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The lines between phones and computers get blurrier and blurrier.

Spend time in any public transportation system, coffee shop, or mall and you’ll see them. The cell-phone squad, squinting at screens the size of Post-It notes, their GameBoy-trained thumbs twitching across numeric keypads composing SMS text messages to each other.

You can tell I’m not one of them because I can’t quite bring myself to use the word “text” as a verb. Perhaps it’s because I reached a high level of proficiency at typing and proceeded to crank out several billion words on regular keyboards, but I never got the hang of using cell phones for anything other than making phone calls. I could make the leap to handhelds by flashing back to penmanship classes, but pressing the 9 on a tiny keypad four times to type the letter Z never came naturally.

So it was with several strikes against it that I tried out the Audiovox SMT5600. This four-ounce SmartPhone can slide comfortably into a Twix wrapper, and is equipped with a brand of Microsoft Windows that makes navigating the menu system tolerably familiar to an old lag at Microsoft operating systems. But given my mistrust of keyboards with fewer than 100 keys, it needed a lot more than great design and familiar interface to make me pick it up and use it. Fortunately, it does have a lot more than that going for it. A whole lot more.

Getting started

Because the Audiovox SMT5600 runs a Microsoft operating system, Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition to be exact, it comes with the support you’d expect for Windows application and media files.

Although it’s only a secondary feature, the playback you get from Media Player files is quite marvelous, especially using the stereo earbud hands-free phone set that comes in the box. The Cingular wireless connection is sound, and Cingular sells the unit direct to its customers at a knockdown price (around $150) with a new service activation and a two-year contract.

The keypad on this non-flip phone is much smaller than on many phones–all 12 keys take up only slightly more than a square inch–but the bright color screen is larger, and that’s where you feel the benefit. While the screen is smaller than that of a regular PDA (it’s about the dimensions of a small yellow Post-It note), it’s good enough for a lot of document viewing, and checking out the pictures you can snap with the built-in camera.

You charge the phone (camera, PDA, media player…whatever) using a USB cable with the same crimped end you find on FujiFilm cameras. This also lets it synch up with your regular Microsoft Office suite. Using the standard PDA ActiveSync software, you can bring in Outlook e-mails and other files to look at on the run, and though the lack of a real keyboard makes editing or composing real documents tricky to amateur texters, just looking at things is extremely easy once you get the hang of the five-way navigation bar.

The inch-long bar between the phone’s call and hang-up buttons pivots around a central axis for navigating left and right and swivels vertically for going up and down menus. To perform a virtual click of the mouse, you press straight down with your thumb. To the uninitiated, this often results in jumping one up from the menu item you expected, but after a while, it becomes second nature.

Of course, you’ll soon get the hang of not scrolling through menus, but hitting the numbers that correspond to the items you use frequently. I found myself opening the Start menu and hitting 9, 4 a lot, because that moved me to the second tier of the menu and launched the one program that I found I used every time I climbed in my car. It was this program that made me want the Audiovox phone in the first place, and it turned out to be the killer application that belongs on every cell pho

The killer app

The global positioning system. accesses 24 satellites in orbit around the earth, sending radio signals that can pinpoint where you are to within a dozen yards. Although the Audiovox phone doesn’t have a built-in GPS receiver, it supports Bluetooth and there are plenty of Bluetooth GPS receivers around (two obvious examples are Belkin and ALK Technologies).

People often find that although the idea’s sound, they never seem to have a GPS system in the car with them when they want one, unless they’ve paid a grand or more to have one installed in the dashboard. If your cell phone can give you turn-by-turn navigation based on GPS signals, the portability problem is all over: Who leaves home without their cell phone?

The addition of GPS capabilities adds a cost to your purchase of the Smartphone, though. I road-tested ALK Technology’s CoPilot Smartphone ($249 for the software, $349 for the software plus a Bluetooth GPS receiver) on several long-distance trips, and found it the best implementation of global positioning navigation I’ve ever used.

With a Bluetooth GPS receiver on my dashboard, the phone in my pocket, and the hands-free headset on, not only did I get the chance to listen to a few tunes on the Smartphone’s Media Player, I also got turn directions in plenty of time.

On long stretches of unfamiliar road, I picked times when I could whip out the phone and look at the map with its ever-changing “you are here” markers, just to get some context. On one occasion, when I got a call to stop off at an unscheduled location, it took me a couple of minutes by the side of the road to enter the address on the phone keypad, but after that, I was off on my diversion.

Now’s the time

I think I’m easing into the smartphone revolution at just the right time. Not only are phones finally beginning to show promise as powerful enough for a multitude of tasks, possibly everything you’d need away from a desk, I’m also old enough not to be permanently maimed by it.

Unlike the kids just getting into it, I won’t have to do this for thirty or forty years, during which time I envision habitual users turning into “Popeye,” with one eye bugged to focus on the screen and massively developed forearms because of the overly specific exercise of typing with thumbs.

Contributing Editor Matt Lake writes SOHO Advisor monthly for ComputerUser.

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