Product Review: 10 hot handhelds for the road warrior

Product Review: 10 hot handhelds for the road warrior

Handhelds have come a long way from desktop synchronization with contacts, calendar, and task lists. An emerging class of business-oriented smart phones and PDAs -- typically running the BlackBerry, Palm, Symbian, or Windows Mobile 2003 operating system -- offer an amazing wealth of data capabilities, with browsing the Web and editing Word and Excel documents just the start. Throw in a new generation of mobile middleware, from vendors such as Good Technology, Intellisync, and Research In Motion, and they not only can link to familiar Lotus Domino/Notes and Microsoft Exchange servers, but can even take advantage of wireless extensions to back-end applications and services.

Handhelds have come a long way from desktop synchronization with contacts, calendar, and task lists. An emerging class of business-oriented smart phones and PDAs -- typically running the BlackBerry, Palm, Symbian, or Windows Mobile 2003 operating system -- offer an amazing wealth of data capabilities, with browsing the Web and editing Word and Excel documents just the start. Throw in a new generation of mobile middleware, from vendors such as Good Technology, Intellisync, and Research In Motion, and they not only can link to familiar Lotus Domino/Notes and Microsoft Exchange servers, but can even take advantage of wireless extensions to back-end applications and services.

Hewlett-Packard Co. iPaq h6315 Pocket PC: Available exclusively from T-Mobile USA Inc., this solidly built alternative to a laptop sports a crisp color screen and runs the Windows Mobile 2003 operating system. It's larger and, at 6.7 ounces, a tad heavier than many phone-based PDAs, but it boasts extensive connectivity -- quad-band GSM/GPRS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, infrared, and USB. Most impressive, it automatically switches data connections from the T-Mobile GPRS network to the faster Wi-Fi as you come within range of an access point.

The h6315's Texas Instruments Inc. 1510 processor isn't as powerful as the Intel Corp. XScale engines found in other Pocket PCs, although I have no complaints about its speed when running the built-in Pocket Word and Pocket Excel applications. Moreover, I can use the phone and applications for several days without having to recharge the removable battery.

I have received trouble-free access to corporate servers via GSM/GPRS and to WLANs via Intellisync's Mobile Suite. For enterprises that don't want to set up third-party connectivity infrastructures, an add-on service is available for $9.99 per month to provide wireless access to Microsoft Exchange servers -- but it works only via T-Mobile Wi-Fi hot spots. Either way, this handheld is a fine choice for high-speed wireless access to e-mail, corporate networks, and the Internet -- not to mention its worldwide phone capabilities. Price: $599; Hewlett-Packard. -- Mike Heck

HP Compaq Tablet PC tc1100: The Tablet PC is something you either love or hate. Sure, it doesn't fit in a suit pocket, but if you're willing to lug 3 or 4 pounds, you'll get desktop-class productivity in return. My love affair with the Tablet PC began when I first used the original tc1000 to take written and graphical notes on a project; HP's latest offering, the tc1100, has improved on an already winning formula.

Replacing the Compact Flash with a Secure Digital card slot and adding Bluetooth (Wi-Fi is also standard), the Tablet PC tc1100 screams journalist, doctor, or engineer. Just flip a latch and rotate the keyboard, and the portrait display changes to landscape, exposing a great keyboard that skimps only on the size of the function keys. Flip another latch to lose the keyboard (14 ounces), and turn the tc1100 into a writing slate worthy of Captain Kirk. The tc1100's sleek lines were made to cradle in your arm, although lefties (like me) do lose out on one neat feature: the very usable toggle under the (right-hander's) ring finger that takes the place of a mouse scroll wheel. My new favorite way to use the tc1100 is to plug in a microphone to record meetings while using Microsoft Corp.'s OneNote. Being able to play back audio or video in sync with my jottings takes note-taking to a new level. Another killer app is something I added myself: the Sierra Wireless AirCard 755, a wireless modem that supports EDGE (Enhanced Data GSM Environment) and GSM/GPRS networks. The AirCard gives me voice and data services in most metropolitan areas, and it's fast enough to keep me from falling asleep while my VPN client starts. On EDGE, I’ve clocked 157Kbps down link and 79Kbps up.

