Going mobile

Going mobile

Just because you don't want to schlep a laptop doesn't mean you can't stay connected. For a few years now, cell phones, PDAs, and portable computers have been shrinking, merging, and converging into a number of tiny data/communications devices. These smart phones, PDA/phone combos, and handheld PCs can keep you plugged in to e-mail, instant messaging, voice calls, and even the Web, wherever you go.

Our Editor's Picks, the PalmOne Inc. Treo 650 and the Research in Motion Ltd. BlackBerry 7100t, take very different approaches to creating a compact, cell-phone-size device that does all those tasks well. While the PDA phones we looked at were clearly the best all-around units, some people may prefer a more specialized phone or a handheld PC. To help you pick the device that best suits your needs, we looked at a number of mobile communicators, rating them on their screen quality, ease of Web surfing, phone quality, and ease of text entry. (Click here for more information on all of the products we reviewed in this article.)

PDA Phones

A few years ago, PDA/phone hybrids were clumsy, bricklike monstrosities that failed to perform either function well. Now, these pocket-size all-in-ones have matured, adding truly usable keyboards to a form compact and slim enough to be appealing as a cell phone. These all-in-one communicators can be expensive, but they've evolved to the point where they're worth the cost. Priced from US$300 to $600, these devices should particularly appeal to business travelers who want to call the office and check e-mail or browse the Web while they're on the go.

PalmOne Treo 650

Price: $599

Service provider: Sprint Corp.

Weight: 6.3 ounces

Dimensions: 4.4 by 2.3 by 0.9 inches

Screen quality: Very good. Though small by PDA standards, the newly enhanced (320-by-320-pixel) screen with 65,000-plus colors is crisp and bright, making reading easy and graphics good-looking.

Text entry: Very good. Thank you, PalmOne, for the refinements in sculpture and layout that represent a considerable improvement over the merely acceptable thumb keyboard on the Treo 600.

Web worthiness: Good. The latest version of the Blazer browser eventually renders most pages pretty well, and the improved display helps; but since the browser displays incomplete pages to save time, you see a lot of code as pages load.

Phone quality: Very good. With the possible exception of the BlackBerry 7100t, no other PDA/phone hybrid approaches the Treo 650 in approximating the look and feel of an actual mobile phone.

Bottom line: Building on the already fine Treo 600, the 650 adds a removable battery, Bluetooth, an improved keyboard and camera, and a high-res display. The Treo 650 is expensive, but it's one of the few PDA/phone hybrids that does everything well. Now all it needs is Wi-Fi and some more memory (32MB doesn't cut it these days).

-- Yardena Arar

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Finer print: The Treo 650's beautiful and bright new 320-by-320-pixel screen is a welcome upgrade from the Treo 600's 160-by-160-pixel display.

SDIO slot: Lets you expand the Treo's memory or plug in compatible peripheral cards.

Camera upgrade: The Treo 650's built-in camera features a 2X zoom, video capture capability, and a sensor that can take usable photos indoors.

RIM BlackBerry 7100t

Price: $299

Service provider: T-Mobile USA Inc.

Weight: 4.2 ounces

Dimensions: 4.7 by 2.3 by 0.8 inches

Screen quality: Very good. The high-resolution 240-by-260-pixel display is bright and makes the phone's menu icons and attractive fonts easy to read.

Text entry: Very good. Getting used to the BlackBerry's SureType system takes a few minutes, but once you do, writing notes or e-mail messages is easy.

Web worthiness: Good. Web browsing isn't simple, but it's no harder than on most standard-size phones, and pages look better on the 7100t's high-res screen.

Phone quality: Very good. Like the Treo 650, this hybrid not only looks and feels like a conventional cell phone, it works as well as one.

Bottom line: BlackBerry Internet Service allows you to read and send e-mail from multiple accounts without a special server on the other end. The unique keyboard and SureType software make sending e-mail simple, and the phone itself remains compact. The 7100t ships with 32MB of memory and no expansion slot, but if you're a BlackBerry fan and don't want or need more than a way to make calls and send e-mail, RIM's innovative phone may be just your cup of tea.

-- Yardena Arar

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Imaginative icons: The retro look of the mailbox and phone suggests a welcome sense of humor on the part of the interface design team.

