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It's A Phone, It's A Palmtop

Combo devices show promise, but are they ready for prime time?

One lump or two? That's the question facing designers and consumers at the dawn of a new era of wireless communications. Cell phones are beginning to handle data as well as voice calls, and handheld computers, organizers, and other devices can become much more useful if they gain wireless-communications capability. So does it make more sense to have a single super-phone that doubles as handheld computer, or do you want a phone and a discrete handheld to work separately and together?

I tested two very different attempts to deal with the question. The pdQ phone, from Qualcomm (619 587-1121 or www.qualcomm.com), is a digital phone with a 3Com Palm built in. The Starfish Clip-on Organizer from Motorola (800 331-6456 or www.starfish.com) displays the address book, calendar, and to-do list from your desktop information manager on a device that clips to a StarTAC phone.

The pdQ phone indicates the strengths and weaknesses of the superphone approach. The phone, which will come on the market this summer as Qualcomm negotiates deals with carriers, is expected to cost between $500 and $800, depending on the service plan. At a time when tiny phones are the rage, the pdQ is a bruiser by cell-phone standards. To accommodate a display just a bit smaller than Palm III's, the phone weighs 9.8 oz.

DATA GAP. There's also a big ergonomic problem: You can't read the display while holding the phone up to your ear. A headset is one solution, and Qualcomm supplies a combination earpiece/microphone. But at least in the U.S., these have been slow to catch on with cell-phone users.

On the promising side, the all-in-one design should, in theory, work as a phone and a modem for the Palm. A phone link would let you get E-mail, browse the Web, and exchange contacts and calendar information with your desktop computer. Unfortunately, the digital networks that pdQ uses, such as Sprint PCS, are just starting to get data capability. The extent of phone-Palm integration will depend on which of the two pdQ models you have and just what services your cellular carrier offers. At worst, you may have to forgo checking your E-mail or surfing the Web, and stick to using your Palm address book to dial the phone.

The $250 StarTAC Clip-on comes with a different set of ergonomic and integration problems. The thick, credit-card-sized device, a very close relative of the Starfish-designed Franklin Rex Pro, attaches easily to most any StarTAC phone. You can enter a bit of data by using a stylus to tap a clumsy on-screen keyboard. But for the most part, the Clip-on, like the Rex, is intended to display data downloaded from a desktop program.

One real strength is that Starfish's TrueSync software is designed to transfer data among multiple programs and devices. You can, for example, simultaneously sync a Clip-on, a Palm, Microsoft Outlook on the desktop, and a Yahoo! Calendar on the Web.

A drawback is that the organizer pushes the phone's weight up by 50%, to 7 oz. The half-inch thickness of the combined phone-organizer makes the once-almost-undetectable StarTAC a bulky load when worn in its belt holster. Motorola insisted that the Clip-on meet the same durability standards as the phone, greatly increasing its bulk and weight in comparison with the Rex.

SMALL LIMITS. A bigger problem is that there is very little integration between the Clip-on and the phone. The only interaction is you can dial the phone from the address book. So while it's handy to be able to detach the Clip-on from the phone so you can use it while you're talking, there's not a lot you can do when they are attached.

As these gizmos mature and as wireless networks improve, both the design and the integration will get better. But there are limits. There's no way to get a useful data screen into a device that's as small as a phone should be. On the other hand, my tiny phone should allow larger data devices such as palmtops to browse the Web, fetch E-mail, and receive pages.

The solution could lie in technology being developed by an industry consortium called the Blue Tooth Special Interest Group. Blue Tooth uses low-power radio transmitters to connect devices, so that the palmtop in your hand could use the phone hanging from your belt to check your E-mail. Practical applications of Blue Tooth are probably still a year off, but this technology may be the key to letting handheld devices share each other's strengths, instead of building hybrids that do many things, none of them well.

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