o2 XDA Exec (3G) Review

The o2 XDA Exec is big. In fact, it’s a tad bigger than my SPV M2000 however the Exec decides to get even bigger when you open it up. Is big beautiful ? What will we see this as ? A phone ? A mini-laptop ? Let’s see….

From the outside

The casing has a whiff of Teflon about it and is well finished. The front edge of the device reveals the stereo speakers on the corners – these produce a fairly good sound which travels well. Although they aren’t exactly sub-woofers the sound is pretty decent even half-way up. Between these speakers there’s the camera / voice prompt buttons and a slider for the volume control. Next to this is a “light bulb” button, which turns the screen backlight on or the screen on if it’s in “standby” mode.

The top edge has the SD card slot (no MiniSD, but then again size isn’t really a problem here) and power button. That small slot is actually the microphone.

Here on the “pivot edge” we have the answer / release keys which stay in the same place no matter what the screen orientation.


There’s also the obligatory miniUSB socket the “Reset” button and a 3.5mm standard headphone jack. Wait.. yes.. that’s right. A 3.5mm standard headphone socket. You can, if you wish, plug in your full Craig David-esque headphones straight into here and dance along to your favourite tunage.

On the left side of this shot you can also see two holes which have rubber gromits poking into them. I pulled these gromits out and found two metal connectors for WCDMA and GSM car kit aerials. Just to the left of that is the stylus, which has a nice grip thing on the top so that you can grab it easily.

At the rear of the Exec is the 1.3 Mega pixel camera and flashlight plus the battery cover which takes up pretty much all of the back. There’s a raised dimple effect on this and a clip at the base to gain access to the battery. Pushing the clip down pops the back open – however the clip is part of the handset itself so there’s no danger of it being snapped off. Nice.


With the Exec “closed” (i.e. with the screen facing the keyboard) you can see the earpiece at the top of the metallic finish near to the logo. This allows you to receive calls with the lid closed. Ahh – but that’s where we hit a sticking point with the Exec in this mode. With the lid facing in this direction and a call coming in it’s impossible to find out who’s calling before you answer it.


Open it up

Opening the hood reveals an extremely bright and crisp screen. It’s a transflective TFT jobby with a VGA resolution – this allowed me to do stuff like Remote Desktop with ease. In fact I could control my desktop PC in an office upstairs extremely well with the built-in “Terminal Services Client” on the Exec. Inside, outside in the daylight – the screen was bold and vivid.

Opening the “lid” doesn’t always mean that the screen will come on though, which is a slight disappointment. If the screen was on when you closed it then it’ll probably come back on when you open it, however if it’s gone into its’ standby slumber then you’ll find yourself scrabbling for the silver power button on the side.

The keyboard is a real gem. The keys look like they’ve been lifted from the dashboard of a Mercedes. There’s a slight abrasiveness about them which adds to the tactile feedback of each key. The keyboard is comfortable and large with each key bevelled to help location. Sure, I had a bit of grief finding the “.” to start off with, and maybe the odd speech mark (“) but after a tiny bit of practice I was bashing away like “Animal” from the Muppets.

On the screen panel is a navigational pad which allows easy browsing of web pages and documents. It mimics the mouse in this way and works well – it’s also positioned in a good spot, although you can use the up / down / left / right arrows on the main keyboard to do the same if you wish. Below the pad is the 0.3 MP camera for your 3G video calls.


There’s no dedicated “shortcut button” for accessing the connection manager on this device.. something which I really liked about the T-Mobile MDA Vario. To get WiFi cooking you have to turn on the device, then press “FN + >”, which brings it up. Ok, ok, so it’s two buttons instead of one but still…

There’s shortcut keys to your contacts, video call, answer / release, email, internet connectivity. I miss my Smartphone “back” key though.

Above the call-answer key you’ll see the light-sensor. This does a good job of picking up the brightness of your surroundings and turns the backlight on for the keyboard if needed. I found a quick get-around if you want it to come on in slightly-dark areas – just put your finger over the sensor briefly. This’ll then keep the backlight on while I typing. I wonder whether this could be linked to the screen brightness too ? If this sensor could automatically drop the backlight on the screen to… say… position “2” on the brightness settings (at users approval / setting), then we would radically improve battery life and stop people walking round with white faces. Just a thought :)



After the initial boot containing a swooshy o2 logo you’re met with the following o2 Active homescreen. You’ll see something pretty similar appearing on other o2 XDA devices like the o2 XDA II with it too. Yeah yeah, I know what you’re thinking. WOAH! That screenshot is HUGE! Well, yes – yes it is. However, that’s the resolution on the screen – look at it.. oooooooooOOOoo…. Check that resolution, come on. Soak it in.

