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On the set of his new thriller, Unknown, actor Joe Pantoliano's thumbs are hard at work. A steady buzz alerts him to e-mails arriving on his palmOne (PLMO ) Treo 650 handheld. He also uses it for conference calls with two screenwriting partners to hash out details of a script. With the Treo's built-in camera, the self-confessed tech neophyte grabs quick pictures of things that interest him. "I've tried some of these other phones," Pantoliano says. "They look cool, but they're not functional. The Treo, it's idiot-proof."
I can't help but agree. When I looked for the best device to balance my increasingly mobile lifestyle against my obsessive-compulsive need to manage my e-mail, the Treo 650 ranked at the top for its out-of-the-box simplicity. Still, there was much to like about a slew of other products. I tried the BlackBerry 7100g, T-Mobile's Sidekick II, the Audiovox 6600, and OQO's model 01 pocket-size PC, as well as mobile data cards for e-mail surfing on laptops.
Why do I like the Treo 650 best? These all-in-one appliances tend to be good at doing a lot of things, but excel at nothing. For the most part, the Treo from Sprint (FON ) ($420) and Cingular ($400), with Verizon (VZ ) coming soon, breaks that mold. palmOne followed up its popular Treo 600 by upgrading the camera, making the screen brighter. Its revamped keyboard makes it is easier to type long, one-handed messages and gain access to applications on the 650. The company also added Bluetooth wireless technology, so I was able to make phone calls on a Bluetooth headset during long commutes and take photos and send them to a Bluetooth-enabled Canon (CAJ ) printer for crisp, clear pictures. Add a wireless keyboard, and the daring might even consider leaving the laptop at home.
There are trade-offs. Too many times, I found myself frantically looking for a power outlet to recharge the battery. The brighter screen, wireless connection, and Bluetooth drain the Treo's battery in less than 12 hours. And a skimpy 23 megabytes of usable internal memory meant that I had to pay an extra $80 for a separate 1-GB memory card.
Messaging is a joy, though some may quibble with the Treo's middling phone: depending on which carrier you have and where you live, the signal can be staticky. It took my company's tech support staff less than 20 minutes to set up the Treo to work wirelessly on the corporate e-mail system. Thanks to built-in templates for adding popular e-mail services, I added my personal Yahoo! (YHOO ) account in even less time. Along with e-mail access, I could open up and edit Word and Excel attachments.
I may love the Treo, but picking a device comes down to which features and uses suit you best. Fashion hipsters -- Paris Hilton comes to mind -- are addicted to their Sidekick II. Its phone is only so-so, but it has great instant messaging. Corporations are likely to opt for the more secure Treos and BlackBerrys. For power users, who wouldn't be caught dead without a laptop at hand, there are high-speed data cards that work with the next-generation cellular networks that Cingular, Sprint, and Verizon are rolling out this year. With these, you get great broadband speeds to check your e-mail -- and you can subscribe and make calls from voice-over-Internet-Protocol services like Skype.
ALL WORK, NO PLAY
The long-popular BlackBerry has a new look these days. The $200 BlackBerry 7100 series feels more like a cell phone than previous iterations did. To get the slimmed-down look, all the letters and numbers are crammed on to just 14 keys -- a freaky proposition for über e-mailers. As you type, built-in software anticipates the correct word. That takes some getting used to, but I found that the 7100 got it right about 80% of the time.
Still I marked the BlackBerry down for one big reason: It's all work and no play. No camera. No music player. Scant software for downloading, and no memory-card slot. Some carriers don't even offer instant messaging, though Yahoo and AOL (TWX ) recently struck a deal to soon make their services standard on all BlackBerrys. If this really is a smart phone for the masses, then the hoi polloi are an industrious lot.
Two devices I quickly discounted were the Sidekick II and OQO. If I only had a personal e-mail account, the $250 Sidekick II would be a good choice. It has a built-in camera, Web browsing, and a roomy keyboard hidden beneath the rotating screen. You can instant-message up to 10 people, answer e-mail, and surf the Web at the same time. What's more, T-Mobile's $30 a month all-you-can-eat data plan is one of the best around. But there's no support for corporate e-mail and no Bluetooth link that would let me pack the bulky Sidekick in my bag and still answer phone calls.
The OQO wins for being cool: The elegant 5-inch screen slides up to reveal a full Qwerty keyboard. Power it on, and it's a full Windows XP computer with Wi-Fi built in. But the keyboard is too small for my fingers, and it's a hassle to tap on the cramped touchscreen, even with a stylus. Without a built-in optical drive, my options were more limited than simply choosing a thin and light laptop.
If you're more interested in data than phone, there's the Audiovox 6600 from Verizon ($550) and Sprint ($450), respectively. Cingular offers a similar model, Siemens' (SI ) $500 SX66. I was wowed by their large, bright color screens and James Bond-like sliders that reveal a hidden keyboard (even if the keys were a bit small for large hands). Too bad the devices are too bulky to carry constantly. The various versions come with a mishmash of features -- Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or a camera -- but none have all three.
No doubt, there are plenty of other choices for e-mail on the go. Some corporate voice-over-IP systems will read your e-mail to you over the phone. Others will let you log in to your corporate Web site from any computer, punch in a password, and retrieve your messages. But, for now at least, my hip holster is happy to hold the Treo 650. Tomorrow? You never know.
By Cliff Edwards