Out of the box, the A636 makes for a chunky PDA. It's not large but it is thicker than many PocketPCs I've looked at. It has a solid feel. Nor is it unattractive to look at. The thickness arises from the fold-out 5 x 5cm GPS antenna, which also swivels so you can always get it facing skywards in whatever orientation you hold the machine. Stowed, the antenna is almost flush with the back of the device, so it fits smoothly into pockets and cases. Below the GPS antenna is the battery cover protecting the removable 3.7V, 1300mAh power cell. The left-hand side of the A636 is bare but for an infra-red port - the right-hand side is entirely feature-free. The top of the unit sports a recessed power key and, despite the PDA's girth, a slot for an SD IO card rather than the CompactFlash slot you might expect it to sport. The unit's base has a rubber bung-covered headphone socket, a proprietary power and data connector, and a reset button.
The front of the unit is dominated by the 3.5in, 240 x 320, 65,536-colour LCD above three circles - respectively a speaker grille, a five-way navigation control and a circularly arranged array of four application buttons. The layout, while not unattractive, is about as far from the PDA 'standard' as you get, and far more like the multi-button control array sported by dedicated GPS systems like the Bluemedia BM6830. Indeed, the icons on the controls are all oriented along the device's major axis, inviting you to hold the unit not like a PDA but in landscape mode, like a dedicated GPS device.
As I said, though, this is a fully-featured Windows Mobile machine, with Bluetooth 1.2 to allow it to be connected wirelessly to a mobile phone, and 802.11b Wi-Fi for broadband links. Both wireless systems are activated by taskbar icons on the Today screen. After activating the Wi-Fi adaptor, you can use Asus' own Wi-Fi Manager utility to scan for hotspots and connect to them. I had no trouble talking to the office's WEP-shielded base-station.
Asus also provides a number of other utilities, most notably Asus Status, which usefully displays system information, including battery and memory capacity, backlight level, CPU speed and so on, all from the Today screen's taskbar. Tapping on an item takes you directly to appropriate Settings panel, including a processor speed control to help you balance performance and battery life.
Asus main software addition is Destinator PN 5.1.8, the machine's bundle route-planning software, alongside which it has also included UK and Ireland street maps, on a bundled 256MB SD card. I've used Destinator before, and it's not a personal favourite, popular though it is with companies bundling GPS software. It does the job, but it lacks flair and isn't as intuitive as other route-planners I've tried. That said, it has some nice features, such as a pedestrian mode and a fast, mobile phone keypad-style address entry system. Route-planning isn't particularly slow, or particularly fast, despite the A636's 416MHz Intel XScale PXA272 CPU. Unfortunately, a limited review period prevented me from using the A636 with the bundled car kit, and setting off for a long-distance spin, but I gave the pedestrian mode a go. I can't say I was impressed. I selected a route I know, and a good job too. Travelling around central London, I found the A636 put me consistently two or three streets East of where I knew myself to be, and a street or so to the North. For the entire length of the journey, I was 0.99 miles away from my destination - even when standing outside the front door.
A problem with the hardware? A software glitch? An inaccuracy with the maps? It could be all of the above, and since they're bundled together, what's a problem with one is a problem with all. To be fair, later usage proved more accurate, and I should also point out that the GPS receiver is excellent. It's capable of picking up satellite signals from within an office that has a couple of floors above it. The receiver's based on the SirfStar III chip, and it's signal detection is impressive, even if the whole device's triangulation isn't.
Interestingly, the pedestrian mode won't plan a route beyond a certain, unspecified distance, so don't turn to Destinator if you're planning to hike from Lands End to John O'Groats. Or if you want to visit Blenheim Palace, should a trip to Winston Churchill's birthplace be of interest. I went years ago, but it was the first name that popped into my head when I took a look at Destinator's less-than-comprehensive places of interest (POI) database. Blenheim's been a tourist attraction for decades, but it's not on Destinator's list.
Asus MyPal A636 is a worthy alternative to GPS-integrated PDAs from the likes of Mio and Acer. It's less successful as a PDA than the others, if only because the hardware has so clearly been designed with satellite navigation usage in mind. As a GPS platform, it's impressive, with a good, flexible antenna design and a powerful receiver. It's let down a little by the bundled software, but there's nothing to stop you switching to a better app later on.
The A636 doesn't come cheap, though. At £349, it's not over-priced, but there are cheaper alternatives: you can pick up the Windows Mobile 2003-based, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi-less Mio 168 for around £200, for example. Asus is offering a cheaper sibling, the A632, for £299 - it too lacks Wi-Fi.