Computer Phones: The Good, the Bad, and the Bulky

These gizmos can be hard to configure--and sometimes just plain slow

Jesús Jusgado loves his big new Nokia Communicator, the 9210. True, the $900 computer phone, nearly 16 centimeters long, doesn't fit easily into a pocket. But the 46-year-old architect from the Madrid suburb of Colmenar Viejo likes carrying all of his 700-odd contacts as he treks to building sites. He can call any of them just by pressing a couple of buttons. Plus, the machine offers e-mail connections. Here, though, Jusgado is like many other wireless pioneers in Europe. "I haven't gotten around to e-mail yet," he says.

Look at store shelves around Europe, and you'll see plenty of new computer phones offering e-mail services, document storage, and faxes. They extend from the Nokia (NOK ) to Ericsson's (ERICY ) far smaller R380s. And, just in time for the holidays, there's a host of machines combining Microsoft's new Pocket PC (MSFT ) operating system with a telephone. The most notable is a Siemens-Casio (SI ) (CSIOY ) joint effort, the SX45.

Trouble is, while digital virtuosos may get these machines performing their full repertoire of wireless tricks, less-savvy users like Jusgado find them devilishly hard to configure. One other problem: Europe is moving slowly toward the next iteration of the mobile Internet, called Generation 2.5. If you buy a current-generation smart phone, you may be stuck in the past when the new network takes shape.

Still, for people who can't wait, the Nokia is a logical choice. It has a full keyboard and color screen and, unlike Nokia's previous Communicator, it can handle Word documents and spreadsheets. At 245 grams, the 9210 is a tad lighter than the older model. The downside? It now feels flimsier. If you don't like the bulge in your pocket, get a $70 Vega leather shoulder holster for it.

Ericsson's R380s is smaller, only 164 grams. It looks and feels like a normal phone, circa 1998. But peel back the keypad, and you'll find a touch screen. It's a nifty package, perfect for sending and receiving short messages. But if you expect it to replace your Palm organizer, it's a sizable step backward. The computer doesn't work unless the phone is on, an inconvenience. Worse, it's slow. If you have a thousand entries in your address book, say, the search program can take up to a minute to locate a single name.

The hefty Siemens SX45, at 295 grams, is an early Microsoft Pocket PC entry in the phone market. If you get one of these $840 behemoths you'd better keep your other phone. The phone in this computer is difficult to use, impossible without donning the earpiece. It's not made for talking.

MINUSCULE. The phone connection, as in many of the coming computer phones, is primarily for data transmission. But even as a Net device, this one has shortcomings, so it might be good to wait for Siemens' next try. Data speed is slow, and the computer has trouble handling voice and data simultaneously.

If you want the bugs to be ironed out of computer phones, Motorola's (MOT ) tiny V66 is a better bet for voice calls. Forget about its organizer functions. Only a masochist would peck appointments on the minuscule phone pad. But the $450 phone, the same size as Nokia's popular 8210, is equipped for Generation 2.5 Internet surfing. It provides users with a 25-KB-per-second connection, more than twice as fast as first-generation Web phones. And in 2.5 systems, this V66 is always online--just like a broadband connection to the Net. Just not so broad.

True, most people see the mobile Web so far as a string of broken promises. But look at it this way: If and when good data services pop up, the V66 will be ready for them. In the meantime, it can easily and compactly handle what you really want a wireless phone for: talking.

By Stephen Baker in Paris

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