User Review: NTT DoCoMo Sigmarion II

by Zhou Xiwen
(der Anwenderbericht in deutscher ‹bersetzung ist hier zu finden)


Sigmarion 2, where the Legend of Power HPC Starts

HPC aficionados should not be unfamiliar with NTT DoCoMo Sigmarion 3, one of the most powerful HPCs available today. With Intel Xscale PXA255 400mhz CPU, ATI video card and ever-improving TCPMP, S3 can easily handle many desktop divx files, thus making it an awesome portable video device thanks to its glamorous 800x480 TFT screen; its Pocket Internet Explorer 5.5 combined with the power of WinCE.NET delivers smooth and uninterrupted browsing experienced almost on par with that on standard desktop PCs. But I am not going to review S3 because there are already many great reviews on S3 on the Internet. Instead, I would like to share my experience with its predecessor NTT DoCoMo Sigmarion 2 (referred as S2 hereafter).

Powered by an amazingly fast NEC VR4131 200mhz CPU - not seen in any other consumer HPC - and an independent MediaQ 200 video card plus the HandheldPC 2000 platform, S2 easily outperforms all my current and past HPCs including Intermec 6651, Sharp HC-AJ1 and Japanese version of NEC MP880 - NEC 730F. Though in theory the CPU clock is much slower than Celux 300HC with Intel PXA250 300mhz CPU that I review in another article S2 is almost on par with 300HC because HPC2K might not be fully optimized for Xscale CPU. In short, S2 is one of the fastest HPCs that I ever used - if you don't believe me look at the BMQ benchmark comparison on this site. The father (or mother :-) of a powerful dream HPC is still a powerhouse.

The Look and Hardware

S2 has an acclaimed design. As its predecessor Sigmarion released in 2000, it is still designed by Zero Halliburton. My unit is a second-handed ordinary version in ivory white while the limited edition is in cool black. The front side has two sets of horizontal lines. Between them is the famous NTT DoCoMo logo that is also found on S3. A "Designed by Zero Halliburton" logo stands in the bottom while two indicators for charging and alarms are arranged at the right corner.


Figure 1: the front side with a coin and CD for size comparison

Once the screen is unfolded, the user can still see the two indicators as well as the usual Japanese keyboard. The keyboard is similar to those on other NEC HPCs as the entire Sigmarion series are manufactured by this once HPC giant.

On the left side-panel, S2 offers a charging port, a serial sync port and a PHS phone communication port. Beneath the keyboard are the Foma port, infrared and headset jack and the pen holder. Foma is Japan 3G mobile phone service. With this port, the user can connect to trendy NTT 3G phone and easily connect to high-speed mobile network that is already quite popular in this island nation.

A CFII slot is located on the right side-panel. Unfortunately, there is no PC card slot and this certainly limits S2 expansion choices. For me, the biggest surprise comes from the hole for phone strap next to the CF slot. I think only those Japanese guys would think of hanging this 500g HPC before their chest.


Figure 2: CFII slot and the hole for phone strap on the right

Positives and Negatives in Design and Hardware

Positives

In its design and hardware, S2 has quite a few good points: first is the keyboard. As expected for HPC in such a size, the keypads are small but quite soft and responsive. Some Taiwanese users say this keyboard is almost on par with those on Psion 5MX or Mako. English text input might be a pleasant experience, but not for Asian characters input. Inputting Chinese or Japanese usually requires selecting the right word from various choices and this makes Asian text input solely on the keyboard more difficult. As a result, Asian HPC users usually depend on handwriting for text input.

Besides connecting to Foma phones, the FOMA port can be turned into a USB host one to accept a broad range of USB peripherals including USB thumb drives, USB harddiscs, keyboard and even USB GPS recievers. However, it is hard to find the original Foma-USB converter now when there are only second-handed S2s available. Still, this converter can be home made and HPC buffs have long ago found the definitions of wires inside. With this converter, S2ís function and uses can be greatly expanded. For drivers, please refer to the USB driver section of my review on Celux 300HC. The MIPS HPC Pro version of NEC USB Clik driver works great on S2.