No stylus required: The jog dial and select button built into the right side of the 7100t are all you need to navigate through the menus and options with one hand.

Successful compromise: With a few more keys than a conventional cell phone and a clever predictive text-entry system, the 7100t straddles the demands of an e-mail device and a mobile handset.

T-Mobile Sidekick II

Price: $300

Service provider: T-Mobile

Weight: 7.0 ounces

Dimensions: 5.1 by 2.6 by 0.9 inches

Screen quality: Good. The 240-by-160-pixel display is easy on the eyes, but colors are a little dull.

Text entry: Excellent. The Sidekick II's thumb keyboard is one of the best around. It's comfortable even for medium-length e-mail messages.

Web worthiness: Very good. The Sidekick II's service reformats most Web pages to fit its smaller screen, but the device doesn't support pages that employ JavaScript.

Phone quality: Good. The new Sidekick sounds as good as most cell phones, but it's still a bit unwieldy.

Bottom line: Rugged, fun, and easy to use, the Sidekick II is perfect for e-mail and instant-messaging junkies, thanks to its comfy, squishy keyboard. You can use the embedded camera for quick snapshots but nothing fancier. Though the Sidekick II improves on its predecessor, it still needs a wider selection of office applications and games, an option to expand the memory beyond 32MB, and better ways to sync to a PC and dial calls.

-- Grace Aquino

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Keep on scrolling: Precise and handy, the clickable scroll wheel makes navigating the Sidekick II's menus an easy endeavor.

Just flip it: When the Sidekick II's screen flips up, it tilts slightly upward, coming to rest at a perfect viewing angle.

Dialing distractions: To manually dial a phone number on the Sidekick II, you have to flip the screen up and use the integrated keypad.

Hewlett-Packard Co. IPaq H6315 Pocket PC Phone

Price: $600

Service provider: T-Mobile

Weight: 6.7 ounces (including keyboard)

Dimensions: 4.7 by 3.0 by 0.7 inches

Screen quality: Very good. The 3.5-inch, transflective LCD screen is as sharp, clear, and bright as we've come to expect from HP PDAs.

Text entry: Very good. A convenient-size, snap-on thumb keyboard (included) turns this Pocket PC phone into an even more able e-mail platform without adding unnecessary bulk.

Web worthiness: Very good. Wi-Fi, cellular, and Bluetooth network connections ensure that you'll be able to log on anywhere, and the Pocket PC version of Internet Explorer does a good job of rendering most Web sites.

Phone quality: Fair. This IPaq is a PDA first and a cell phone second; though the device's voice quality is decent enough, its phone features can be awkward to use.

Bottom line: Providing built-in support for GSM/GPRS cellular networks, 802.11b Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth, HP's pricey handheld allows you to stay in touch in almost any location. Although the unit is a bit clumsy to use as a handset, the HP IPaq H6315 Pocket PC Phone does work great as a portable data connection for business travelers, and it also makes a serviceable cellular phone in a pinch.

-- Yardena Arar

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Camera friendly: In addition to, well, pretty much everything else you could pack into a PDA, the IPaq H6315 includes a digital camera that can capture 640-by-480-pixel images.

Built-in memory: The IPaq includes 64MB of RAM. If that isn't enough, you can boost the memory by plugging an SD Card into the integrated SDIO slot.

Audiovox Communications Corp. PPC-6601

Price: $629

Service provider: Sprint

Weight: 7.4 ounces

Dimensions: 4.9 by 2.8 by 0.8 inches

Screen quality: Very good. The Audiovox features a brilliant and bright, 240-by-320-pixel display with 65,000-plus colors, which is about what you'd expect from a decent Pocket PC. The ability to switch to landscape mode adds cachet.

Text entry: Fair. The integrated thumb keyboard that slides out from the bottom of the device has membrane keys, which don't provide the tactile feedback you get from sculpted keys. I constantly had to check to make sure my fingers had actually made contact.

Web worthiness: Good. The unit's Internet Explorer renders pages fairly quickly, but images were a tad blurry. Landscape mode gives you a fair amount of screen width, which makes it easier to render standard Web pages more normally.

Phone quality: Fair. Voice quality is adequate, and touch-screen dialing makes the PPC-6601 easier to use than many PDA/phone products, but the unit is still a little awkward to hold.