Although not a handheld, the Tablet PC tc1100 is a mobile warrior’s dream. I never fail to find new uses for it, and it never fails to draw attention wherever I go .Price: Starts at $1,599; Hewlett-Packard. -- Brian Chee

Nothing comes close to a Treo for organizing a hectic working life. Seamless integration between phone and PIM makes the Treo 650 a great tool. Combining a full suite of messaging capabilities -- text, multimedia, e-mail -- with support for thousands of Palm applications, including the integrated Web browser and several common scheduling and productivity applications, this phone literally has it all, at least as far as this reviewer is concerned.

Using third-party products such as Palm VersaMail, the Treo integrates with IBM Lotus Domino/Notes and Microsoft Exchange/Outlook, providing POP/IMAP mailboxes that are similar to those of Research in Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerry Enterprise Server. But unlike the BlackBerry, the Treo doesn't allow you to talk on the phone and browse the Web or download e-mail messages at the same time (phone calls go directly to voice mail).

Typing one-handed on the Treo is easier than on the BlackBerry, thanks to the 650's ergonomic QWERTY keyboard, and it allows you to view and edit Word documents and Excel spreadsheets, thanks to Palm OS-compatible products such as DataViz's Documents To Go. VGA camera aside, one more way the Treo 650 (GSM model) edges BlackBerry is support for AT&T Wireless' high-speed EDGE service.

The 650's battery life is great if you don't go overboard on the Web surfing and Bluetooth linking and you regularly charge the phone at the end of the day. I've made more than four hours' worth of calls with my CDMA-based model and still had juice left over (quad-band GSM phones are supposed to have even longer battery life). To go weeks between recharges, I shut off the cellular radio and use only the Palm apps .Price: $449 ; palmOne Inc. -- Victor R. Garza

The Tungsten T5 is palmOne's latest high-end handheld. This device is designed to do everything the original Palm Pilot could do -- keep contacts, calendar, tasks, and notes; sync with Outlook; and create and edit Word and Excel files -- only better, faster, and easier. It's also leaner and sleeker.

When you use it, you immediately notice the new features. The T5 has 256MB of memory, plus space for a Secure Digital memory card, a MultiMediaCard, or palmOne's new 802.11b Wi-Fi card, which I didn't test. It also boasts an MP3 player, a high-resolution color screen, snappier software, and it can work similar to a USB drive. As for connectivity options, built-in Bluetooth allows you to connect to the Web through a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone. You can also use Bluetooth to synchronize the T5 with your computer, or you can connect the T5 to a Windows PC or Mac using infrared or a USB cable, as was the case with previous iterations of the product. Click for larger view.

Although not a phone, the T5 is easier on the budget than the Treo is -- and it's much less bulky. But if you're planning an upgrade from an existing Palm environment, think twice. You can't simply move to the new platform with a HotSync as you could with previous versions. You must go through a complex maneuver of reinstalling applications, exporting and importing databases, and changing names. Worse, not every application will work. And, mastering the new handwriting software, Graffiti 2, requires old Palmers to learn a new trick. Price: $399; palmOne. -- Wayne Rash

Forget those bulky, rounded PDAs you've seen clutched between the thumbs of die-hard road warriors. The new BlackBerry 7100 series from Canada's RIM is more compact than any previous BlackBerry device.

It's a quad-band GSM world phone, shaped like a large candy bar, with green and red buttons for answering and disconnecting calls and a unique, 20-key touchpad that doubles as both a phone dial and a miniature QWERTY keyboard.