Figure 3: Foma port and headset jack

Another convenient design is the hardware screen switch. When listening to Mp3s on S2, the user can close the screen. The hardware protuberance will automatically press down the switch and turn off the backlight. If the screen unfolds later, the backlight will turn back on again. 

I suggest this is a real human-touch feature and adds lots of value to HPC usersí daily use. Few HPCs, however, apply the same design. I really want to see this feature on other machines. HPCs manufacturers, please consider my suggestion.

S2 has a great battery life. Its standard battery is rated at 1800mAh. According to the test of Taiwanese users, the all-new battery can last about 9 hours. My unitís battery has probably been over-used and it only lasts three hours now. Not too bad for a second-handed HPC, I think. 


Figure 4: Sig2's clamshell unfolded; when closed backlight switches off automatically - quite a nice
feature if you want to listen mp3 on the road!

Negatives

The biggest disappointment comes from the screen. According to NTTís marketing materials, S2 deploys advanced HPA screen that can successfully eliminate most screen ghosts usually seen on other STN sisplay panels. S2 does not live up to its claims, at least for me who has long been using Sharp HC-AJ1 - a TFT screen HPC Pro - and other modern TFT PPCs for mobile video and multimedia purposes. 

In my test, there are considerable screen ghost during normal and no tense motion MTV playback and much noises on the screen, making it totally unfit for mobile video viewing. Even scrolling e-books slightly fast will also generate visible screen ghost and this annoys me because I am quite used to viewing e-books and pictures on the glamorous TFT screen of HC-AJ1.

One past review from Taiwan says: "I could not see any screen ghost on S2" - the author concurrently used Ipaq 3850 at the time of review and made some comparison between these two machines. It is difficult for me to imagine anyone, who well knew what a ghost-free TFT screen like that on 3850 should perform, would say S2ís screen was also screen-ghost-free. For me, one thing is for sure: S2ís screen is certainly not good enough for mobile multimedia and video. The screen could not be any better than that of NECís older make Mobile Pro 880.

There is still some good point about the screen. S2 has a powerful backlight. The second lowest backlight setting is fine for me in most situations, even during daytime indoor uses. In addition, S2ís screen makes a good balance between indoor and outdoor uses. It still achieves good readability under bright sunlight with higher backlight settings.

Nonetheless, S2 lacks the following components: microphone, VGA-out, 56K modem. Certain users might find the lack of a microphone quite annoying.

System Performance and Software

This is what you get from S2:

OS: Microsoft Windows CE HandheldPC 2000
CPU: MIPS VR4131 (200MHz)
RAM: 32mb
User usable flash memory: 14mb
Screen: 6.2 inch HPA 65,536 colors, 640x240
Expansion: CF type II, PHS, FOMA/USB, serial synchronization port
Size/weight: 189◊107◊27mm, 500g

The first impression I get from S2 is fast, fast and fast again. S2 features the fastest non-ARM CPU used on HPCs at that time - MIPS VR4131 clocked at 200Mhz. 


Figure 5: 200mhz MIPS and 32mb RAM

No matter what programs you want to use - opening Pocket Word, IE, Control Panel, etc -, just click on the screen and all these programs open up instantly. It is like running those programs on modern 64M-Ram Xscale PPCs - you want it? Then you get it in a flash.

I use the great utility Total Commander 2.0 on my HPCs a lot. On HPC Pro Sharp HC-AJ1 and even reputed English HPC2K Intermec 6651, there is an obvious initiation time before TC 2.0 reads the folder information and displays the details while on S2 it displays all the information of two folders quickly. Even on Celux 300HC, the speed of similar operations might not be any faster. To give you a rough idea of system performance, above mentioned BMQ benchmark score is close to or even higher than that of Celux 300HC powered by Xscale.