Bottom line: As a phone, the Audiovox PPC-6601 is only so-so, but its built-in Bluetooth, 128MB of RAM, big and bright screen, and other helpful features make the unit a fine connected PDA. And for people who are used to carrying around such a device, this hybrid adds a serviceable keyboard and a cell phone to a PDA package without tacking on too much extra weight.

Vendor link: Audiovox PPC-6601

-- Yardena Arar

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Dial-a-screen: You can dial either by pressing the numbers on the keyboard or by using the touch screen's phone interface.

If you need Wi-Fi: The PPC-6601's built-in SDIO expansion slot can be used to add a third-party Wi-Fi card or to expand the built-in memory.

Sierra Wireless Inc. Voq

Price: $499

Service provider: Carriers don't sell this phone directly, but AT&T Wireless/Cingular Wireless LLC will sell you a SIM card that works with the device.

Weight: 5.1 ounces

Dimensions: 5.2 by 2.1 by 0.9 inches

Screen quality: Good. The Voq's 176-by-220-pixel, 2.2-inch screen does a good job of showing off the colorful Windows Mobile menus and is sufficiently bright for most settings.

Text entry: Good. The fold-out thumb keyboard feels a little flimsy, but it's comfortable enough for typing instant messages and short e-mail notes.

Web worthiness: Good. The Voq's Windows Mobile operating system includes a version of Internet Explorer that makes for generally easy Web browsing; nevertheless, we did have trouble connecting to some sites, such as Yahoo Mail.

Phone quality: Good. Calls sounded fine most of the time, but the volume could have used a little more power. I didn't much care for the stiff volume-control buttons, either.

Bottom line: The Voq's Windows Mobile OS gives you access to popular Microsoft applications like Word and Outlook, but it does only a middling job as a phone and mobile messenger. Also, it lacks a camera, but that might be good news for some business users.

Overall, the Sierra Voq's hardware design is just a bit behind the times. As a result, this is a device that feels a little too stiff and chintzy to make it a worthwhile investment.

-- Grace Aquino

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Quirky keyboard: The Voq hides a flip-open QWERTY keyboard underneath its phone keypad, providing a lot of space between keys.

Easy scrolling: The phone's surprisingly accurate center joystick helps you navigate around menus and files quickly.

More storage: In case you fill up the Voq's built-in 32MB of RAM, an SD/MultiMediaCard slot provides additional storage, a way to transport files, and access to more applications stored in SD/MMC cards.

Smart Phones

E-mail, instant messaging, and Web access are big parts of staying connected, but often the most important tool is a good cell phone. Even standard-looking phones have become better at handling data, photos, and video. These are a couple of the best.

Motorola Inc. Razr V3

Price: $599

Service provider: Cingular

Weight: 3.4 ounces

Dimensions: 3.9 by 2.1 by 0.5 inches

Screen quality: Excellent. Photos and video clips looked especially good on the unit's internal, 176-by-220-pixel, 2.2-inch screen. It's bright, and colors are vivid.

Text entry: Fair. Motorola's ITap software is on a par with the T9 system that many cell phones use to assist in text entry, and it arguably has a better interface.

Web worthiness: Fair. The device runs both AOL and Yahoo Messenger IM. It is capable of browsing WAP 2.0 sites, but it does better at displaying text-based content from partner sites like CNNtoGo and The Weather Channel. Phone quality: Very good. For such a thin device, the Razr is surprisingly comfy to hold. Add the Bluetooth and speakerphone capabilities, and you've got an almost indispensable cell phone.

Bottom line: As a standard cell phone, nothing is sexier than the Razr. Plus, you get a VGA camera, a voice recorder, and the ability to play back (but not record) MPEG-4 videos that you've downloaded to the phone's 5MB of memory. However, you can buy a more e-mail-friendly PDA/phone hybrid device--or an entire PC, even--for the same price.

-- Grace Aquino

Up Close

Attractive external display: You can screen your calls by viewing the caller's number on the unit's bright, four-line, external display.

Thin is in: The Razr V3 measures a hair under 0.5 inches thick, making this model one of the thinnest phones we've ever tested (see side-view photo at upper right).

