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Friday, October 03, 2003  

Technology: New Handspring Treo eases PDA-Plus confusion

I recently described the confusion the PDA-Plus market can engender.

Plus? The PDA-Ps offer tiny digital cameras, voice recorders, Bluetooth connectivity, MP3 players, WiFi, built-in keyboards or phones -- and there may be a wee kitchen sink in research and development.

This particular model, the Palm Zire 71, intended for the non-enterprise market, has a digital camera and an MP3 player. The problem is I would have chosen different pluses if I had been the buyer. I already have a good digital camera, the Pentax Optio 330, that I don't use often enough. My MP3 player, the deservedly famous iPod, can't be bested. If I had been the person making the decision, I would have known what plus features to select. Most likely, I would have shopped for WiFi, so I could use the PDA with my Tmobile account and the free 802.11 networks in Portland and Seattle. Second choice would have been a voice recorder for memos and short interviews. If I could find a PDA with a cell phone that did not tie me to an undesirable service provider, I would consider that, too.

. . .There are two things we can learn from my predicament. If you are in the market for a PDA, be sure to examine the features offered closely and decide which ones you can actually use. For example, unless you have a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone or printer, you will have to purchase adapters for any peripheral you hope to use to communicate with a PDA with Bluetooth built in. WiFi might prove useless in an area where there aren't many access points. And, many of us already have MP3 players. Second, if you are buying a PDA as a gift for someone else, be sure to develop a profile of the person's lifestyle and gadget history first. Does she already have a digital camera? Is her vision and hand coordination good enough that she won't mind pecking away on a diminutive keyboard? Will she consider using the provider a phone-enabled PDA's manufacturer insists on?

The worst of the confusion may end with the introduction of Palm's Handspring Treo 600. Peter Lewis analyzed the hot new device for Fortune.

Although it has a few glaring omissions -- it lacks a corkscrew and an airbag, for example -- Handspring's Treo 600 smart phone may be the finest color-screen wireless phone, e-mail, web-browsing, Palm PDA, MP3 music player, messaging, and digital-camera combination yet devised. It's due out later this month for somewhere over $500 from several carriers, including Cingular, T-Mobile, and Sprint.

Previous Treo models were essentially PDAs with a phone built in. The Treo 600 is the opposite, meaning that for one thing, users no longer look like Martians radioing back to the mother ship when making calls. At the same time, slenderizing the Treo has also shrunk the color display and the built-in keyboard, which is useful for dashing off e-mails and memos or entering contact and calendar information on the fly.

. . .Overall performance of everything from data applications to gaming has been speeded by the upgrade to a 144-megahertz Texas Instruments processor and 32 megabytes of system memory. There's a slot for SD cards, which can be stocked with MP3 music files, digital photos, video clips, or boring business-type stuff.

Lewis says all of this occurs without paying the price in battery life, which can be as high as five hours. He reports the Treo 600 is also operable with one hand, preventing the driving hazard the earlier models may have caused. Overall, he considers it "the smartest of the smart phones."

PDA Live and Business 2.0 second that. PDA Live extols the more phone-like features of this PDA-P.

The first thing you notice about the Treo 600 is how much more like a phone it looks and feels. The Treo 300 looks and feels more like a PDA (which I don't mind), but there was evidently an effort made to make the 600 more like a phone. There is no more "flip lid" to worry about. Rumor is that many folks had the lid break off of the Treo 300 so Handspring eliminated it. Gone also is the jog wheel. It is replaced by a 5 way toggle button located on the face of the device. The toggle controls the screen prompts and cursor in all 4 directions while pushing the center of the toggle activates a function the same as tapping the screen. This control makes the Treo 600 simple to use with one hand, just like a phone.

Business 2.0 declares the new hybrid not just an extremely well-designed product, but a possible profit maker for Palm.

With this week's debut of the Handspring Treo 600, Palm finally has a device to rival smartphones from the likes of Nokia and Motorola.

The timing of the launch is perfect. The Treo 600, an almost complete overhaul from earlier iterations, comes just as competition heats up in the world of smartphones. Consumers have shown an increasing reluctance to carry around both a phone and a PDA . As a result, sales of devices like the Treo that can serve multiple purposes have taken off. IDC estimates that more than 13 million converged devices will be sold this year -- a 260 percent increase over 2002 -- compared with just 11 million PDAs.

The Treo 600 may not quite be manna from heaven. It seems a bit too busy to me. Not everyone wants every possible usage in their PDA. But, because of its excellent integration of a phone and PDA, the new device does appear to a significant step in the needed convergence of features on PDAs-Plus.

11:17 AM