Let's Have a Big Hand for the New Handhelds

Now you can e-mail, surf, and phone with a PDA, but peruse the field before you choose

Big Tigger really didn't see much reason to have a handheld computer. He used phones, PCs, and a Motorola (MOT ) two-way pager to stay in touch with friends, family, and colleagues at Black Entertainment Television in Washington, D.C., where he hosts the popular Rap City: Tha Bassment music show. A PDA like a Palm or a Pocket PC just didn't cut it, says the 29-year-old entertainer. Palms or iPAQs were fine for investment bankers, but not for music mavens.

Not any more. Last summer, Big Tigger first caught sight of the T-Mobile Sidekick. One of a growing breed of handheld computer-phone combos, the slick Sidekick has a screen that rotates to reveal a keyboard for sending e-mail and instant messages. A couple of months later, Big Tigger got the Sidekick ($200 with activation from T-Mobile, plus voice and data service at $35 a month). Now he carries it everywhere, using it to zap quick e-mails and chat on the phone. And when he flashes the little machine, it causes a big stir.

"People have even tried to buy it off me," Big Tigger says.

As if they couldn't find them at the mall! But before dashing out the door to snap up one of your own, consider this warning: The new hybrid voice and data communicators may pack a lot into them, but there's no single device that does everything really well. Each one is missing a feature, whether it's a color screen, an integrated phone, or a keyboard. That means that even when you pony up for a dream handset, you have to come to terms with wrenching trade-offs.

How to decide what you need, and what you can do without? Here are some guidelines:

Let's say you're a gadget lover, with a tiny cell phone, a PDA digitally stuffed with data from life and work, and an MP3 player. Maybe you even shuttle e-mails on a BlackBerry. People like you were born for smart phones, hybrids that offer just about everything.

Start with the Sidekick. Aimed at 18- to 34-year-olds, the Sidekick has lots of flash, plenty of substance, and doesn't break the bank. Its rotating screen gives it a big wow factor while being remarkably practical. Messaging is a snap. For calls, just hit a button, and the Sidekick's speed dial takes over. The device also boasts buttons and roll bars that flash when e-mails and calls come in. Its cool, digitized ring tones sound like the Tribbles meeting The Matrix.

For all its fun, the Sidekick's a bit of a slacker at work. The e-mail isn't connected to corporate networks yet. And it can't synchronize with popular PC calendar and contact software, such at Microsoft's Outlook. Even Big Tigger wishes the device had a color screen and better Web-browsing capability. "If they took care of a couple of things, it would be perfect," he says.

For regular working stiffs, two smart phones in opposite camps stand out. The $549 T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone Edition (along with similar designs from AT&T Wireless (AWE ) and mmO2 in Europe) is the first handheld in the U.S. to use Microsoft's (MSFT ) phone software. The Treo 300, at $449 with a $50 rebate from Sprint (FON ), is the latest in Handspring's (HAND ) lineup of Palm-based devices.

Both handsets deliver as phones. They're wider and longer than most cell phones, but are still slender enough to slip into a pocket. Their sound is crystal clear, and speed-dialing from the address book is a breeze. Careful, though. Unlike a regular cell phone that you charge once every several days, these Web-surfers devour batteries. They'll likely need a charge every night.

For writing, the Treo's a better bet--assuming you know how to type. Its thumb keyboard may look too tiny for serious e-mailing, but it's surprisingly effective. By comparison, the touch screen of the Pocket PC is cumbersome even for short messages. You either hunt and peck the digital keys on the screen or write, letter by letter, with the Graffiti handwriting-recognition system.

Al Roker, co-host of NBC's The Today Show, opted for the Treo 300. He counts on it for sending e-mails and surfing the Web. "Just last month, I had a flight to Cleveland canceled," he says. "I used [the browser] to go to Expedia.com and check other flights. It has enough of everything I need to get through my day."

