Burton "Buzz" Bruggeman, a Winter Park (Fla.) real estate attorney, was visiting a property in the Orlando area while talking to a client on his new Handspring (HAND) Treo 600 smartphone. As they spoke, he snapped a picture and e-mailed it for the client to see.
So what's the big deal? Lots of wireless phones have cameras these days. But how many also have a keyboard for typing e-mail, access to e-mail accounts, a Web browser, a player that handles not only music but also recorded books from Audible.com (ADBL), contact and calendar data, and the ability to run hundreds of Palm (PALM) programs? "I was blown away by its ability," says Bruggeman, who helped test the phone before Sprint (PCS) PCS Group began selling it on Oct. 15. "It comes as close as I have seen to being a truly pervasive computing device. The size is right, and it does everything."
The Treo 600, which sells for $600, is on the leading edge of a wave of products carrying handheld computers far beyond their origins as personal digital assistants (PDAs) that contained your contacts, calendar, and not much else. Today, there's a handheld for everyone. They range from products focused on entertainment to simple PDAs that have stuck to the original organizer concept to wireless designs like the Treo that come close to giving you a desktop in your pocket. You can buy one for $100 or $700, depending on your needs and budget.
The zodiac from startup Tapwave shows how far handheld diversity has come. It's based on Palm software, but it's really a game console aimed at twentysomethings more interested in playing Doom than in planning schedules. At $300 with 32 megabytes of memory and $400 with 128 MB, the zodiac features a brilliant screen much bigger than Nintendo (NTDOY)'s Game Boy Advance or the new Nokia (NOK) N-Gage (page 130), two four-way control buttons, 3-D graphics, and games from such companies as id Software. Optional Bluetooth wireless lets you slug it out with other gamers nearby.
Daniel Lacour, a physicist at Hitachi (HIT) Storage Technologies in San Jose, Calif., tested a zodiac for three months and finds it a mobile version of a Sony (SNE) PlayStation 2, with the addition of a photo display, MP3 player, and alarm clock. Lacour keeps his contacts and calendar on a zodiac, but that's hardly his main reason for carrying one: "There's nothing exciting about a PDA," he says.
FROM GPS TO WI-FI
Garmin's (GRMN) iQue 3600 might beg to differ. It adds a built-in global positioning system receiver to a more traditional Palm design. The real trick is integration of location data into the software. Click on an entry in the address book, and it displays a map and directions from your current location. The iQue, which sells for $589, also can be mounted in your car and serve as a navigation system.
Other handhelds fall into three categories: those that double as phones, those with Wi-Fi wireless networking, and plain old PDAs. If you want a phone without a keyboard, consider the Palm-based Samsung Group SPH-i500 ($500 with activation from Sprint) or several versions of the Pocket PC Phone Edition from various carriers. These integrate the phone with an address book, but the lack of a keyboard limits their e-mail usefulness.
At the other end of the spectrum are Research In Motion (RIMM)'s BlackBerry 7200 series ($300 to $450 from AT&T Wireless, Cingular, or T-Mobile) and the Danger Sidekick ($250 from T-Mobile). Both make awkward phones but excellent e-mail devices. The Sidekick is also a handy Web browser, game player, and instant-messaging terminal.
Wi-Fi is available in a number of models, although it only really works well if you spend most of your time on a single network, such as an office complex or college campus. Your best Palm Wi-Fi choice is the $499 Tungsten C, featuring a bright, high-resolution display. The $700 Sony (SNE) Cli? PEG-UX50 is a clamshell design that looks like a tiny laptop and includes both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. If you prefer a handheld based on Microsoft (MSFT)'s Pocket PC software, choices include the $450 Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) iPAQ 50 or the sleeker $599 Toshiba (TOSBF) e800.
Of course, most handhelds are still used primarily for contacts and calendars. The field is dominated by Palm and Sony. At the high end, Palm is playing to the corporate market, while Sony goes for style. The new $400 Palm Tungsten T3 is very compact and includes Bluetooth. Sony offers the $550 PEG-NX80V, including a 1.3-megapixel camera and a big display optimized for photos and video.
There are plenty of midrange choices, too. Palm's $299 Zire 71 includes a camera, MP3 player, and video- and photo-display software. Sony offers similar features, minus the camera, in the $220 Cli? PEG-SJ33. Models geared more for business include the $200 Palm Tungsten E and, among Pocket PCs, the iPAQ H1935, and Dell (DELL) Axim X3.
Finally, there's the handheld that harkens back to the original Palm Pilot, small and cheap enough to stuff in a pocket or purse. The new Palm Zire 21 is about the only product left with a monochrome display. But the $99 price includes 8 MB of memory -- more than enough to hold nearly anyone's contacts and calendar.
The proliferation of designs can make buying a handheld baffling. The key is to decide whether you want an integrated phone, data-only wireless, or just desktop sync. Once you've narrowed the field, you're sure to find a product that fits the bill at a price you can afford. By Stephen H. Wildstrom