looking matte black finish.

It's easy to overlook i-mate (and ASUS, O2, and countless others) with HTC standing squarely in the middle of the Windows Mobile ring dishing out hit after hit, but for folks looking for a solid business phone that can pick up a 3G signal on both sides of the Atlantic, these four need to be given some serious consideration. And heck, if they'd only bring back the 5150, 7150, and 9150 models that were promised as part of the original five, they'd have one heck of a thorough offering.