You’ll notice the tabs on the bottom – these give you quick access into various things which, although good, are animated and “heavy” on the homescreen. If you leave the “Settings” tab open and rotate the screen you can almost go off and make a coffee in the time it takes to sort the orientation out.

I personally wanted to remove this o2 Active homescreen and put the basic Microsoft one on. It’s got a heck of a lot of animation about it and it causes a lot of problems… like this for example….

Agh! Messy! UGGHHH!!! Softkeys everywhere!

Windows Mobile 5.0 powers the o2 XDA Exec, so you can kiss goodbye to those old worries of lost data. Persistant storage has now arrived so you don’t need to worry about knocking the battery off the back or racing to the nearest charging point. Voice control is also promoted here, and in a device of this size it’s essential as many people will be using bluetooth headsets and handsfree devices in the car.

First you need to set up a recorded word or phrase. Under “Settings->Personal” you’ll find “Voice Speed Dial”. As shown above you then choose a contact, to dial or a program to open and press “Record”. Once done it’s just a matter of saying your word or phrase after pressing the appropriate button on your hands-free headset (usually the “answer” button) or you the voice-dial button on the side of the Exec.

I wanted to play with video calling first. Let’s not forget that this is a 3G device. You’ll see “3G” and “UMTS” mentioned quite a bit. Basically it’s best to know that “UMTS” and “3G” are one and the same.

However, should you have the “U” symbol then you’re cooking on gas because you’ve got a 3G signal. It’s better to have a “U” at the top because we already have “G” for “GPRS”, so mixing another “G” with “3G” would be confusing for the user. It’s worth checking the o2 Coverage Map if you’re concerned about 3G coverage in your area. Transmitters are being chucked up all the time.

Anyhow, I was lucky enough to be testing both the o2 XDA Exec for this review and the Orange SPV M5000. I was also lucky enough to get a 3G signal on both devices, so I initiated a 3G Video call between them.

This proved to be pretty seemless. You simply press the “Video call” button on the keyboard which is indicated by the eye-ball and the handset. I then call the person (who has 3G compatibility too obviously) and .. well, there you are! Above you can see me speaking to … errr.. Mr Pepsi can. :)

You can click a few buttons and change the size of the preview window, or remove it (if you don’t want to look at yourself!), or change to the rear-mounted camera and show something that you’re looking at. Now, this is where I hit a bit of a snag. The microphone on this device is just above the power button. It doesn’t matter which way you’ve flipped the screen, you’ll be talking into that microphone. Imagine then that you’re out and about – that there’s no flat surface to put the handset onto like you would with a laptop. On a 3G call with the lid “open” you’ll find yourself holding it like this (as, if you’re right-handed, you use the stylus in your right hand normally). Guess where the microphone is? Ah yes – it’s right under your hand. Result? No-one can hear you right….

There’s the other option of course, which is to hold it in your right hand, but then you end up covering the camera. All anyone can see of you is a huge great thumb – they’ll think you’ve had too much plastic surgery…

The solution is to hold it like this. You may think I’m a little mad for bringing this up, however it’s worth mentioning so that you don’t think that it’s a bad connection or anything.

Whilst in the call the video update was quick. Both the preview screen and the received images come through smoothly. Great for speaking to your girlfriend or wife if you’re working away. Obviously with video calling the audio from the call is pumped out of the speakers so that you can hear it when you’re lining yourself up for the camera. However, you can plug in regular headphones so that your call isn’t broadcast to everyone.

Making or receiving a regular voice call is done in many different ways. For example, to make a call with the screen on the outside you can use it as a regular pocket PC phone. Just tap the green button on the side, then bung the number in with your fingers on the touch-sensitive screen. Done. You can also have the Exec in “laptop mode”, tap in the number on the keyboard or screen – press the green “talk” button, then close the lid so that the screen is touching the keyboard and use the case itself to talk on the call. Check out the tiny headphone on the case. A third example would be to use your handsfree kit or press “speaker on” with the phone in it’s “laptop mode”. I found this particularly useful in the car – you can put the phone on the dash-board and see exactly what’s happening. What you can’t do though is have the phone turn on the speaker automatically when it’s on your desk in “laptop mode”. I’d love to be able to have it propped open on my desk and just make a call (without a bluetooth headset) and hear the person through the speaker-phone. Damn.

