In "The Perfect Device" (May 2000, http://www.winnetmag.com, InstantDoc ID 8458), I wrote about the ideal communication device. The "perfect" device I described combined the best features and functionality of the mobile phone and PDA. What I wanted 3 years ago differs from the device I recently purchased for myself. My needs might not be the same as yours, but I believe this column will help you figure out whether these new PDA and phone combo devices will work for you.

Three years ago, I wanted a device shaped like the Palm Pilot that would fit nicely in my shirt pocket. I wanted voice-activated dialing and a wireless earpiece and microphone so that I would rarely have to use the dialer. I wanted a color screen, support for Bluetooth wireless technology, support for AvantGo's My AvantGo email service, thumbprint scanner authentication, an MP3 player, and wireless Web access. I also wanted text-to-speech conversion so that I could dictate my Word documents.

Everything on my wish list and more is available today on high-end PDAs. However, to accommodate the phone functionality necessary for the average user, manufacturers have chosen to eliminate some high-end PDA features to save on size, battery consumption, and price. So when you think of PDA and phone combo devices, think compromise.

When I started my recent search, I didn't want to compromise. I wanted the best of both worlds, which meant getting separate phone and PDA devices. For example, the Hewlett-Packard (HP) Compaq iPAQ H5455 Pocket PC had an excellent 1024 * 64 screen, 64MB of RAM, a Secure Digital (SD) slot, a thumbprint security feature, support for Wi-Fi (the 802.11b wireless standard), Bluetooth support, an MP3 player, and more. It was the best PDA I found. And one vendor I investigated would have thrown in a free Ericsson R520 Bluetooth phone. The Ericsson R520 has a phone plan from T-Mobile USA, which has an excellent configuration site at http://us.t-mobile.mywds.com that provides step-by-step integration instructions for getting a Bluetooth PDA and Bluetooth phone to work together. With this setup, I could initiate a Web session on the iPAQ, which would dial out through the R520 automatically, as long as the phone was within 30 feet of the iPAQ. Pretty cool.

But the thought of carrying around two devices didn't sit well with me, nor did the thought of having to fiddle with integration problems on my own. I wanted one reasonably sized device that had as many features on my wish list as possible.

The list of available combination devices is short. You can choose from one of the Pocket PC phones from T-Mobile or AT&T, which are both made by HTC, the company that makes the iPAQ. These phones include voice dialing and speakerphone features, and include Pocket Word and Pocket Excel. However, none of these phones have an integrated keyboard; they rely on the Pocket PC handwriting recognition feature. In addition, they do not have flip covers, and the thought of having to wipe my face oil off the screen wasn't too appealing. Finally, both T-Mobile and AT&T plans charge for data by the megabyte, which is hard to track and can get very expensive.

I also looked at Sprint's PCS Phone by Toshiba 2032SP, which was designed as a Pocket PC PDA with added phone features. Although having Wi-Fi support and an SD slot was nice, I've heard users complain about the poor battery life of this phone—in some cases, only 1 hour—which, for me, was unacceptable. This phone also required handwriting recognition, didn't have a flip cover, and was quite bulky.

I investigated the Palm Tungsten W, a Palm OS combination device. It has a keyboard and an SD slot but doesn't have a flip cover and requires you to wear the built-in earbud to use it as a phone. I need the flexibility of using a phone with an earbud, with a speakerphone, or as a regular mobile phone.

What Worked for Me
So, what device did I pick? I chose the Sprint PCS Handspring Treo 300 because it's the smallest combo device and it has a built-in keyboard, a flip cover, speaker phone, and good battery life. Although it's small, the Treo packs a lot of features: It has a color screen and good software, is easy to use, and has a built-in thumb board similar to the ones used by Research In Motion (RIM) BlackBerry devices. In fact, Handspring, the makers of the Treo, had to license the keyboard from RIM. The keyboard is very useful: I can input text about two to three times faster than I can using the handwriting recognition feature in the Palm or Pocket PC devices.

In addition, the Sprint calling plan is good for me. I got 2000 nationwide anytime minutes for $85 a month. This plan included unlimited Internet usage—no need to figure out how many megabytes I used or the number of messages I sent. And it's fast. On average, Sprint's 3G Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) network delivers about 40Kb to 70Kb, so Web surfing and email downloading is a reasonable activity. As of this writing, Sprint is the only company that includes unlimited data access in all its business plans. Other companies will charge extra for data access, which can get expensive.

The Treo uses Palm OS 3.5, which lets me synchronize with Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes. Because I use Outlook, I can easily synch my email, calendar, contacts, to-do list, and notes. For email, I downloaded a free 2bAnywhere email client from http://www.2banywhere.com. After configuring my two POP3 accounts and my Hotmail account, I was sending and receiving email wirelessly from all three accounts. 2bAnywhere is integrated with my Outlook contacts, so all my email accounts are just a few taps away. 2bAnywhere even handles attachments, so I can wirelessly download an attached Microsoft Word document, for example, and view it on my Treo.

Several Palm-based solutions are available for accessing and synching up with Microsoft Exchange and Notes mail servers, including TreoMail and Sprint PCS Business Connection. If you're supporting a group of users, you can purchase server versions of the software that centrally manage the synchronization process. If you're trying to configure support for one device, the desktop versions require that you leave your desktop PC connected but secure, and the Treo will access your corporate email wirelessly through your desktop PC connection.

The Treo 300 also supports voice-dialing commands for an additional $5 a month. With voice dialing, you can say "Call Mark Smith at work" and the Treo will locate the Mark Smith contact record and dial the phone number stored in the work field. (This feature is not the same as programming your phone to recognize your voice.) This feature uses Sprint's computers for voice recognition, which has been 100 percent accurate regardless of who speaks the voice command. No programming is required. I'm not aware of any other companies that offer this feature.

Overall, I'm happy with my Treo 300. Yes, I lust after Wi-Fi access when I see the Wi-Fi signs at the airport. If Wi-Fi support were a must-have for me, I would use the iPAQ H5455 and Ericsson R520 Bluetooth phone combination, which would require carrying two devices. With the Treo 300, I can get my email quickly while riding in the taxi from the airport—I give up high-speed access in favor of adequate-speed access from every major city in the United States. The Treo 300 also supports international roaming, so if I'm in Europe, for example, I can receive and send phone calls to and from my own phone number. And because I'm plugging all my important data into my Treo, it would be nice to have the thumbprint security like the iPAQ H5455. The Treo 300 does have password protection, which works but isn't quite as easy to use as a thumb scan.

I'm sure something better than my pick will come out within a few months, but for now, the device I chose has given me an amazing amount of mobile freedom in a very small package. It's not perfect—but almost.

Corrections to this Article:

  • In Mark Smith's Fast Forward: "(Almost) Perfect Devices" (May 2003, http://www.winnetmag .com, InstantDoc ID 38481), the speed of Sprint's 3G Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) network was listed incorrectly. The download speed is 40 to 70 kilobits per second, not kilobytes per second.