Masters of the rings

Like the old grey mare, cell phones and PDAs aren’t what they used to be. They’ve merged into interesting hybrids known as smartphones.

A smartphone offers telephony, but it also has all sorts of other goodies designed to displace other devices from its owner’s pocket. It may provide Web surfing,

or e-mail, or games, or an MP3 player, and of course, it really needs a PIM. It may be shaped like a telephone, or it may be shaped like a PDA, or it may be somewhere in between.

Whatever these devices look like, they run on a cellular network.

Phones, however, are not just phones in this market. There are two competing communication technologies in use, and some device manufacturers only support one of the two.

In one corner sits the predominant technology in North America, CDMA/1X. It is offered by Bell Mobility and Telus Mobility. In the other corner, GSM/GPRS, the defacto standard everywhere else in the world, is offered by Rogers Wireless and Fido (now owned by Rogers).

We collected some current smartphones to see how they perform. Unless otherwise noted, prices are carrier list, without a service contract.

RIM BlackBerry 7100r

* Price: $549.99 (w/1 year contract)

* Carrier(s): Rogers

The 7100r is RIM’s first foray into the true telephony market. Unlike its other phone-enabled BlackBerrys, the device is shaped more like a phone than a PDA, and has what is at first glance only a standard telephone keypad. Look again and you’ll see an extra column of keys down each side. Look closer yet and you’ll see that, unlike a phone keypad, the letters on the keys are laid out like those on a regular QWERTY keyboard, but two per key (with a couple of exceptions). When you thumb type, the software guesses what you meant and gives you choices of letter combinations. For example, if you want the word “”here”” you’d hit 5111. The device shows “”here””, “”gree””, “”herr””, “”gerr””, with “”here”” selected as the most likely choice. Roll the thumbwheel to change selections, hit the space bar, and the word you’ve picked remains.

I can see your sneers now. I felt the same way when I first saw it, but it actually works pretty well. The trick is to type the whole word before looking at the display.

The 7100r is a GSM/GPRS phone only, and it has all of the PIM amenities: calendar, address book, calculator, memo pad, task list and so forth. Its speakerphone is clear and quite usable, and the BlackBerry controls are conveniently placed for the right-hander.

It weighs in at 120 grams, making it the lightest of our collection. Battery life is rated at four hours talk, or 96 hours standby. With minimal voice, it actually lasted eight days (192 hours) sending and receiving e-mail.

Samsung i700

* Price: $1,049

* Carrier(s): Telus

The i700 is a full-fledged PocketPC with telephony capabilities. At 196 grams, and measuring 13.2 x 7.1 x 2 cm, it is the biggest and heftiest of our units. It also boasts the biggest screen.

These amenities mean, unfortunately, it also has the worst battery life. It is rated at 4 hours talk or 96 hours standby, but it came up short – every two or three days it grumbled at me about needing a recharge.

This unit is more PDA than phone, when you first look at it. But press a button on the front and a full phone keypad appears on the screen. All entry is via touchscreen and soft keys.

There’s a speakerphone (I found it rather faint), a camera (the lens rotates to a safe position when not in use), and an MP3 player as well as the usual PocketPC applications. Additional storage is by means of an SD card.

PalmOne Treo 600

* Price: $724.99

* Carrier(s): Rogers, Bell

PalmOne’s acquisition of Handspring brought telephony expertise back in-house and made PalmOne a contender. The Treo 600 is a compact device with a tiny QWERTY keyboard that has an embedded telephone keypad. The adequate speakerphone is activated by simply tapping the appropriate spot on the screen during a call. There’s a mute button on the top of the Treo that instantly stifles all sounds from it: alarms, rings and system sounds.

Stylus-centric Palm users may be slightly confused by the touchscreen, which allows some but not all of the familiar functions. For example, to get back to the main Palm screen, you have to press the “”Home”” key on the keyboard; the icon one would usually tap onscreen is missing.

The Treo is a sturdy little beast. At 175 grams (168 grams for the GSM/GPRS model) it has a definite heft and does not feel the slightest bit fragile. The camera lens is off-centre on the back, opposite the stubby antenna. An SD/MMC card provides additional storage, and infrared support supplements cable HotSyncs. Although there is no MP3 player included, it is capable of the function with add-on third-party software.

Battery life is rated at 240 minutes talk (360 minutes for the GSM/GPRS model) or 240 hours standby. With PalmOne’s power management expertise, it actually did better, going a couple of weeks with some telephony use.

Nokia 6620

* Price: $129.99 with 3 year contract

* Carrier(s): TBA

Nokia’s new offering is a relatively light (124 grams), Symbian-powered camera phone with good-sized, bright screen and a little joystick to move you among functions. If you only look at the main display, you would think it just had a calendar and camera, but pressing a button on the front reveals a wealth of applications, including Real Player, Contacts, messaging, and a herd of extras like Quicksheet, Quickword and Quickpoint, a voice recorder, MP3 player, and a converter that can handle weights and measures or currency.

It is also a capable speakerphone, and supports BlueTooth and infrared connectivity to other devices.

Hidden inside, under the battery, snuggles an SD card to provide storage for pictures or music or whatever else you fancy.

Battery life is rated at four hours talk or 192 hours standby. Camera use does take a bite out of that time, but nonetheless it did a bit better than rated in testing.

The 6620 is in a strange sort of limbo right now — at deadline (late December 2004), pickup by a carrier had not yet been announced (since it’s a GSM/GPRS phone, it will have to be Rogers or Fido). Pricing listed came from Nokia.

Kyocera 7135

* Price: $499

* Carrier(s): Telus, Bell

The 7135 may be a bit long in the tooth (we first looked at it in 2003), but it still acquits itself quite well.

However, it’s a hefty flip phone, tipping the scales at 186 grams, or about six and a half ounces.

Under the hood, it’s a Palm handheld whose screen doubles as the phone’s display. On the bottom half of the flip, the Graffiti area sits above standard Palm controls and a full telephone keypad.

An SD slot allows for additional storage, and an MP3 player gives you an excuse to use it.

The speakerphone works well. A tiny LCD screen on top of the unit shows critical information like the state of the battery, the time, signal strength and ringer status. Battery life is not bad. It’s rated at 3.5 hours talk or 160 hours standby; using the PDA and only activating the phone when required prolongs life significantly.

Sony Ericsson P910a

* Price: $1,000

* Carrier(s): Fido

Sony Ericsson abandoned the Palm OS for Symbian in this compact, elegant little device that comes with a custom case and special screen cleaning cloth.

A BlueTooth-enabled phone (it also supports infrared), it has many ways of acquiring data: There’s a full telephone keypad for when it’s playing telephone. Flip that down, and on the reverse is a tiny QWERTY keyboard. There’s a soft keyboard available in some applications, and it also boasts h

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Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner has been interpreting tech for businesses for over 20 years and has worked in the industry as well as writing about it, giving her a unique perspective into the issues companies face. She has both IT credentials and a business degree

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