COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

A trio of smartphones

Mobile phone and PDA manufacturers have been trying to come up with a single device, called a smartphone, that combines a cell phone, PDA, e-mail capability and Internet access into something close to the size of a phone. While there have been numerous attempts, few have succeeded with just the right compromise of size and features, and sales have been disappointing, at just a few of percent of all phones sold. However, expectations are high for 2004, with some recently introduced products and more on their way.

The major advantages in combining a phone with a PDA is that you need carry only one device that contains your schedule, to-do list and contacts, phone numbers and e-mail addresses. The built-in mail program in the PDA uses the phone as its modem for sending and receiving messages.

I've been testing three recent attempts to come up with the perfect balance. They include the Treo 600, introduced last week by Handspring, now part of Palm, the Kyocera 7135, from Kyocera's San Diego Wireless division and introduced earlier this year, and the BlackBerry 7200 series from Research in Motion (RIM) of Waterloo, Ontario. The Treo is available from T-Mobile, AT&T, Sprint and Cingular, the Kyocera from Verizon and the BlackBerry from AT&T, Cingular and T-Mobile. The Kyocera and Treo each cost about $500 and the BlackBerry about $350. Prices vary considerably based on the carrier and calling plan.

Before buying, search for the best price on the Web and ask your carrier to match it. Many will deal to get you to commit to a year of service. And remember that number portability -- moving your phone number to another provider -- takes effect Nov. 24, giving you even more bargaining power. The cost for sending and receiving unlimited data (e-mail and Internet) adds about $30-$50 to the basic monthly voice plans.

While the products have similar functionality, their designs are different. Kyocera's phone replicates the clamshell design made famous by the Motorola StarTac. The BlackBerry evolved from RIM's first generation pager-sized product that now is longer and more stylish. The Treo is an all-new design, slightly wider than conventional phones, but narrower than a PDA. The BlackBerry is the lightest at 5 ounces, the Treo 6 ounces and the Kyocera 7 ounces.

The Kyocera is first and foremost a good phone. It has a flip design, performs well and is rugged. Its PDA runs an older version of the PalmOS that has recently undergone improvements, notably speed, but the differences are not significant. The touch screen works only in the PDA mode and not the phone mode, a minor annoyance. A built-in e-mail application and browser allow you to retrieve pop mail and access the Internet. (Accessing the Internet with a small screen and a relatively slow connection gets tiring fast with any of the phones). The phone relies on Graffiti (strokes using a stylus) to enter large amounts of text. Kyocera also offers a full-size keyboard from Think Outside. The other two products use built-in keyboards, reducing or eliminating the need for a stylus.

The BlackBerry from RIM is a superb e-mail device. It has the best thumb keyboard, which RIM invented and perfected. Built-in software speeds typing (capitalizes with the holding down of a key, changes "Im" to "I'm," and allows user-definable shortcuts such as "br" for Best regards). It has the best screen for reading and composing e-mail. While not as bright as the others in subdued lighting, it's the sharpest and displays the most characters. It also pulls e-mail automatically from multiple accounts rather than requiring you to initiate a mail request for each account. This means it retrieves your e-mail automatically on its own schedule. (Optional software for the Treo and Kyocera can pull e-mail from multiple accounts, but it's more cumbersome). BlackBerry uses either a Web client set up on the Internet that retrieves e-mail from your accounts and then sends it to your device, or it can be used with an office server to duplicate the messages on your office computer. I tested the web client version with service from AT&T. I also tried it in Europe and it seamlessly connected, although I am not looking forward to seeing the bill.

The BlackBerry software is excellent and offers one-handed use for many functions, using a scroll wheel and a back button. The downside is it does not use Palm or PocketPC operating systems, which work with many third party applications, so its PDA functions are confined to schedules, contacts, calendar and a to-do list. While the phone function is excellent, it's like talking into a slim deck of cards. This is the only product without a speakerphone and without a true Web browser; you can access only certain sites. In its favor is the longest battery life, up to a week vs. up to 2 days for the Kyocera and 3 days for the Treo. If you need to receive and send e-mail frequently from the road, the BlackBerry is my first choice. While it doesn't do everything the others do, what it does, it does with perfection and ease.

The Treo packs the most features of the three into a handsome, sleek, compact package with excellent ease of use. It's almost a year newer than the Kyocera and it shows. It has the brightest screen that can almost double as a flashlight, a handy 5-way navigation button that makes it almost one handed, a thumb keyboard, and an SD memory storage card like the Kyocera. It also has a low-resolution camera; the images are pretty dismal. However, using the camera with the mail function allows you to take quick snapshots and send them as attachments. You'll come up with all sorts of useful and fun ideas. By shaping the keyboard keys more pointed and adding software to discern double strikes, Handspring came up with a workable keyboard solution, although it's only 70 percent the width of the BlackBerry keyboard and not as good.

Of the three, the Treo strikes the best balance as an excellent phone, a PDA running the latest PalmOS and a good keyboard for writing e-mail. Beyond the specs, it's the coolest of all the products. Its thoughtful design, bright screen, full complement of features and ease of use make this a standout on the design front.

So which should you get? If you want a super e-mail device and don't need the full functionality of a PDA, then choose the BlackBerry. If you want a no-nonsense phone with a basic Palm PDA and e-mail and Web accessibility, the Kyocera is a good choice. But if you want the best combination of a phone, PDA, e-mail device, Web browser, and want to wow your friends, choose the Treo 600. If you're not sure, wait a few months, as there will always be more products. But it is unlikely the Treo will be topped for a long time, which in this industry is at least 4 months.


Baker has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents and was named San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000. He can be reached at phil.baker@sddt.com.

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