Pressing FN+> brings up the Wireless Manager, which lets you quickly enable or disable Bluetooth, Wifi, the phone, or everything. Pretty good if you’re just going onto a plane.

The Exec is packed with applications. We’ve NOT, however, got a PDF viewer, which would’ve been great to see, plus there’s a cut-down version of Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint Mobile. There’s also Zip, which is a fantastic addition and ideal when you’re after an application or file on the internet.

Here’s a shot of what’s included on the Exec. Ignore “Splashblog”, that’s something I’ve installed. Notice how MSN Messenger has now been replaced by Pocket MSN, which now includes it along with some other Hotmail and MSN functions. There’s also a stack load of o2 goodies too!

o2 Include an email setup wizard, a hotspot finder and direct access into their o2 Active portal from the Programs list. You can also modify the “Install Type” of the Exec, so you can tailor it to the type of person who owns it.

The Hotspot Finder (above) was particularly useful, especially if you need fast internet access and you can’t get a 3G signal.

I tried out MSN Messenger and found that it tends to only use the top-half of the screen unless you double-tap the “virtual keyboard”..


In the settings window we have the following options…


The pocket versions of Excel and Word are always useful of course. It’s handy to be able to write something when you’re out and about and then transfer it via email / ActiveSync to your PC late


The contacts option has received a significant overhaul and will be quite a bit different for ex-Windows Mobile 2003 users. After adding a contact and allocating the person a picture and special ringtone I get the screen below next to their name. The addition of prompts plus icons helps to divide the various functions up and makes regular tasks nice and easy to complete. Call them on their mobile, call them at work, send a text, send an email – or just check which ringtone you gave them, it’s all here and easy to see what you need. The screen to the right shows the functions you can perform when scrolling down the contact list.

Internet Explorer – or “PIE” as it’s known is shown below. It’s had a bit of an overhaul and there are more viewing options – I like to zoom out as far as possible so that the text is as small as can be. On a screen of this quality it’s easy to do. In fact, just before I start talking about Pocket Internet Explorer let me just show you a few shots of me doing a Terminal Services Session (Remote Desktop) into my PC upstairs. I’m actually using the Exec to use the Internet Explorer on my PC upstairs !


So anyway, back to Internet Explorer on the Exec. Here you can see me browsing in landscape mode. Like the Vario I found that the joypad was in exactly the right spot for moving around the page. It can all be done from your right thumb – just move up and down, then tap the “action” key to follow a link. Notice that the “Windows Flag” has vanished from the top-right corner of the page. This always got in the way slightly before, and it’s now down at the bottom along with a progress bar that only pops up when the page is loading. After it’s loaded it vanishes along with the progress bar..


There’s also a new full-screen mode which you can use to view pages better. I liked using the “Smallest” font size as it crammed more into the screen, plus there’s viewing modes like “one column” and “desktop” to choose from. The full screen mode shown below just needs a quick tap of any soft-key to get back to the normal viewing so that you can enter another address.

Call register is now on the main menu and has an excellently simple layout with tool-tips showing you how long a call lasted for and when the call was made. There’s also some nice chunky icons to show you whether the call was inbound or outbound.

Again, like the Vario, Windows Mobile 5.0 means that I can quite happily attempt to install older Smartphone-only applications onto the Exec, and they will install. Sure, not all of them will run 100% but they’ll run to some degree. That was impossible previously – Smartphone apps couldn’t be installed on Windows Mobile 2003 for Pocket PC. However, Windows Mobile 5.0 is Windows Mobile 5.0, no matter what device.

Windows Media Player 10 is onboard. Unfortunately it does have the “SD card insert bug” I mentioned in the Vario review. The bug occurs after running Windows Media Player and after the phone has subsequently gone into its’ standby mode.

.. When the phone gets woken up again it seems to trigger a false “Storage Card has been inserted” message into Windows Media Player – I presume because the card-slot has just been repowered. This results in Windows Media, which was running in the background (even though you closed it, because you never, ever really close things with that “close” button), to display the message above. It seems to do it again, and again, and again. Every time I tap the power button. It won’t go away. AGH!

