I'm always bumping into important contacts at lunch when I don't have a business card to give them. "Do you have a Palm?" I'm often asked. "I'll beam my info to ya." I carry a cell phone, but my Palm organizer is usually sitting in the cradle next to my PC. See, I hate stuffing my pockets with gadgets.
Hold on to your handset, cell users. The world's wireless wizards are now making "smart" phones. These handhelds combine cellular technology with software that can keep your calendar, manage your contact list, let you jot notes, and zap e-mail. Since a new breed of these gadgets will arrive for the holidays, I test-drove five that are expected to line shelves this Christmas.
The hybrid gizmos have impressive features, but that's not enough to push them into the mainstream. Only 1.5 million people will buy smart phones worldwide this year, out of 410 million mobile phones, says researcher International Data Corp.
Of the phones I tested, the Samsung took top prize. If you ask me, a smart phone not only has to do brainy things, it has to look good, too. At $500, the silver Samsung SPH I300, available from Sprint PCS (PCS ), is the sleekest combo phone out there. It's more like a Palm with a phone hidden inside. Instead of dialing on a keypad, you touch virtual buttons on the 2 1/2-inch-long color screen. The sides sport buttons for one-touch on-off control and one-handed scrolling through the address book. The best feature, however, is also the worst. Samsung's technology allows voice dialing for fast, one-handed calling. Just record, then speak a name into the phone. It worked from my office, but from the platform of the El train in Chicago, my Samsung phone turned dumb. It took four tries before it recognized the number I wanted.
The Palm-based Kyocera QCP 6035, available from Sprint and Verizon (VZ ), offers similar functions. It's just not as attractive. A bulky, dull-gray thing that costs $429, it looks more like a spotted stone than a cell phone.
FASHION STATEMENT. If making calls is your primary need, the Ericsson R380 World is your power tool. Available for $500, its cellular technology works on the VoiceStream Wireless (VSTR ) network in the U.S. and Europe. The buttons on the dial pad are easy to find and press. Rather than Palm software, the Ericsson's calendar, phone list, and other applications are based on less intuitive software made by Symbian. Flip open the keypad, and this compact unit reveals a surprisingly large, 3 1/2-inch horizontal screen. (You turn the phone sideways to read it.) The drawback? Memory is a mere 1.2 megabytes, far less than the 8 MB most Palms boast for business users.
For a completely different look, there's the Motorola Accompli 009. Its compact design--as elegant as a Donna Karan suit--is so cool I clipped it to my belt simply for the fashion statement. Like the Ericsson, it's wired for use in Europe and the States. But it's really not a phone so much as a fancy $550 text pager with voice capability tossed in. To talk, you plug in earphone or speakerphone accessories. It could never be my main phone. When I placed calls outdoors using the earphone, I couldn't hear anything but city buses whizzing by.
My least favorite is the VisorPhone from Handspring Inc. (HAND ) It's a Palm clone with a phone stuck on it. The phone module slips into a slot on the top of Visor Prism or Platinum models. While these are terrific pocket PCs, the slip-in cellular antenna makes for an awkward phone. If Handspring is your vendor of choice, wait until early 2002, when it will introduce the Treo--no snap-ons necessary. All these gizmos have nifty features, but for my money, they're not smart enough--yet.
By Roger O. Crockett in Chicago