If you thought the classic personal digital assistant, or PDA, had died an unseemly death, think again. By adding the ability to make phone calls to conventional handheld computer functions, BlackBerrys and Palms reinvented themselves. Now there are scores of such hybrids -- call them smartphones or killer PDAs -- out there that, besides calling, can manage your calendar, to-do list, and address book, pick up your e-mail, and even entertain you with games, music, and video.
By cramming all that into a single package, such powerful machines cut the number of electronic tools you might need to carry to just one. The downside is that not all the models do everything they're designed to do well. That makes choosing one complicated: You first have to figure out what's important to you and what isn't.
For instance, if staying in touch via e-mail and phone is paramount, it's hard to go wrong with Research In Motion's (RIMM) BlackBerry. The 8700 series, launched last year with Cingular Wireless and now available from T-Mobile, is usually the PDA of choice among hyperconnected executives. The BlackBerry is tops when it comes to delivering corporate e-mail, and it's also a pretty good phone. You just won't be listening to music and watching TV shows on it.
If the entertainment features are what matters, Palm's Treos pick up the baton where BlackBerry dropped it. Built by the same company that first popularized the PalmPilot PDA in the late 1990s, the Treo 700w from Verizon Wireless is the first Palm to incorporate the Windows Mobile operating system from Microsoft (MSFT) instead of the simple Palm (PALM) software. That makes it more useful for folks whose day jobs revolve around Outlook, Excel, PowerPoint, and Word.
Like the BlackBerry, the Treo has a tiny keyboard that will give your thumbs a good workout answering e-mail. Overall, it has more of a phone-like feel. It has an integrated camera for snapping the occasional picture, and it can also play music, audio books, and video clips.
If neither of those quite works for you, the major wireless phone manufacturers are eager to show you their goods. Samsung's SCH-i730, for example, has a keyboard, but it's hidden: You have to slide the screen up before you can start typing. It handles e-mail as expertly as the BlackBerry and Treo, but with a bigger screen and roomier keyboard.
Another two worth considering are the T-Mobile MDA and the Cingular 8125. These are similar, just offered by different wireless carriers. Both have slide-out keyboards like the Samsung model, but instead of being the width of a vertical screen, theirs slide out from the side, making them wider and easier to type on.
Enough about productivity. How about a phone that's focused on entertainment and voice, but can still keep you in touch with your boss? Most of all, is it small enough to fit in your jeans instead of having to clip to your belt? Take a look at Cingular's $200 2125. It's a full Windows Mobile phone with support for video and all music formats, a big clear screen, and high-speed Internet access. In addition, it works with Microsoft Exchange and GoodLink for corporate e-mail. No keyboard? No problem.
Typing on the numeric keyboard will keep your e-mails short. Or you can buy an external keyboard, but that defeats the purpose of having everything in one package, doesn't it? If you really have to satisfy your inner workaholic, get a BlackBerry.
For more on PDAs, go to businessweek.com/go/06pdas
By Arik Hesseldahl