When a BlackBerry Is Overkill


By Stephen H. Wildstrom You'd like to get e-mail on the go -- and on a wireless phone that's a lot smaller than a BlackBerry. You can't quite have your cake and eat it, but if you are willing to forgo some e-mail functions and do e-mail without a keyboard, the latest phones using Microsoft's Windows Mobile Smartphone software could be just the ticket.

I took a look at two new models. One is the Motorola MPx220, a compact flip-phone available for $320 with a two-year contract from Cingular Wireless. The other is the Audiovox smt5600 ($199, also from Cingular), a bar-type phone small enough to slide easily into a pocket.

NO SPEAKERS. Both feature big -- by phone standards -- and sharp displays, but they're still only about half the size of the screen on the palmOne (PLMO) Treo. Because both phones run Microsoft (MSFT) software, they offer pretty much the same functions.

The Motorola (MOT) has a better camera, and the buttons on it are less cramped than on the smaller Audiovox. The Motorola also has Bluetooth wireless that can be used for cordless headsets, hands-free attachments for car use, or an external speakerphone. Ultimately, the decision between these two phones comes down to whether you prefer a flip or bar design.

Unlike a Treo, BlackBerry (RIMM), or Pocket pc Phone Edition, the Smartphone is primarily a wireless handset. Like the bigger PDA phones, it syncs with Microsoft Outlook, and you can dial numbers directly from the contact list. But the Smartphone suffers in its data capabilities. The software includes a version of Internet Explorer that, in theory, is a lot more capable than the browsers on most phones. But it really works only with pages specially formatted for small displays, and even then, type can be woefully hard to read.

OTHER ARRANGEMENTS. The usefulness of the e-mail varies with your mail setup and how you plan to use mobile messaging. The only mail program on the Smartphone is a version of Outlook. When you sync with your desktop, messages in Outlook are copied to your phone and any messages you have written on the phone are sent. Some corporate mail systems based on Microsoft Exchange can send messages as well as contact and calendar updates over the air.

While Treos, Pocket pcs, and BlackBerrys have standard software to access regular Internet mail accounts, Smartphones don't. There are ways to work around this. I used a service called 4SmartPhone (4smartphone.com), which collects mail from my Internet service provider's post office and forwards it to Outlook on the handset. The service starts at $4.99 a month on top of a Cingular voice and data plan starting at about $55.

Another possibility is Cingular's Xpress Mail, which lets you forward mail from your desktop. This gives access to mail stored behind a corporate firewall, but it may violate company security policies, and it won't work if your primary computer is a laptop that travels with you. Pricing starts at $60 a month, including a voice plan -- the same amount you might pay for Cingular service on a Treo 600 or BlackBerry 7290.

KEYBOARDS COUNT. Aside from voice calls, the Smartphone is useful mainly for reading e-mail. The screen displays 10 lines of about 25 to 30 characters. But I didn't enjoy tapping out text on the dialpad. (The Microsoft-based Voq Professional Phone from Sierra Wireless has a fold-out keyboard. But it's bulky and isn't sold by U.S. carriers, so it costs an unsubsidized $550 or so.)

Both the Audiovox and the Motorola offer everything you expect in a high-end handset and then some, with the Motorola having a slight advantage in capabilities and battery life, while the Audiovox is smaller. As a heavy e-mail user, I'm not prepared to give up the bigger screen and vital keyboard that a Treo or BlackBerry provides. But if your mail needs are less intense, a Smartphone may be the right choice for you. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek


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