Powerful Separate Video Card

S2 is driven by a MediaQ 200 video card with 2mb video Ram. Another HPC with the same independent video card is the JVC MP-C303 (known as MP-C33 in Europe), which was announced about nine months earlier than S2.

With the latest dummy gx.dll for H/PC by k-matsu and TCPMP from Picard, S2 smoothly decodes original VCD .dat files. Even expanded to full-screen 640x240 mode, VCD playback on S2 is still very good. I think this is quite something for a MIPS HPC2K machine released in 2001, because there is almost zero optimization for MIPS CPU in TCPMP as indicated by Picard. It is the high speed CPU and MediaQ 200 combined together that delivers such a high video performance.

I suggest that there is still much potential for MediaQ 200. Unfortunately, Picard has long ago indicated that he would not support MediaQ 200 in his program, as it is an outdated video card with little technical information available.

A sidenote: The actual playback of VCD files works great and I do not see visible delays or any out-of-synchronization situation. The playback should be at least around 100% (for TCPMP). When in benchmark mode, however, the benchmark data itself always hovers around 75%, indicating there will be visible pauses or delays during playback. According to TCPMPís test, the original MPEG file (standard VCD file) has a data bit rate of 1.5mb/s while S2 handles 1.1mb/s during the benchmark. This is not what I see during actual playback. I just donít know why. One possible reason is that TCPMP cannot utilize the dummy GX.dll during benchmark.

Generous 14mb usable Flash Memory and value-added Software

As a bonus, S2 has an internal flash memory of 14mb that is all available to the user. By default, all the value added software is preinstalled in this internal flash drive. The user can use this space by moving or deleting software. Please take note that the speed of such flash memory is extremely slow. Its read and write speed is roughly 15% and 10% of the internal CF slot. Yes, I am not mixing around with figures. The flash memory writes or reads at approximately 10-15% of the CF slot (for the test source, please refer to links). 


Figure 6: 14mb usable flash memory, but speed is very slow.

Some preinstalled useful software: an extra email client, MobileCustom (system settings tool), a text editor, Auto Web Recorder to save web pages for offline viewing, some Japanese navigation software and Microsoft's Terminal Server Client. 

My Conclusion

S2 is super fast HPC2K machine with MIPS 200mhz CPU, MediaQ 200 separate video card, 32mb RAM and 14mb internal flash memory. With a high BMQ score of 399, S2 easily beats Sharp HC-AJ1, NEC MP880 and even the reputed Intermec 6651. In daily use, all programs open up instantly, something like using those modern Xscale devices.

Its video performance is also superb, making S2 the candidate for mobile video terminal if only its HPA screen could live up to its claims and eliminates those unpleasant screen ghosts. With the Foma-USB converter, S2 can accept much more peripherals including USB GPS.

With the screen issue excluded, S2 is certainly a powerful and portable HPC for PIM, word processing and productivity purposes. In 2003, NTT DoCoMo announced another power HPC - Sigmarion 3 - and received great acclaim among HPC buffs. For me, Sigmarion 3 is simply the continuation of the power legend set by S2. S2, the ancestor of a power HPC, is still a power center.

Links mentioned in the review (active as of October 2005)

Official Specifications: http://www.nttdocomo.co.jp/p_s/products/mobile/win_ce/sigmarion2/sigmarion2.html (removed from NTTís website but still viewable through e.g. Googleís cache)
Source for the flash memory speed test: http://planet-works.hp.infoseek.co.jp/index.htm
How to make a Foma-USB converter: http://www.freewebs.com/binzi/sigusb01.htm
Dummy gx.dll: http://www.age.jp/~k-matsu/CE/dummygx/ 
NEC's USB Clik! Driver for Windows CE: http://www.nec.co.jp/
232usb - RS232 USB serial driver: http://www.softclub.jp/zoro/ce/
TCPMP: http://tcpmp.corecodec.org

05 October 2005
Zhou Xiwen

Namentlich gekennzeichnete Anwendertestberichte geben ausschlieŖlich die Erfahrungen und Meinungen des Autors wieder.


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