Fix? Well, to fix it you have to go into “Settings->System->Memory->Running Programs->Stop”. Bagh! Terrible. I hope a fix will come out for this, because it stops me wanting to use Windows Media Player.


The camera comes loaded with several different modes. You can use the external mega-pixel cam or the lower resolution face-pointing one. There’s tonnes of modes to choose from, including Photo, Video, MMS Video, Contacts Picture and Picture Theme. These are all pretty self explanatory so far. Obviously photo-mode will let you now take hi-res pictures on the mega-pixel camera. Shots come out pretty well, and you can even set it to a supposed “2M”, although that’s actually just a “super big” photo on the same resolution as this is a 1.3 Mega pixel camera. Here’s a few examples of the quality….

Close-up with flash – 1.3 Megapixel (resized)

With flash into bright screen

With flash and without flash comparison shots

If you want the “not resized” examples, there’s some shots I took of the snow here (dark day, heavy snow), here (another shot in the snow) and here (1.4 zoom).

There’s many different controls to use in order to get the best quality shot. You can adjust the contrast, gamma and all manner of advanced settings plus the quality of the image, ambience and much more.


There’s also another fantastic mode which I love – it’s called Panorama. I’d love to should you clips of this but unfortunately they won’t come out. It works by taking 3 shots (this can be increased to 6) and sticking them together. You start by taking a shot as normal – however the far left-side of the image you’ve just taken will be over-layed on the right-side of the next shot. You move the Exec to the left, line up the overlay, take another snap, then do the same again. The result ? Well, have a look at some examples below…

You’ve also got “burst” for shots of quick-moving objects and “sport” for taking several shots in sequence (click, click, click, click!).


Let’s be fair, this is a fairly chunky device. The power within it does however make up for that. For my own use I carry a bluetooth headset around and make calls by tapping it – that initiates a bluetooth connection with the Exec and starts the voice-dial application. I can then use the Exec in it’s “laptop mode” and check a Word Document or Excel Spreadsheet while talking to my boss on the way home from work. The Exec is truely packed with stuff – and if it’s not there you can install a piece of software that’ll suit your needs later. However, if you don’t plan to use the Exec to its full potential then this may not be the device for you. This is one heck of a powerhouse with a very good, high quality screen t’boot.

A part of me wants more – maybe a GPS receiver ? The Exec wouldn’t look out of place if it was moulded into a Mercedes dashboard for sat-nav! Part of me also wants it to be a bit smaller too. However, I have to admit that this is an essential piece of kit for the mobile worker.

I can put the Exec on my dashboard and tap my bluetooth headset and say, “Traffic”. The Exec dials the traffic news line. Next I can say, “Music”. The Exec brings up Media Player and I can then listen to some tunes. You’ll find yourself using the stylus less thanks to the softkeys which have been added – this improves the one-handed navigation. The battery life isn’t too bad either – provided you remember to turn the WiFi off, which tends to suck juice. I got around 2 days with “normal” use and about a day when I sat on WiFi for hours on end.

The 520 MHz Intel processor shifts, even if it does take a couple of seconds to change the screen orientation (big tip – have a simple-as-possible “Today” screen). As far as storage goes.. well, you could use the internal memory, however it’s essential you grab yourself an SD card – they’re cheap as can be at the moment, just check out MobyMemory.com.. Speed-wise this could do better, however there’s a lot of heavy o2 additions which you can alter by changing the “install type” to “Corporate install”.

So to return to our original question. Is it a phone ? A mini-laptop ? Actually it’s not quite in either camp. You can’t call this a fully fledged laptop, however it has got way better than my normal laptop. However, you can remote-desktop (Terminal Services / RDP) into a normal PC / Laptop if you’re really hungry for some functionality. It’s not a normal “phone” either as we can plainly see. To be able to carry out a call whilst simultaneously surfing the net over the 3G connection ? You can’t do that on many phones can you?

The o2 XDA Exec is a top-end business handset, and rightfully so. It has earned it’s medals based on what I’ve seen and has the power to help you through your working week, plus the capability to give you something extra for the journey home too.


UPDATE – Steve H has emailed us in with a way to remove the hefty o2 Active user interface. You need to do a hard reset (clear storage) then at the prompt for “Corp” or “Personal”, type 0506 and wait. The o2 Active user interface does not install!

Get the o2 XDA Exec from o2.co.uk or check out our deals…