I have a complicated relationship with things electronic. On one hand, I want to carry as few of them as possible. I use a laptop not simply because it's portable, but because it's one compact piece of machinery instead of three bulky ones (monitor, keyboard, and computer). On the other hand, I tend to be suspicious of devices that claim to be two or three things in one. With certain notable exceptions (laptops, refrigerator/freezers, Ron Popeil's Veg-O-Matic), the two or three features are usually so compromised that you're better off with separate devices, each doing what it does best.
And so I was torn when, despite the love and respect I had for my cell phone and my suspicions about multitasking gadgets, my eye began to wander. I saw people with devices that are cell phones, PDAs, and wireless E-mail modems all in one, and I longed for one. I wanted to be able to get my E-mail on the road without having to lug my laptop or log on to someone else's computer. I wanted to have all my E-mail addresses and phone numbers and my calendar right there on my phone. And so, last month, I cheated on my beautiful, faithful Nokia.
My first affair was with the Sprint PCS TP-3000 ($399). Here is a cell phone no larger than my Nokia that includes a PDA and provides Internet and E-mail access. I left my Nokia at home and ran off to Buenos Aires with the Sprint PCS. I checked my E-mail during a stopover in the Miami airport. There were six E-mail messages waiting for me. It was beautiful.
Then I set about composing my replies. To do that you use a stylus and an alphabet keyboard that you tap, just as you would on a Visor. (A Graffiti-like handwriting-recognition function isn't available on this model.) The difference is that the Sprint phone doesn't provide the Visor's reassuring chirp to acknowledge your selection. So half the time, you've moved on to the next tap when you realize the last one didn't take, and you have to backtrack. To speed things up, you find yourself talking in license-plate shorthand. I actually caught myself writing "4 U" instead of "for you." PU!
After composing two or three messages, I gave up on capital letters and completely abandoned punctuation. The other problem was that everything -- calendar, alphabet keyboard, E-mail display -- was maddeningly small. Plus, I had to press fairly hard, not just tap, to have my pokes register. By the end of the third reply, I was bringing down my stylus like an ice pick, and people were starting to stare. A little Argentine girl wandered over to watch. "Es una telÉfono cellular con E-mail," I explained. She giggled and ran away. You should, too.
By the time I got to the fourth E-mail, I'd had all I could take. It was taking me a good 15 minutes to compose each reply. It was as though time had gone at once forward and back: suddenly I had the capacity to send E-mail messages through thin air, but I had to revert to Morse code to write them. On the fifth and sixth messages, I decided to just call the senders and leave phone replies instead. I shut down the browser and began dialing the phone. "Battery low," said the TP-3000, and within minutes it shut down completely. Sending and receiving E-mail eats up a phone's battery charge surprisingly swiftly. And I had forgotten to bring along the charger. So with a paragon of wireless-communication innovation in my pocket, I went to stand in line with the Argentines at the pay phones.
And get this: the TP-3000 is apparently the best of its class. CNET.com named it the Best Web Phone, and Etown.com voted it Cell Phone of the Year. It seems it's not simply the individual product that's lacking but rather the entire breed. For now anyway, a cell phone can't double as a satisfying PDA or E-mail-composing device.
But what if you went in the other direction and tried to get a PDA to function as a cell phone and a wireless E-mail device? That is exactly what Handspring has set out to do. You can now buy a VisorPhone module ($299) that slides into the back of the Visor Platinum model ($299) and turns the popular PDA into a cell phone. You can then buy an OmniSky Minstrel S Wireless Modem ($299), which slides into the back of that same Visor Platinum (once you've removed the phone module) and lets you send and retrieve E-mail and browse the Internet.
That's what I tried next. My husband, Ed, and I took the Visor and its two sidekicks around town with us one weekend while we ran errands. The phone module worked nicely, though speaking into an organizer and tapping on pictures of phone buttons lacked the considerable aesthetic charm of using an actual cell phone. Plus, you tend to press the gadget into your cheek as you speak, which leaves smears of sunscreen, makeup, sweat, and what have you on your PDA screen. You also press buttons you don't mean to press. Ed was checking our home phone messages and pressed the 3 key with his cheek, inadvertently erasing the message he was listening to.
I have faith that one day soon there will be a single gadget that does it all, does it all well, and does it all well for a modest sum.
Here's the big reason I wouldn't go this route: it doesn't really cut down on your total gadget load. The VisorPhone module weighs three ounces. Ed's new cell phone weighs about that much and is about the same size. The only real advantage to using a Visor PDA with a VisorPhone module -- as opposed to a PDA and a freestanding cell phone -- is that your address book is right there in your phone, enabling you to look someone up and call that person at the same time, on the same device. (That's a function you can already perform on some existing cell phones, but I digress. ...)
I also tried out the OmniSky Minstrel S (the wireless modem). I started by trying to call up Web search engine Google. When I hit the Visor's "ABC" icon to bring up the tappable alphabet keyboard, it kept giving me something else, a Go To menu. I finally figured out that the sync between the icons on my screen and whatever lies beneath them was off in some places by a couple millimeters. Hitting the E anywhere left of the center of the key gave me a W; hitting the A gave me a Tab. I imagine most Visors don't have such a problem. I must have had a lemon.
What I would rather have is a BlackBerry. The BlackBerry RIM 957 ($499) is a combined PDA and wireless E-mail and Internet modem. (It doesn't function as a phone.) It has a three-inch-wide keyboard with real keys that you actually press, which makes writing E-mail and calendar entries relatively painless. (I said relatively.) It's so well designed that using it is almost intuitive. I rarely had to consult the instructions. And the combined weight of a three-ounce cell phone and a five-ounce BlackBerry is four ounces lighter than a Visor with its separate E-mail and phone modules. Alas, unlimited wireless E-mail and Internet service on the BlackBerry costs $49 to $59 a month (prices vary according to the device used), which is a little steep for yours truly. (The monthly fee for the Visor's E-mail module, by comparison, is $29 to $39, depending on whether you prepay.)
I have faith that one day soon there will be a single gadget that does it all, does it all well, and does it all well for a modest sum. In the meantime, I am back with my Nokia and only occasionally indulge in BlackBerry fantasies.
When she's not queuing up with Argentines at pay phones, Mary Roach can be reached at email@example.com.
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