Thumbthing For Everyone

The three hottest new handhelds: Which one is right for your mobile messaging needs?

Thumbs. For centuries, they have conveyed the simplest of messages. Up/down, good/bad, salvation/lion chow. But look at the folks in the elevators, the checkout lines, even crawling along in traffic jams. They're tapping madly with thumbs on the tiny keyboards of wireless gizmos. The other eight digits -- who needs 'em? For digital nomads, this trend promises to lighten the load. It just might be time to leave the laptop at home and to trust in a pocket-size smart phone and a pair of typing thumbs.

The options have never been richer. For the past three years, the Treo, the RIM (RIMM ) Blackberry, and a youth-oriented gadget called the Sidekick have sparked much of the mobile messaging excitement in the U.S. market. All three are now launching enhanced models. While other options continue to pop up, most shoppers are likely to end up weighing these three alternatives. So how about an old-fashioned bake-off? We've picked up these three, banged out some messages, tried some wireless Web surfing, even made a few old-fashioned phone calls. Now it's just a matter of picking a winner.

It doesn't take long to spot the turf each of these machines is staking out. PalmOne's (PLMO ) new Treo 650 is for mobile digerati who want just about everything. It has a snazzy camera and a touchscreen. Plug in a memory card and you have an MP3 player that can hold some 300 songs. The slimmer Blackberry 7100T feels much more like a normal phone than the other two -- but one with a highly innovative and peculiar keyboard. And T-Mobile's Sidekick II, far less geared toward corporate use, is suited to a generation that lives on instant chat and wants to do it everywhere.

Word Search

These gadgets are a gas, but for big cell-phone yakkers, a word of caution: They are not terrific talking machines. If you're used to a late-model cell phone, these hybrids can feel like a three-year step back in time. Why? They're carrying a lot of other baggage, including keyboards. The bet is that the rich, non-talking features will more than compensate for extra bulk in the handset, the lower battery life, the struggle to figure out where to put your ear. But if what you want is first and foremost a phone, take a tough test drive before committing.

The boldest innovation arrives in the latest Blackberry, the slender 7100T. Priced at $199 from T-Mobile, with a $59.99 monthly subscription that provides limitless data and 1,000 minutes of talk time, this gadget is targeted more toward consumers than Blackberry's traditional corporate market. It looks more like a phone than an e-mail machine. and at first glance it doesn't appear to have a keyboard. Take another look, though, and you see that the entire alphabet is crammed onto just 14 keys.

How to write on a setup where two letters share the same key? You simply type the English words and sentences you're thinking of, and the Blackberry's software divines what you're trying to say and picks the appropriate letters. This system is wickedly smart and usually gets it right. It appears to understand not only the vocabulary but also the context within a sentence. If the system guesses wrong, it provides the other possibilities and lets you pick the right one. Trouble is, you still end up arbitrating quite a few of these disputes. For foreign names and passwords, the easiest route is to bypass the word-guessing software, and to tap each key one, two, or three times for the appropriate letter or number. That's when you wish every one had its own key.

I marveled at this Blackberry's technology but still found it a grind to type. The upshot? It's a good gadget for those who want to monitor e-mail on the run and are happy to send back short and sweet replies. Beyond e-mail, this Blackberry boasts a bright color screen, but little fun: no camera, no music. It does offer instant messaging -- though it would require nothing short of a thumb-typing whiz to carry out a running chat on the condensed keyboard.

Devoted mobile typists should consider T-Mobile's Sidekick II. With its throwback look of a Star Trek relic, it has a screen that swivels onto its side. This opens onto one of the best keyboards in the handheld universe. Chat on the $249.99 Sidekick is a breeze. E-mails can run into paragraphs. Snap a picture with its camera, and it's a cinch to send it along in a message. A T-Mobile $59.99 monthly subscription provides limitless data and 600 minutes of talk time.

An Achilles' Heel

But talk is the Sidekick II's Achilles' heel. Its patchy voice quality ranks a clear third in this bake-off. Users are likely to find it awkward for the spoken word. What's more, Sidekick II does not plug into corporate e-mail as easily as its competitors. Think of it as a leisure device. But for kicking back, this machine is missing one crucial piece: an MP3 player. Here's betting that if there's ever a Sidekick III, it'll come with vibes.

That brings us to the winning entry, PalmOne's Treo 650. This handset, likely to be priced at $499 with monthly service plans in the range of $60 when launched in November, blends the strengths of its two competitors. It syncs with corporate systems as neatly as the Blackberry. But like the Sidekick II, it boasts a full keyboard -- albeit with maddeningly tiny keys. As a phone, it performs a tad better than the smaller Blackberry. And its touchscreen and popular Palm interface combine to make it the easiest to navigate. This new version has a doozy of a camera: The detail in its photos blows away not only the Sidekick II but also the one-year-old Treo 600 (which will likely remain on the market at around $200).

What's not to like? Sad to say, the Internet. Each of these handsets boasts a Web browser and links to popular sites, such as Yahoo! (YHOO ) and Google. But the connections remain frustratingly slow, with lots of clicking and waiting. Coverage blinks out under bridges or around a street corner. Fact is, while mobile e-mail works, the mobile Web -- at least in the U.S. market -- remains a work in progress.

Still, even those who handle e-mails the old-fashioned way will likely be tapping away with their thumbs before long. Why so? Corporations the world over are eager to get these productivity machines into employees' hands. The Yankee Group estimates that of 35 million mobile professionals in the U.S., only a vanguard of 2 million use mobile e-mail. Yankee expects this number to soar. As it does, chances are you'll soon be getting one of these cool e-mailing tools, courtesy of your boss. Time to limber up those thumbs.

By Stephen Baker

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