Colorful Calls and Contacts

We look at a PDA and two PDA/cell phone combos with color screens

By Yardena Arar

Color, keyboard, and cell-phone integration: These latest trends in handhelds distinguish a trio of new personal digital assistants. The Audiovox Thera Pocket PC and two Handspring models--the Treo 90 and the Treo 270--all boast attractive color screens, but otherwise offer differing arrays of innovative new features for people seeking the latest in mobile technology.

At the high end of the scale sits Audiovox's Thera, the first Pocket PC equipped with a built-in high-speed wireless data modem and a dual-band (CDMA 800 MHz and PCS 1900 MHz) cell phone. It requires some deep pockets: Verizon Wireless is introducing the device for $730, plus the cost of a service plan for its CDMA 2000 1x Express Network. The Thera's price tag is understandable, given that its high-speed wireless modem--when sold as a separate PC Card--goes for $300 and a regular Pocket PC can cost from $400 to $600. But don't go for the Thera if you want more phone than PDA in a converged device: Except for the one-inch, pencil-like antenna on the top left, it looks like a typical Pocket PC; it also weighs substantially more than most cell phones.

The 65,536-color, 240-by-320 active-matrix screen on my shipping unit looked fine indoors and was usable outdoors. You can add memory or functions via the Secure Digital/MultiMediaCard (SD/MMC) expansion slot. To supplement the Thera's built-in 32MB of RAM, Audiovox bundles a 32MB SD Card with the device. You get the customary Pocket PC 2002 software assortment, too, including handheld versions of Microsoft Office applications. Verizon Wireless rates the life of the rechargeable battery at 1.5 hours of talk time and 8 hours of standby time.

If you like using a PDA as a digital music player, you can either play MP3 files on Windows Media Player or plug a supplied audio remote controller (which can also take phone calls) into the handheld's universal jack.

The Thera's crown jewel, of course, is its ability to access the Internet at the speed of a 56-kbps modem via its easy-to-use Watcher app. That's hardly lightning fast, but it beats the 14.4-kbps top speed of the previous CDMA network--useful if you plan on doing heavy Web browsing or downloading large files such as MP3s or databases. But with service running between $35 and $300 a month, the Thera is best left to corporate folks who need the fastest Internet possible on a PDA and whose employers will foot the bill.

COLOR TREOS. A more balanced combination of PDA and GSM (and GPRS-ready) cell phone, the Palm-based Treo 270 sells for $499 plus the cost of a service plan available from several providers. Basically a color version of Handspring's pioneering Treo 180, the Treo 270 uses Handspring's version of Palm OS 3.5, sports an exceptionally bright passive-matrix screen of 4000-plus colors, and at 0.8 inches thick and 5.4 ounces, is about the same size as its monochrome sibling. This Treo has no expansion capabilities, however.

As cell phones go, the Treo 270 is bulky and wide, but its flip-up cover with a clear plastic window cradles against your face comfortably. Or you can attach its included earbud microphone and then hold the device in your hand. Handspring says the rechargeable lithium ion battery supports up to 3 hours of talk time with 150 hours of standby.

If you like to dial telephone numbers on a BlackBerry-esque thumb keyboard, you'll appreciate the keyboard backlighting that comes on when you flip open the cover. My only major gripe: In bright sunlight the passive-matrix screen on my preproduction unit became unreadable.

The Treo 270 comes with an application for sending and retrieving POP3 e-mail. Alternatively, you can pay an annual fee for the recently introduced Treo Mail service, which automatically relays POP3 or Outlook Exchange e-mail at periodic intervals (or on demand). To use Treo Mail with Outlook Exchange, you must install a desktop application and keep your computer on. Exchange mail service is $100 a year; it's $50 a year for POP3.

A jog wheel on the left side of the Treo 270 permits one-handed dialing (with practice). Note: Handspring won't make a color version of the Graffiti-based Treo 180g due to the popularity of the keyboard-equipped model.

NO-PHONE TREO. If you like the looks of the Treo 270 but don't need a phone (or are on a budget), consider Handspring's $299 Treo 90. Much lighter than the 270 at 4 ounces, the 0.65-inch-thick Treo 90 is also significantly slimmer than its siblings; and it shaves about 0.2 inches off the girth of the competing $279 Palm M130. It packs 16MB of RAM and runs Handspring's version of Palm OS 4.1.

The Treo 90's 160-by-160-pixel screen is a tad larger than the Palm M130's. But its transflective display becomes just about unreadable when used outdoors. The rechargeable lithium ion battery should last for 10 days of normal use, the company says.

New features include a combination SD/MMC slot for adding storage or apps, and a keyboard-locking capability to avoid turning the device on unintentionally. However, it lacks the Treo 270's keyboard backlight and jog dial. Overall, though, the Treo 90 is one of the best midrange Palm-based devices we've seen.

Of the two cell-phone/PDA hybrids we looked at, the Treo 270 is much more appealing than the Thera Pocket PC, which seems clunky and overblown by comparison.

From the August 2002 issue of PC World magazine

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