Handhelds That Do It All

Hybrid gadgets are growing

You've got a cell phone in one pocket and a handheld organizer in the other. Or, more likely, the phone is in your hand and the organizer is perched on your knee, your free hand jabbing at both to look up a phone number and punch it into the phone. Someday, you pray, someone will find a way to combine the two indispensable tools into a single gadget.

You're finally in luck. The first practical hybrids are just now coming to market, jump-starting the race to come up with the consummate handheld business machine. Phone makers are trying to squeeze such must-have organizer features as calendars, address books, and to-do lists into your wireless phone. Handheld computer makers want to give their pocket organizers the prowess to handle your e-mail and Web surfing, and even your ordinary voice calls.

I've been playing around with a trio of these all-in-one gizmos. There's the cleverly designed VisorPhone, which hooks on to the back of any Handspring Visor (HAND), a personal digital assistant that's compatible with the popular Palm (PALM) family. The second is Sprint PCS's TP3000 model (PCS), a combo PDA and phone made by Korea's LG Electronics. Those both reached the market late last year. And I took an early peek at the Smartphone coming next month from Kyocera Wireless, the Japanese company that took over Qualcomm's (QCOM) wireless phone handset business. My conclusion: The phone crowd has the early lead.

HANDS FREE. As a phone, the VisorPhone is the least successful of the three. It's an ingenious piece of engineering, but it's still clearly a compromise. The tip-off? You buy it in two pieces: $149 to $449 for the Visor, and $499 for the VisorPhone attachment. The VisorPhone part is available only from Handspring's Web site (www.handspring.com), and you can get it for $299 if you sign up for wireless service from Pacific Bell or BellSouth Mobility at the same time. The phone module snaps into the expansion slot on the back of the Visor and has a semicircular plastic piece with speaker, buttons, and antenna that peeks over the top of the PDA.

I feel awkward--and probably look funny--holding the 3-inch-by-6-inch Visor up to my face to make a phone call. But it worked fine. A better bet is to use the earbud, an earpiece and microphone on a cord, that's included. That way your hands are free to look up data or take notes.

This phone doesn't have a traditional keypad. To make a call, you push the phone button. That displays your first 10 speed-dial entries on the Visor's screen. (You can store up to 50.) A second push brings up a touchscreen keypad, which lets you dial by punching in a phone number. But the real power of these phones is the ability to call any number in your contact list--you can store thousands of them--simply by tapping on the name or number.

One weakness of the VisorPhone is its geographic coverage. It works only on so-called GSM systems, which are only available in about two-thirds of the U.S. And it won't work on the GSM standard used in Europe and Asia. Another quibble: While the VisorPhone can act like a wireless modem, it's not set up for e-mail or Web browsing. If you want those functions, you'll have to download the software and install it yourself.

Its biggest drawback, however, is size. At best, this is a 9-to-5 phone, great for carrying around the office or tossing in your briefcase when you travel. But it's not the phone you're going to slip into a pocket for evenings and weekends. That means you'll probably end up with two phones, two phone numbers, two service contracts--not exactly what you want if you're trying to pare down your paraphernalia.

The models from phone companies don't have that problem, though they're clearly not the tiny, shiny numbers that are all the rage with the Hollywood set, either. And, unlike Handspring, they haven't left out the features that today's mobile-phone users have come to expect, such as a built-in speakerphone and voice dialing, as well as complete e-mail and Web capabilities.

My favorite is the Kyocera Smartphone. It's a half-inch narrower than the Visor, but its styling--with rounded corners and gentle curves--makes it seem smaller than that, and it's more comfortable to hold. It has a flip with a traditional telephone keypad, but is designed to be used with the flip closed (and covering the bottom half of the display) when you're making calls. You use a nifty thumbwheel on the left side of the phone to scroll up and down though the menus, such as a speed-dial list, voice and text message inboxes, and, if you want, your entire contact list. It's the only tri-mode phone of the bunch, working on CDMA cell and PCS networks as well as older analog wireless systems when you roam to remote parts of the country.

COLOR SCREEN. When you open the flip, the Smartphone turns into a Palm-compatible PDA. The screen looks like a smaller version of the Visor's, with smaller icons and type, and the same handwriting-recognition pad for Palm's Graffiti characters across the bottom. I found it very legible: It is, in fact, virtually the same size as the screen on Palm's newest model, the m100. Setting up the phone to retrieve your e-mail is as easy as configuring your laptop for e-mail, and the preproduction version I've been using lets you browse to any Web site, not just ones formatted especially for Web phones. Kyocera says it expects the Smartphone to retail for the price of a high-end Palm, or between $400 and $500.

Sprint's $399 TP3000 is similar in design to the Smartphone, but a quarter-inch narrower and a tad lighter, not much more than the heft of many conventional cell phones. It, too, has a flip with a phone keypad, and I especially like the way it moves up and out of the way rather than down. Like the Kyocera, it acts like a phone with the flip closed and an organizer--with extra features, such as the ability to dial from your address book--when the flip is open. Where the TP3000 comes up short is its organizer. It's a proprietary design, and I suspect that many people will opt for the more familiar Palm-compatibles instead.

If you want to wait, plenty more are in the works. Microsoft (MSFT) promises to have a PDA phone built around its Pocket PC operating system by the end of 2001. Motorola (MOT) and Palm are working together on a version with a color screen targeted for 2002. But I think that Kyocera has raised a high enough hurdle that it's going to be tough to beat.

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