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It’s a phone, it’s a PDA, it’s a camera…

Mobile wireless convergence is here, but is it worth it?

Since the early 1990s, manufacturers have been promising a device that combines the convenience of a mobile phone with the versatility of a personal digital assistant (PDA). After several false starts, developers have created useful gizmos that converge these functions. Depending on your needs and price range, chances are there’s a gadget that could help you reduce the number of items hanging from your belt. The following three devices constitute what we believe best demonstrate the union between phones and PDAs.

When we chose review subjects, we used our own experiences with past failed attempts as a guide. All three are equipped with built-in keyboards because e-mail requires a quick and accurate text-input system. We chose devices with rechargeable lithium-ion batteries because battery life and charge reliability are key concerns when voice and data are involved. Beyond these two requirements, we let the products speak for themselves. Each manufacturer took its own approach to the problem, balancing the price/performance scale differently.

The single most important aspect of choice may not be in the price/performance balance, but rather in the networks that support the device. Each manufacturer has partnered with different service providers such as T-Mobile and Sprint. Keep in mind when shopping for one of these devices that network performance can vary between service providers. Choosing the right provider may be the difference between owning a device you’ll love and owning something you’re tempted to chuck out of a moving vehicle. Unfortunately, some readers are locked into a particular service provider. For these unfortunate souls, your options may include only one of these gadgets, or none at all.

Nokia 9290 Communicator

Nokia introduced the first device that combined the features of a PDA into a mobile phone, the 9000 Communicator. Today, the company continues this tradition of innovation with the introduction of the 9290 Communicator, a vast leap forward from the company’s original conception. It runs on the Symbian operating system and is loaded with a total of 56MB of memory, which includes a removable 16MB MultiMedia Card (MMC) that comes with the device. It also comes with a 32-bit ARM9 RISC processor and a lithium-ion battery, which can run for up to 10 hours of talk time, nine days of standby time, and up to 16 days in PDA mode. Its main application screen is a backlit 1.4 by 4.3-inch thin-film transistor (TFT) LCD with a resolution of 640 by 200 pixels, capable of displaying up to 4,096 colors. However, unlike the other phones in this review, you are unable to see the application screen without having to open up the unit.

One of the first things that I noticed about the device was its size. Measuring at 6.22 by 1.06 by 2.2 inches and weighing in at 8.6 ounces, it comes off as being one of the bulkiest phones available today. Fortunately, the variety of features that this phone comes with make you quickly forget about its size. Inside its clamshell casing you’ll find a 65-key QWERTY keyboard that serves as the main means of navigation, along with four function keys located to the right of the application display. The display itself is very vibrant and visually appealing. In its PDA mode you can access the device’s software suite, which includes applications that allow you to send messages via Short Messaging Service ( SMS), e-mail, or fax. It also helps you organize your life. You can store contacts, telephone, and calendar information; create and review documents, spreadsheets, and presentations; and browse the Internet. You can access the applications while the phone function is activated, allowing you to search for documents and contact information while using its built-in speakerphone. All of the applications are accessed by using hotkeys located on the keyboard.

When I first started to use the device, I was instinctively searching for a stylus to tap onto the screen, since I was accustomed to doing so with other, similar units. However, once I was used to navigating around using the hotkeys it was relatively easy to move around and access all the applications. The software suite is compatible with Microsoft Office, so I didn’t have to manually transcribe my Outlook contacts and Word documents into it. The 9290 also contains a slew of multimedia applications, including a video player, audio recorder, Macromedia Flash, and RealPlayer. Several interactive games are also included.

Although the 9290 Communicator is a well-rounded device, there are a couple of minor setbacks. The bundled PC synchronization cable uses a serial port, which may be a problem for those with legacy-free computers. In addition, the device only supports GSM service, which prevents it from using the faster speeds provided by GPRS service. Despite these inconveniences, the Nokia 9290 Communicator is a good choice for those looking for a versatile yet stylish device. It has a list price of $599 and is available directly from Nokia or though wireless service providers T-Mobile and Cingular.

T-Mobile Sidekick

When Danger Inc. first unveiled its Hiptop PDA/Phone device in 2001, it created a huge buzz in the mobile electronics industry. Since then it has worked with T-Mobile to release and to market its device under the name Sidekick, and is targeting it as a complete wireless solution for the masses. The device comes loaded with Danger’s Hiptop operating system and has 16MB of RAM installed. It also has a lithium-ion battery that can last for up to three hours of talk time and up to 60 hours of standby time. The memory and the battery included in this unit are built into the casing and cannot be replaced. One of the things that make the Sidekick stand out from its competitors is its display. Not only is it the only display in our review that does not have a color screen (actually a 4-bit, 240 by 160 16-greyscale display), but it also is the only display that rotates 180 degrees to reveal a hidden backlit keyboard underneath.