The Pocket PC does have its pluses. Without a built-in keyboard, it has room for a bigger screen. The display is brighter and crisper, and it is easier to read in bright daylight. What's more, the Pocket PC phone synchronizes easily with the Microsoft programs on your PC. The newest update of Microsoft's Media Player for the desktop, for instance, has an easy-to-use option for copying music files from a PC to the handheld, which moonlights as a personal stereo.

Many want such convenience. The question is whether it should all be in the same machine. Assume you've got a favorite cell phone. The battery lasts forever, and it fits into that little square bluejean pocket. Does it make sense to shelve it for a much larger smart phone? If the answer is no, then you're in the market for one of the top-of-the-line PDAs that accompanies a phone, but doesn't try to supplant it. Don't worry, you'll still be able to book flights and suss out driving directions on the move: The small phone will send signals to these phoneless PDAs through wireless connections, such as Bluetooth, a low-frequency radio signal that links devices that are up to 30 feet from each other.

The Toshiba e740, which can cost anywhere from $379 to $599, boasts wireless communications, but without a phone. It manages this through a built-in wireless technology called Wi-Fi. That works for checking e-mail, prowling the Web, sending instant messages in the office--or using so-called wireless access areas in hotels, airports, or coffeehouses. But don't forget the recharger. The e740 will run for only about two hours with Wi-Fi turned on. For serious Web-surfers, it might make sense to spend $129 for an auxiliary battery.

When it comes to pure power, Pocket PCs reign supreme. The e740 is leading the switch to Intel Corp.'s (INTC ) speedy XScale processor. The device has 64 megabytes of RAM, and you can add more by slipping a memory card into a slot. That offers plenty of room for addresses and calendar entries, as well as for Word, Excel, or PowerPoint documents, videos, or music.

Feeling artistic? With Palm's (PALM ) new $499 Tungsten T, you can draw notes or sketches on the square screen and zap them to friends in the next room, or colleagues across the meeting table. The connection comes from Bluetooth. If your phone has Bluetooth, you can meander through the Web on the Tungsten, using the phone as the modem. One warning though: Coaxing two Bluetooth devices to communicate with each other can tax the patience of even the hardiest do-it-yourselfer. If the store offers help in setting up the connection, don't hesitate to grab it.

The $499 Razor Zayo A600 is another strong Pocket PC contender. At half an inch thick, it barely bulges in a jacket pocket. And yet it's as zippy as the scooters Razor sells. It has the same processor and memory as the Toshiba. But you can set it on battery-saving mode when working on e-mails or the calendar. For higher-energy apps, like videos or music, it kicks into overdrive. After about three hours of music, though, the battery dies out.

The Palm-based Sony Clie PEG-SJ30 (SNE ) is no slacker. With a color screen and expandable memory, this hardworking, mid-tier device is affordably priced at $299. It's lightweight, small enough to slip into any pocket, and easily handles address and calendar tasks. Its slow processor, though, struggles to handle video and multimedia games. Still, the high-resolution screen is great for handling still images, and you can edit the pictures using Sony's Clie Paint program.

Amid all these devices, lots of folks still swear by paper calendars and notebooks jammed into a back pocket. But with a host of affordable machines pouring into the market, it might be time even for skeptics to make the digital leap. The Palm Zire is a good starter PDA. It's sleek and boasts all the essentials--calendar, to-do list, calculator, and address book--in a no-frills package. But it only has 2 MB of memory, a humble 16-MHz processor, and a monochrome screen. Palm scrapped the sync cradles and custom cables of older models. The Zire connects to a computer with a standard USB cable and comes with a charging cable.

For a step up among low-cost models, check out the Sony Clie PEG-SJ20 and the Palm m130. Both have substantially more memory and processing power than the Zire. They also have slots that can be used for memory expansion or to load programs and reference materials, such as restaurant guides. At $249, the m130 costs about $50 more than the SJ20, but unlike the SJ20 it sports a color screen.

Not long ago, the industry was hunting for the miracle machine, a handheld that would combine the phone, the PDA, even the MP3 player. Now we're seeing not just one device, but an explosion of tantalizing choices. And as this wild new industry blossoms, the choices aren't going to get any easier.

By Heather Green

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