Audiovox SMT5600

Price: $320

Service provider: Cingular

Weight: 3.6 ounces

Dimensions: 4.2 by 1.8 by 0.7 inches

Screen quality: Good. A little grainier than the best phone displays, but easy enough to read both indoors and out.

Text entry: Fair. Like most cell phones without a true QWERTY keyboard, the SMT5600 forces you to enter alphanumeric data by tapping on the dial pad--and even with T9 predictive text entry, doing so is a chore.

Web worthiness: Fair. If you intend to spend much time online, you'll want a PDA/phone hybrid like the Treo 650. But Windows Mobile's Internet Explorer, Outlook, and MSN Messenger give this cell phone decent Web capabilities.

Phone quality: Very good. Hey, it's a phone--and a serviceable one at that, with a dedicated volume control, well-designed buttons, and a user interface that allows you to wrangle contacts with a minimum of key presses.

Bottom line: With a full suite of Windows Mobile entertainment and Internet apps, a Mini SD slot that supports up to 256MB, Bluetooth, a (so-so) camera, and more, this phone comes fully loaded. Yet its trim design keeps things simple, pocketable, and effortlessly portable. Its features also make it a respectable small-capacity music player--but use it to watch videos only if you don't mind tiny, fuzzy images.

-- Harry McCracken

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Thumb friendly: The phone's accurate and intuitive five-way rocker switch and Home/Back buttons let your thumb do most of the work of navigating through the phone's features--a great design for one-handed use.

Media savvy: An IPod or a Portable Media Center it's not, but the SMT5600's Windows Media Player and support for services such as Napster make it more of an entertainment machine than your average cell phone.

Handheld Computers

Need more power than a PDA, but don't want the bulk of a notebook? Priced around $2000, these palmtop Windows PCs have their drawbacks--but if you need maximum horsepower in a minimal package, they might be the way to go.

Sony Corp. VAIO U750P

Price: $2000

Weight: 1.2 pounds (sans keyboard)

Dimensions: 6.6 by 4.3 by 1.0 inches

Screen quality: Excellent. The VAIO U750P's 5-inch-diagonal, 800-by-600-pixel, touch-sensitive color LCD provides an impressively wide range of acceptable viewing angles. The display is fast enough to handle video clips, and it makes both photographs and Web sites look great.

Text entry: Good. When the unit is connected to the included fold-out USB keyboard, typing is on a par with that of a standard laptop. Otherwise, you'll either have to use a stylus and the RitePen handwriting recognition software or tap out letters using an on-screen keyboard.

Web worthiness: Excellent. Built-in Wi-Fi lets you link to the Net and surf using your favorite browser.

Bottom line: Powerful and compact, this VAIO U Series machine is full of interesting design compromises. The U750P runs Windows XP Pro, and it packs 512MB of RAM, a 1.1-GHz Pentium M Ultra Low Voltage 733 CPU, a 20GB hard drive, and built-in 802.11g Wi-Fi into a package that is smaller and lighter than some paperback novels. But the separate keyboard makes the U750P harder to use--at least for writing messages--when it isn't plugged into its docking station.

-- Eric Dahl

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Mousing around: The small stick on the right side of the U750P controls your pointer, while the three buttons on the opposite side act as your mouse buttons. Both the buttons and the control stick work well.

Screen orientation: The Rotate key lets you easily switch from landscape mode to portrait mode, which makes this device good for reading e-books or lengthy documents.

OQO Inc. Model 01 Ultra Personal Computer

Preproduction unit, not rated

Price: $1999

Weight: 14 ounces

Dimensions: 4.9 by 3.4 by 0.9 inches

Screen quality: Very good. The 5-inch-diagonal, 800-by-480-pixel touch-screen display is good for viewing most standard-width Web sites, but many Windows XP fonts appear awfully small at the default settings.

Text entry: Fair. Decent tactile feedback, but keys are placed oddly and the spacebar is hard to reach.

Web worthiness: Good. Unique TrackStick input makes navigation manageable, and Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connections are Included, but page rendering seemed sluggish even over broadband.

Bottom line: The OQO includes a 20GB hard drive and 256MB of RAM, runs a full version of Windows XP, and is good for a little over an hour of battery life with Wi-Fi active. Unfortunately, the unit's small screen and its underpowered 1-GHz Transmeta Crusoe processor make it difficult to use as if it really were a full-fledged PC. Although it's a groundbreaking product, the OQO can't quite justify its high price tag.