RIM makes up for the loss of the traditional BlackBerry keypad with a unique predictive text-entry method. If you've had bad experiences with T9 or other similar systems, you owe it to yourself to give this a try. With only two letters assigned to each key, the 7100's text input may not be perfect, but it's alarmingly accurate most of the time.

On the downside, the 7100's battery life could be better, and RIM lacks the support from third-party developers that other PDA platforms enjoy. And although the 7100 has Bluetooth, it's for headsets and car kits only and can't be used to sync to a PC.

Still, the BlackBerry's messaging UI and PDA applications are top-notch, and RIM's BlackBerry Enterprise Server software offers the best connectivity to Microsoft Exchange and IBM Lotus Domino servers of any handheld device. Throw in a gorgeous full-color screen, a clear-sounding speakerphone, and a low price point, and the 7100 may just be the new reigning smart phone to beat .Price: $299.99; Research In Motion. -- Neil McAllister

The BlackBerry 7100t may woo potential customers put off by the traditional BlackBerry's price and size. But current and prospective BlackBerry users, as well as those gravitating toward palmOne Treo handhelds, should be looking at the BlackBerry 7250.

A CDMA handheld branded for Verizon, the BlackBerry 7250 is a substantial enhancement to the 7230, with its standout features being Bluetooth and a much-improved color display.

Disappointingly, the 7250's Bluetooth interface is limited to headset operation. It handles neither file transfers nor Internet gateway/modem functions. But the BlackBerry 4.0 OS links with BlackBerry Enterprise Server to provide secure, enterprise-controlled, over-the-air access to files, PIM data, and Internet-hosted services. Desktop sync works with USB. I had no trouble using PocketMac to sync the 7250 with the contacts, calendar, and tasks stored on my PowerBook using Mac OS X's built-in applications.

RIM finally got the display just right. High contrast makes it perfectly viewable in indoor lighting, and there are two levels of backlighting. I found it very readable in all conditions. Other enhancements include a sturdier case, a stiffer thumb-wheel, and better keyboard backlighting.

I'm a longtime BlackBerry user, and the 7250 feels like a different device, not just a fresh paint job on an old box. All the improvements considered, the 7250 -- or its counterpart from your favorite wireless operator, coming soon -- is a good reason to put down your current BlackBerry or to add the BlackBerry to your shopping list of converged handhelds. Price: $349.99; Research In Motion. -- Tom Yager

Siemens AG's SX66 Pocket PC PhoneSiemens crams every feature imaginable into the SX66, integrating a full-size PDA and a quad-band GSM phone into a single package. Unfortunately, among its many capabilities it's hard to find anything the SX66 does really well.

Its form factor favors a PDA, with its large touchscreen and buttons that activate applications rather than phone features. Even for a PDA, however, it's disarmingly hefty, weighing in at almost half a pound. For phone calls, a Bluetooth headset will probably be your first accessory. Holding the unit to your ear is awkward, and the quality of the built-in speaker is poor.

In addition to the touchscreen, the SX66 features a slide-out miniature QWERTY keyboard, but this, too, is a disappointment. Most notably, the tiny and nearly identical Enter and Delete keys are placed side by side -- a formula for frustration. Imagine confusing those two while trying to configure a wireless network key, and you'll understand how I learned to prefer the onscreen keyboard. The unit also supports handwriting recognition, but in practice this seemed like little more than a novelty.

The SX66 supports data networking using Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or the Cingular GSM network. Battery life is good even with Wi-Fi enabled. A Windows Mobile Edition 2003 device, the SX66 allows you to use the full range of Pocket PC applications, including Pocket Word, Excel, and Windows Media Player. Still, unless you insist on carrying no more than one device, you might consider the SX66 an example of a device that aims high but ultimately falls flat .Price: $649.99; Siemens. -- N.M.

The perfect smart phone would do away with the unnecessary (camera, colored plates) and concentrate on the three things the roving executive needs: a quality phone, PIM synchronization, and the ability to play music during downtime. Next to palmOne's Treo, I've never encountered a real contender until now.

