PDA Phones

My friend Jacob hasn’t bought a mobile phone or a handheld device, for one good reason: “I’m waiting until I can get both in one,” he says.

Jacob’s wait may be over.

Kyocera Corp.’s new Smartphone, announced Wednesday, cleverly combines both devices into a unit that I can wholeheartedly recommend. Qualcomm Corp.’s (now Kyocera’s) PDQ Smartphone was the first phone-PDA combo out of the gate, but it was too bulky and expensive. Expected to be available from major CDMA carriers within the next few months, the new Smartphone looks like a husky flip-style mobile phone, until you open it–then the monochrome screen fills with the Palm OS’s familiar-looking rows of icons. This phone is a full-fledged Palm, complete with stylus and HotSync recharging cradle.

It’s also noticeably smaller, lighter (7.3 ounces), and (with a street price of about US$500) less expensive than the 9.8-ounce PdQ, which is priced from $700 to $800.

The Smartphone heralds a clutch of products designed to free mobile users from the need to carry both a phone and a personal digital assistant. Some will be all-in-one devices like the Smartphone; others will be add-ons that turn a handheld into a mobile phone. IDC analyst Kevin Burden says that even smaller hybrids will appear in the next year or two.

Get Smart

In my tests of a preproduction unit, I found Kyocera’s Smartphone intelligent in several ways. For starters, you can tap an entry in your contact list, and then the phone will dial it. You can use the Smartphone as a speakerphone, too. A built-in speech recognition capability lets you assemble a voice-dial phone book so that you can “call mom” simply by speaking those words into the handset. Very cool.

If your service plan permits, you can access the Web via an HTML or Wireless Application Protocol browser, or you can run wireless Palm applications. The Smartphone also functions as a wireless fax modem. It supports CDMA PCS (1900-MHz), CDMA Cellular (800-MHz), and analog wireless protocols, which are used on such phone networks as Sprint PCS and Verizon.

The downside? The screen is smaller than a regular Palm display. I found the stock type readable, but I missed the conventional Palm’s larger font. Still, by mobile phone standards the 5.6-by-2.6-by-0.9-inch Smartphone is huge; the size may put off phone users who aren’t used to carrying a PDA. Kyocera rates the battery life at a so-so 4.5 hours of talk time or 110 hours of standby.

Add a Phone to Your PDA

People who already own a Palm or a Handspring Visor of recent vintage may find the coming crop of phone add-ons more attractive. For example, Handspring has begun selling its $300 VisorPhone, which consists of a Springboard module that turns a Visor into a GSM phone with text messaging capabilities. The add-on will most interest the European market, where GSM is the sole digital standard, but some U.S. carriers (Pacific Bell Wireless, for one) use a GSM network. Support for other popular North American digital networks is in the works: AirPrime, for instance, is preparing a Springboard module for CDMA networks.

These PDA add-ons don’t support roaming, though, and they’re expensive, since the PDA itself costs $180 or more.

If you don’t require having the Palm OS in your PDA-phone, stay tuned. Microsoft has been showing a prototype of a smartphone device based on a variant of Windows CE (code-named Stinger) that’s optimized for mobile telephones.

Stinger Ringer

Stinger phones won’t be as powerful as Pocket PCs, which have fast CPUs that drain batteries quickly by mobile phone standards. But they will have moderately large screens and a bountiful array of Pocket PC and Web-enabled phone features. The first of these phones–for CDMA and GSM networks–are in the works from Samsung; they are scheduled to ship by mid-2001.

Other handset vendors are developing phones that will include PDA features, if not a major name brand PDA OS. NeoPoint, for example, is poised to bring two new CDMA phones to market: the NeoPoint 2000 and the NeoPoint 2600. Both have the same roomy 11-line screen as current models do, but they are smaller and have beefed-up PDA and e-mail features.

Meanwhile, competition is heating up. Motorola has announced plans for (but not details about) a Palm-phone hybrid that should give Kyocera a run for its money.

For now, though, the Smartphone might be just the thing if you want to turn two indispensable devices into one.

Prices listed are in US currency.