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A Couple of Devices Represent a Big Step


For most of us, mention of The Great Communicator brings to mind the folksy banter of Ronald Reagan.

Soon, however, the term could describe a new breed of gadgets that combine a cell phone with a two-way pager and Internet-connected personal organizer.

For sheer charisma, two of the latest entrants in the so-called smartphone category--Handspring's Treo 270 ($499) and Nokia's 9290 ($599)--won't rival Reagan. But these devices represent a big step in bringing a personal communicator closer to something we'd actually want in our pocket or purse. That is, if the quality of wireless service in the U.S. could do them justice.

The Treo 270 is a color version of the remarkable amalgam of features we first saw combined in the Treo 180 early this year. It is the best marriage of telephone, Palm operating system, wireless messaging and Web access you'll find, especially considering its 5.4-ounce, fit-in-your-shirt-pocket convenience.

Pop open the windowed flip lid and you've got a backlit micro-keypad under the touchscreen display. This steel gray device brims with scroll bars and buttons that are programmed to open the address book, calendar, e-mail and text-messaging modules.

A stylus nestles in the Treo's case--though anyone who learns the keyboard shortcuts won't much need it. It took this Palm OS veteran the better part of a month to get accustomed to no stylus.

Design wise, the Nokia 9290 represents a whole different fork in the road. There's no stylus. Nor is the crisp color display touch-sensitive.

The 9290 is the first U.S. iteration of a huge seller in Europe: a cell phone that opens on a hinge that runs the length of its 6-inch case, converting it into a Lilliputian laptop computer.

The 9290 runs on the surprisingly agile Open Symbian operating system, which unlike the Palm OS was designed from the ground up for wireless devices.

With this Symbian OS, not only can you dial from the address book as you can on the Treo, you can also e-mail from it. With the Treo, e-mailing and messaging isn't integrated as well.

But the 9290's main virtue is also its vice. Its comfortable keyboard and wide display make it a very attractive alternative to a notebook computer for traveling executives. But its heft (8.6 ounces) and length do not a pocket-stuffer make. It's fine in a briefcase but too unwieldy for a belt clip.

Stunningly, it also can't be used outside the United States or upgraded for higher-speed networks.

That said, this Nokia struts some fine features.

Comparable to any Palm OS-based device, the Nokia synchronizes with most personal information management software for PCs including Microsoft's Outlook and Lotus' Organizer and Notes.

It also converts Microsoft Word and Excel files for editing and PowerPoint files for viewing. The Symbian OS will additionally let you view common image files, has a voice recording function and can play video and MP3s. None of this would be possible without ample power and memory--56 megabytes, a 32-bit ARM9 RISC processor and Java software support.

The Nokia can send, receive and edit faxes. It accepts e-mail attachments, has a speakerphone for hands-free chatter and permits you to jump among different applications while you're speaking.

For all its virtues, I found the Treo less versatile. Its keypad is adequate for thumb-typing short missives, while the Nokia's keyboard can handle serious typing.

For connecting to PCs, both devices have infrared ports. The Treo offers both USB and serial port connectors, the Nokia only serial.

On the strength of its operating system alone, the Nokia would be my clear choice. Yet the phone will not work outside the U.S. even though it operates on the GSM standard that dominates Europe and much of Asia. That means its owners will be stuck with 14.4-kilobit-per-second data transfer just as GSM carriers (VoiceStream, Cingular and AT&T Wireless) upgrade to nationwide GPRS, which runs at least four times as fast.

The Treo 270, by contrast, is upgradeable to GPRS. What's more, while Handspring is planning a Treo 270 for the other major U.S. wireless standard, CDMA (Verizon and Sprint), there are no such plans for the 9290.

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