Vendor link: OQO Model 01 Ultra Personal Computer

-- Tom Mainelli

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TrackStick and mouse buttons: Like the VAIO U750P, the OQO relies on a combination of a right-side TrackStick (it works like the eraserhead controllers on many laptops) and two left-side mouse buttons that makes navigation intuitive.

Headphone jack: To listen to movies or music on the Model 01, you'll need to wear a set of headphones, since this unit has no built-in speaker. Unfortunately for multitaskers, a poorly placed headphone jack makes it hard to continue typing once you're plugged in.

Mobile IM Devices

Targeted mainly at teens and 'tweens, mobile instant messaging devices offer a low-cost way to chat with friends on IM without a PC.

AT&T Wireless Ogo

Price: $99

Service providers: AT&T Wireless/Cingular

Weight: 5.7 ounces

Dimensions: 4.5 by 3.0 by 1.0 inches

Screen quality: Fair. The Ogo's color screen is impressive for a $100 device, but the displays of most good cell phones still put it to shame.

Text entry: Good. Though the keys are a little slippery, typing long e-mail or instant messages is easy on the Ogo's keyboard.

Bottom line: The Ogo lets you connect to IM and personal e-mail from pretty much anywhere you can pick up an AT&T Wireless/Cingular signal. If that's all you need, it's a useful tool. At press time, the Ogo offered all-you-can-eat IM and e-mail from one AOL, MSN, or Yahoo account for $18 per month. Paying another $3 per month allows you to add another account.

-- Eric Dahl

Motorola IMFree

Price: $100

Weight: 9 ounces

Dimensions: 4.5 by 4.8 by 1.3 inches

Screen quality: Poor. A simple seven-line black-and-white LCD is all you get. There's no backlight.

Text entry: Good. The IMFree's keyboard is spongy to a fault, but it's big enough for comfortable thumb typing. Emoticons are available through six function keys.

Bottom line: Connect the included IMFree wireless base station to your computer, and up to seven people can use IMFree devices to chat with friends on AOL Instant Messenger from as far as 150 feet away. Whoever is using the PC can work uninterrupted. That's the admittedly novel selling point of Motorola's IMFree. It's a neat idea, but what with cheap PCs, multiple-computer homes, and wireless networking, how many people really need a $100 device to avoid computer-use collisions?

Vendor link: Motorola IMFree

-- Eric Dahl

How Small Is Too Small?

Smaller, better, faster is the classic computing paradigm, but with mobile devices it sometimes seems that the emphasis is on smaller, smaller, smaller. So when does the shrinking stop? When does small become small enough? Experts say that some of today's cell phones have shrunk as far as they can, while still remaining usable.

"Keyboards are probably as small as they can go and still offer fairly comfortable usability," says Todd Kort, principal analyst for Gartner Inc.

But if keyboards can't get smaller, devices can't get smaller, so cell phone manufacturers are turning to some interesting engineering tricks to cram a decent-size keyboard into a tiny space. The Voq, for example, uses a keyboard that folds out; and RIM opted to put two letters on the keys of its BlackBerry 7100t, adding only eight new buttons to a standard phone's keypad.

Screen sizes, too, are about as tiny as they can be. The screens on many mobile devices are already too small to properly display most Web content. Among the few tricks left is to make screens thinner and decrease the amount of power they use, to allow for smaller batteries. According to Kort, transflective screens currently provide the best mix of brightness and low power consumption. Sharp is working on a continuous-grain silicon technology that promises to lower power requirements in future phone-size displays.

And as flash memory cards continue to shrink in size and grow in capacity--and in price--some consumers have begun to worry about how easy it is to lose a sub-postage-stamp-size memory module. Between a thin, light phone and a tiny memory card, some people are carrying $800 of technology in a package smaller than most wallets.

"People are looking for devices that perform multiple tasks and are pocketable," says Kort, "but there are sacrifices in design to get all that functionality into smaller real estate. We all want tiny computers and cell phones with big, bright screens and hours upon hours of battery life. But we may be bumping up against the practical limits of how small things can get."

-- Eric Dahl

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