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Closer to hand-held heaven

March 04, 2004|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

It was not so many years ago that mobile phones were the size of car batteries. And the first electronic address book/organizers -- which came equipped with barely readable screens -- were about as efficient to use as chisels and rocks.

But now both devices are sleek, powerful, eminently portable and, to many of us, indispensable.

The problem is indicated by the word both. The ideal portable tech gadget would be a cellphone and address book/organizer all in one.

And as long as we're coming up with a dream hand-held device, it might as well be able to e-mail and do a bit of Web browsing too.

A few of these convergence devices have come on the market in recent years, but they have been bulky, cumbersome, achingly slow and quite expensive.

Now come the latest two devices in the race to create a truly practical all-in-one hand-held: the Treo 600 from PalmOne and the Sony Ericsson P900. They are still quite expensive and a fair bit bulkier than the slimmest phones and PDAs now commonly available.

But both represent a big step toward the holy grail of convergence hand-helds.

And in addition to being phones, address book/organizers (also known as portable digital assistants, or PDAs), e-mailers and Web browsers, they pack a lot of extras, including speakerphones, cameras and music players.

Although the P900 has more bells and whistles, the Treo is by far the more practical.

The P900 will appeal more to dedicated gadget lovers who want to be right on the cutting edge. Then there's the cost -- the P900 goes for about $800.

The Treo goes for about $600 if bought with a cellphone service plan, and a good deal less when rebate programs are available. It's easier to operate, right out of the box, partly because it has a built-in keyboard and uses the popular Palm operating system.

If you already are using a Palm PDA that is equipped with an infrared transmitter/receiver, it's simple to beam over your address book. And to make a call to someone listed in there, you simply start typing the first or last name on the little keyboard. When the listing pops up on the screen, you tap on the phone number with a stylus. Or if the curser lands exactly on the number you want, you can choose it from the keyboard.

To enter a new appointment in the calendar, you use the keyboard to type it in.

That little keyboard is similar to those on Blackberry devices, but smaller. And that's one of the big problems. It's great that the designers of the Treo wanted to keep their hand-held small, but the keyboard is of a size that only Barbie or Ken would find it comfortable to use for more than a quick entry.

Luckily, when you are not mobile, you can use your regular computer to type in entries and port them over to the hand-held.

Sending short e-mails is surprisingly easy and fast -- even with pictures attached -- if you have an existing POP3 e-mail account (check with your Internet provider if you are not sure).

And the Web browser is handy if you are not expecting too much of it. I used it to get driving directions on Yahoo Maps while in the car (not while driving) and although it took several minutes, it worked out quite nicely.

You will pay extra, though, for these features. Most service plans charge $15 to $20 a month more for e-mail and Web capabilities on the hand-held.

Finally, because the Treo has to be carried in a protective sleeve to keep its screen from being scratched, it's still a bit too bulky to fit nicely into a pants or shirt pocket.

Hard to imagine how it could be made smaller and keep the keyboard, but technology keeps surprising us.

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