The Sidekick’s dimensions of 4.6 by 2.6 by 1.1 inches and weight of six ounces make it reasonably portable, although you do need to use the included pouch to carry it on your belt. When closed, its shape actually resembles a small portable gaming system. A scrolling navigation wheel to the right of the display allows you to use all of the applications on the device without having to access the keyboard. The applications include a Web browser, e-mail, address book, calendar, and to-do list. AOL Instant Messenger is also included the software suite, as are several games. One major disappointment in using the applications is that you currently cannot synchronize the device directly with your desktop via a cable. Instead, you have to upload your desktop information onto a secure site run by Danger, which in turn will send the data directly to the device. You are able to get into the site by entering a password used in the initial setup of the Sidekick.

Upon first using the device, I found it very easy to navigate, especially with its navigation wheel and user interface. The navigation wheel also flashes in several colors, giving you notifications of such things as pending calls and battery status. One feature that takes getting used to is the unit’s phone mode. Unless you use a headset, you have the hold one end of the device vertically to your ear and speak into the other end. Although not unbearable, it does feel rather awkward. The phone’s data performance is pretty fast thanks to T-Mobile’s nationwide 2.5G GPRS network service. An optional camera attachment that works with the Sidekick gives you the ability to take photos. The images do end up in color, but with a resolution of 120 by 90 pixels you won’t find many uses for them. While power users may find the lack of direct synchronization bothersome, the device is feature-rich and easy enough to use to keep it fun. The suggested retail price of the Sidekick is $249, but T-Mobile is currently offering a $50 rebate. You can purchase the device online direct from T-Mobile, or from its various store locations throughout the country.

Handspring Treo 300

When it comes to integrated PDA/phone products, Handspring is one of the pioneers in the industry. With the company’s fourth effort to date, the Treo 300 improves on the success of its previous models and continues to make advancements with its brand of convergence devices. The Treo 300 runs on the Palm operating system version 3.5.2H and comes with 16MB of memory. Unfortunately, both the operating system and the memory are not able to be upgraded. It runs on a 33MHz Motorola Dragonball VZ processor and a rechargeable battery that can power the device for up to 2.5 hours of talk time or up to 150 hours of standby time. Its 2-by-2-inch, 12-bit backlit touch display has a resolution of 160 by 160 pixels and is capable of producing up to 4,000 colors. The unit’s clamshell design allows the lid to act as both an earpiece when opened and a protective cover when closed. The flip lid also has a clear plastic window, allowing you to see the display and use the device as a phone even when the lid is closed.

As far as size goes, the Treo 300 is the most compact of all the products mentioned here. It measures at 4.4 by 2.8 by .82 inches, making it easy to slip into a jacket or pants pocket. At 5.7 ounces, the device is also the lightest of all the ones we’re discussing here. Opening up the flip lid exposes the 34-key QWERTY backlit keyboard, which is used to enter data and navigate the system, along with four hotkeys located at the bottom of the unit. Since it is loaded with the Palm operating system, you also receive all of the applications that are normally associated with it, such as a calculator, expense program, and a memo pad. In addition, you’ll find some new applications that take advantage of the Treo’s wireless capabilities, such as Blazer (Handspring’s custom Web browser), a phone dialer, and a SMS messaging program (to receive only). Each of these programs can be accessed by using the included stylus to tap the screen, or by using a rocker switch located on the left side of the device.

The Treo 300 has a very small learning curve. I was able to maneuver around the various applications fairly easily. Although the display is not as sharp as I had hoped it would be, I did not find it difficult to view at all. I was able to synchronize my data on my desktop with the device by using the included USB “Y” cable, which can also provide power to the unit through the use of a separate AC adapter. One of the features I liked was the ringer switch located on top of the unit, which allows you to change the ringer to vibrate mode on the fly. The phone and Internet service is provided by Sprint PCS, so it’s able to take advantage of Sprint’s super-fast nationwide CDMA2000 network. With a cost of $499, the Treo 300 is not for people searching for a bargain, but for those of you who can afford it, the device is definitely worth considering. It is available directly from both Handspring and Sprint PCS.

What to do

Was there a true winner among the three? In all actuality, it depends on what you’re looking for. All three devices have their advantages and disadvantages, and all three appeal to different types of users. Those users who are new to PDAs looking for something easy to use should consider the T-Mobile Sidekick, while those looking for a compact yet flexible device should look at the Handspring Treo 300. If you’re heavy into multimedia and size is not a consideration, the Nokia 9290 Communicator is an excellent choice. While the idea of a perfect PDA/phone solution may at one time have seemed inconceivable, the products featured above have given me a new reason to believe the answer might be right in front of us.

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