During the next few months, I’ll be joining the 10-city Hewlett-Packard (HP) and Microsoft Network Storage Solutions Road Show (http://www.winnetmag.com/roadshows/nas). Because of my heavy travel schedule, I needed to upgrade my mobile-communication capabilities. My goal was to find a combination cell phone–and-PDA device that could handle my calendar, contacts, phone, email, to-do list, and light Web-surfing needs. After considering several factors, I discovered quite a few interesting possibilities.

Considerations
Before I took out my wallet, I needed to pin down exactly what I wanted in the device. I evaluated the available products according to reception, form factor, features, and phone and data plans.

Reception. What good is a phone if you can’t get reception? The reception coverage area is determined by a phone company’s network infrastructure. Three wireless network types exist in the United States: Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA), Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM), and Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA). My old mobile phone plan was AT&T Wireless's AT&T Digital One Rate, which uses AT&T’s extensive TDMA network. However, all AT&T's future infrastructure investments are going into its newer GSM network. (Much of the world, including Europe and Asia, uses GSM. Also, GSM supports a digital network called General Packet Radio Service—GPRS—which is important for wireless data services such as email and Web surfing.) T-Mobile uses a GSM network. Sprint PCS uses the CDMA network, which also supports wireless data services. In the United States, CDMA and GPRS data services are available only in major cities.

Form factor. Which form factors are important to you? I refuse to carry stuff hanging off my belt. If a device doesn’t fit in my jacket or pants pocket, I leave it behind. Do you want to enter data through a thumb keyboard—such as the one on Research In Motion's (RIM's) BlackBerry—use handwriting recognition, or use a mini-keyboard? Do you want a color screen? Do you want a flip cover to protect the screen? These are just some of the factors that I considered.

Features. PDAs have come a long way in terms of available features. The HP iPAQ Pocket PC h5450 has WiFi (the 802.11b wireless standard), Bluetooth, 64K-color screens, Secure Digital (SD) slots for flash memory, the Pocket PC OS, thumbprint security, and more. Pure PDAs have the most accessories, such as external keyboards, thumb boards, and VGA adapter add-ons. Combo devices, however, often compromise on these features to balance ease of use, battery life, and cost. Combo devices use one of three OSs: Palm OS, Pocket PC, or Symbian. The Pocket PC, for example, includes Microsoft Pocket Word and Microsoft Pocket Excel, which are handy for viewing email attachments. However, you can easily add Microsoft Office–compatible software (e.g., DataViz’s Documents To Go) to the Palm OS.

Phone and data plans. Phone plans are quite competitive these days. For example, AT&T Wireless was offering unlimited nationwide minutes for $99 per month. However, that plan used the company's newer GSM network, which isn’t fully implemented yet. T-Mobile, which has been working on its GSM network for 8 years, was selling 1000 anytime minutes for $39.95 per month. However, both AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile bill their data plans in 10MB increments. We’ve all managed to figure out how to track voice minutes over the years, but tracking data transfers is difficult for both users and phone companies. You could easily rack up a lot of data charges in a heavy travel month.

The Competition
After determining what I wanted from my new combo device, I began my search. The following are a few of the potential candidates that didn't quite meet my needs, but which you might find interesting.