The Voq Professional Phone from Sierra Wireless combines the Windows Mobile 2003 OS with a comfortably sized cell phone containing the usual goodies, including voice dialing and a speaker phone. The Voq also hides a handy QWERTY keyboard behind a fold-out maw, which uses the Voq's Internet connectivity to assist with Web browsing, text messaging, and e-mail. Click for larger view.

What makes the Voq a "professional" phone is its secure ActiveSync connectivity back to a Microsoft Exchange Server 2003 server, which I grumpily set up from scratch just for this review. When connected, the Voq wirelessly autosyncs e-mail, calendar, contacts, and even shared resources using this client; of course, it is also capable of obtaining e-mail from any POP3- or IMAP-based server. And there's the usual USB-based desktop sync as well.

Sierra includes not only Microsoft Autosync but also its own VoqMail software, which provides wireless e-mail without the need for an enterprise server, and its myVoq desktop software, which includes predictive search capabilities for fast information retrieval. The Voq is presently available only from AT&T.

Wireless only in the United States, Sierra is working on additional relationships as well as connectivity to faster wireless Internet access services such as AT&T's EDGE network. Price: $499; Sierra Wireless. -- Oliver Rist

Sony Ericsson P910 is a cell phone! No, it's a PDA! Wait, it's the Sony Ericsson P910a! As gadgets go, it's almost impossible to resist Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications AB's latest deluxe gadget -- and this is coming from a confirmed gadget skeptic. But the Symbian-based P910a has won my affections, with features such as a removable, flip-out 33-key QWERTY keyboard, integration with IBM Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange, and as much as 1GB of removable storage. The P910a requires an 850/1,800/1,900MHz GSM network and supports GPRS.

As one would expect from a top-of-the-line cell phone/PDA/gadget, there are more ways to synchronize the data on the P910a with a notebook than most people have notebooks. Bluetooth, cable, and infrared connections are all options. A jog dial and stylus -- which can be used in closed and flipped-open modes, respectively -- makes navigating menus simple. Handwriting recognition software is also built-in.

One catch -- and this is true of most mobile devices -- is that the enclosed application suite is strictly Windows-only. Although it's possible to perform many of the same functions with the built-in utilities of Mac OS X, the experience is terribly generic and, if one uses Macintosh collaboration clients such as Entourage or Notes, it's completely pointless. Price: $749; Sony Ericsson. -- P.J. Connolly

If the RIM BlackBerry is the sturdy, functional BMW of handheld data devices, the Sidekick is that category's McLaren F1, a sleek supercar of a PDA that brings the Web, POP3 or IMAP e-mail (but not Domino), IM, and even an optional SSH/Telnet console client down to (largish) pocket size.

The unit's most distinctive exterior feature, a bright, sharp LCD display, swings aside at the flick of your thumb to expose a decent-quality chiclet keyboard. And let's not forget, it's a capable mobile phone, with basic security, scheduling, memo, and to-do list features thrown in for good measure. The Sidekick can't sync with your PC, but your phonebook, e-mail, to-do list, and notepad are all mirrored to a private T-Mobile Web page, so you can import and export your address book or perform data entry using your PC's keyboard.

Four function buttons take position in each corner of the Sidekick's face, and an eight-position directional pad and scroll wheel flank the screen. If you don't need to manually enter text or a phone number on the keyboard, the face's controls enable you to use most functions of the phone while the screen remains in its recessed position.

A great data device, however, does not a good phone make. Shaped like a portly deck of cards, the Sidekick isn't well-suited to being held up to your face. If you don't want cheek grease on the screen, a headset or an ear bud is a must. And its built-in camera -- complete with flash -- leaves a lot to be desired. Price: $299; T-Mobile, Danger -- Andrew Brandt -- 2000 InfoWorld (US)

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