  • HP iPAQ Pocket PC h5455 plus a free Sony Ericsson R520 Bluetooth phone. I found a limited-time iPAQ h5455 and Ericsson R520 combination on MobilePlanet (http://www.mobileplanet.com). If you paid standard retail on the iPAQ, MobilePlanet threw in the Ericsson phone for free. If you want the best of phone and PDA world, this is a tough combination to beat. The iPAQ h5455 has it all: great screen, 64MB of RAM, SD slot, thumbprint security, WiFi, Bluetooth, and more—it's the best PDA I found. The R520 is a good Bluetooth phone and because the phone plan is from T-Mobile, you can use T-Mobile’s excellent T-Mobile Wireless Data Configurator (http://us.t-mobile.mywds.com). The T-Mobile Configurator gives you step-by-step Bluetooth PDA-and-phone integration instructions, helping you create a private, small wireless network. (If you don't use T-Mobile, you'll need to find a user support discussion group and experiment a lot.) Once configured, the iPAQ can automatically access the R520 to initiate a Web-surfing session or a phone call from the Contact database (the phone needs to be within 30 feet of the iPAQ). Pretty cool stuff—but I wanted to carry only one device and didn’t want the hassle of integrating devices.
  • Nokia 9210i Communicator. The Nokia 9210i Communicator (http://www.nokia.com/nokia/0,4879,146,00.htm) has a built-in mini-keyboard, which I liked. However, the overall form factor is too big for my tastes.
  • Sprint PCS's Toshiba 2032. Sprint PCS's Toshiba 2032 (http://www.sprintpcs.com) has a slightly bulkier form factor than the AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile devices I evaluated. Because Sprint uses a CDMA network, the device runs on CDMA instead of GSM. My biggest complaint about this device is the paltry 1.5-hour talk time. A user in the Sprint store told me that it was closer to 1 hour. Internet work uses the battery in the same way as talk time, so that limit is simply unacceptable.
  • T-Mobile's Pocket PC Phone Edition. I liked T-Mobile's Pocket PC Phone Edition (http://www.t-mobile.com/products/overview.asp?phoneid=166765) and that T-Mobile’s GSM network has been around for 8 years. And the device has an SD slot that allows up to a 1GB flash memory card—nice for playing MP3s or storing large files. I found the voice plans acceptable, but the company bills the data plans in 10MB increments. (Accessing the Web and email on a mobile device is new to me, so I have no idea how many megabytes I'll end up using.) I'd also heard from several users that the screen is easily scratched. The overall length is too big to fit in my pants pocket, although it would work in a jacket pocket. I also didn't like the input method: handwriting recognition. An optional external keyboard is available but would be convenient only when I sit down to type a large volume of text—not my typical one-sentence entry.
  • AT&T Wireless's Siemens SX56 Pocket PC Phone. Because I'm already an AT&T customer, I could have switched my existing phone number to my new phone—a big convenience. However, AT&T Wireless's Siemens SX56 Pocket PC Phone (http://www.attws.com/business/data/individual/siemens) is almost identical to the Pocket PC Phone Edition, so I had the same concerns.

And the Winner Is ...
I chose Sprint PCS's Handspring Treo 300 (http://www.sprintpcs.com/showcase/treo300/index.html) because it’s the smallest combo device around. The device has a built-in keyboard (similar to a BlackBerry), which is pretty handy. I estimate that I can input text about 3 times faster than I can using handwriting recognition. The overall Sprint plan is good: For $85 per month, I get 2000 nationwide anytime minutes and unlimited Internet access; no need to figure out how many megabytes I've used or how many messages I've sent. And connection is definitely faster than a 56KB dial-up line. I downloaded a free 2bAnywhere email client for the Palm OS (http://www.2banywhere.com), and after configuring my two POP3 accounts and MSN Hotmail account, I was sending and receiving email wirelessly. The email client even has basic attachment support, so I can read attached Word or Excel documents. The Palm HotSync Manager lets me synchronize with Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes; I use Outlook and can easily sync my email, contacts, to-do list, notes, and Web bookmarks. Several Palm-based solutions exist for synching with Microsoft Exchange Server and Notes, displaying attachments, and editing Word, Excel and Microsoft PowerPoint documents. And the device supports voice dialing for an additional $5 per month. The voice-dialing feature doesn't require any voice training: Simply synchronize your Outlook contacts with the Sprint PCS voice-command system and you’re up and running. So far, this feature has worked perfectly with every entry in my Contacts database.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with my Treo 300. I’m sure something better will come out within a few months, but that’s the price of being on the bleeding edge.