Wireless PDAs offer something for everyone

Though far outnumbered by an avalanche of new cellular handsets, a handful of innovative wireless-enabled PDAs are grabbing some limelight at the CTIA Wireless 2003 show in the US this week.

Chief among the new personal digital assistants are the first CDMA models running Microsoft Corp.'s Pocket PC Phone Edition, a next-generation BlackBerry, Texas Instruments Inc.'s concept design for a Pocket PC Phone Edition unit supporting three wireless flavors, and the smallest Palm-phone hybrid to date.

Covering New Ground

Two of these pioneering units come from Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. The company is launching the SPH-I500, a sleek CDMA2000 1x clamshell phone based on the Palm 4.1 operating system. Also new is Samsung's SPH-I700 Pocket PC Phone Edition, which is one of the first Pocket PCs Sprint PCS is offering for its high-speed, CDMA2000 1x-based PCS Vision network.

The other new handheld supporting CDMA2000 is Hitachi Ltd.'s G1000.

Both the Samsung and Hitachi Pocket PCs feature built-in cameras and are powered by Intel XScale processors. The Hitachi also has the distinction of being the first Pocket PC to offer both a camera and a QWERTY keyboard.

Like all Pocket PC Phone Edition devices, both run a full suite of stripped-down versions of Microsoft Office applications as well Windows Media Player for audio and video content. Though usable as handsets, these devices are better suited for use as phones with plug-in headsets.

Samsung's SPH-I700 is surprisingly svelte, weighing in at under 7 ounces. It's outfitted with 64MB of RAM, and the camera captures 640-by-480-resolution VGA images. The Hitachi also captures VGA images.

Pricing and availability have not been announced, but expect these high-end devices to carry price tags commensurate with their features--US$500 or more.

Palm-Powered Phone

Samsung also hasn't announced pricing for the SPH-I500 Palm-powered phone, but it's expected to cost about US$100 less than the SPH-I700 when it ships. Samsung says the SPH-I500 will become available in the US in April. Carriers for the device are not yet disclosed, but America's Sprint Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc. are the two major CDMA network operators. Orange and Telstra offer CDMA in Australia.

The SPH-I500 features 16MB of memory and a 66-MHz Dragonball processor. An optional camera attachment supports images that fill the 160 by 240 screen. At a tad over 4.5 ounces, the SPH-I500 is much smaller than other Palm-based phones, including Kyocera Corp.'s 7135 and even Samsung's own shipping I330. To help keep the device small, the graffiti input area that normally occupies the bottom of the display has been moved to the bottom half of the clamshell, just atop the keypad.

Samsung's news is not limited to this week's CTIA show: At the giant CeBIT technology show in Germany last week, the company announced plans for the first phone-PDA based on version 5 of the Palm OS. Dubbed the MITs (for Mobile Information Terminals) SGH-I500, this GSM/GPRS phone will also include a built-in camera.

BlackBerry Slims Down

Also announced at CeBIT but making its North American debut here is the latest version of Research In Motion Ltd.'s much-emulated BlackBerry wireless e-mail device. At 4.5 by 2.9 by 0.8 inches and weighing in at 4.8 ounces, the data- and voice-enabled BlackBerry 6210 is slimmer and slightly smaller than its predecessors and also sports a snappy-looking metallic blue case.

The new model offers more memory (16MB of flash plus 2MB of RAM versus 8MB of flash and 1MB of RAM in the older model). It connects to a PC via USB rather than the serial port hookup of its predecessor. The 6210 connects to North American GSM/GPRS wireless networks.

It also supports wireless two-way synchronization of e-mail, so that when you delete a message on your handheld you don't have to repeat the process when you get back to your desktop.

Availability and pricing of the 6210 will vary by carrier.

In other PDA news, Sharp Corp. is now shipping in North America the newest model of its Linux-based Zaurus SL-5600. Priced at US$499, the device slides open to reveal a QWERTY thumb keyboard.

The new model is based on a 400-MHz Intel Corp. XScale CPU and features extra-long battery life via a rechargeable, replaceable 1700-milliamp-hour battery. It ships with 64MB of flash memory, 32MB of SDRAM, and slots for both Compact Flash and Secure Digital/MMC cards.

If You Build It

If you're not satisfied with existing wireless PDA choices, new options are in the works. Both Texas Instruments and Bsquare Corp. (which develops software for Windows CE-based handhelds) are showing intriguing concept PDAs whose designs are available for licensing by hardware vendors.

TI says its Pocket PC Phone Edition-based device, code-named WANDA (for Wireless Any Network Digital Assistant), is the first PDA to incorporate chips for three different wireless technologies: Tri-band GSM/GPRS digital cellular, Bluetooth, and 802.11b Wi-Fi.

"We could certainly imagine someone with a Bluetooth headset, looking at the PDA while talking on a GSM call and browsing the Web via 802.11b," says Richard Kerslake, TI's director of wireless computing. He says he knows of no way an existing PDA can achieve all three types of connectivity simultaneously, even using add-in cards such as PC or Compact Flash cards with radios.

Because both Bluetooth and 802.11b use the 2.4-GHz frequency of the electromagnetic spectrum to send and receive data, a number of coexistence issues had to be worked out before the device could be certified as usable and reliable, said Mike Yonker, TI's chief technologist for wireless computing products.

TI executives say they can produce the device economically and without adding much bulk. Its PDA will probably sell for under US$500, even before subsidies from GSM/GPRS carriers, Yonker says. The concept design measures 4.6 inches high by 2.9 inches wide by 0.8 inches thick, and weighs 6.1 ounces.

The devices will use TI's OMAP1510 as its CPU and will have either 32MB or 64MB of flash memory plus 64MB of SDRAM. It will be available to manufacturers in April, with products expected by year's end, Yonker adds.

XP Look-Alike

Also on display is Bsquare's Skeye.Mobil, described as a "power handheld device." Designed to be held in landscape mode, the 5.5-by-3.4-by-0.8-inch reference design weighs in at a slightly hefty 10.6 ounces but sports a beautiful 640 by 480, 65,536-color 4-inch active-matrix touch-screen display and a slide-out QWERTY keyboard.

The device comes with built-in GSM/GPRS digital cellular support. Bluetooth or Wi-Fi can be added with add-in cards.

The Skeye.Mobil runs Microsoft's Windows CE.net 4.1 with additional Bsquare software that gives it the familiar look and feel of Windows XP. It also features an attachment viewer that supports 70 different file formats, including all Office documents and PDFs.

Its e-mail client works with Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Notes/Domino (iNotes), and Web-based services. The Skeye.Mobil also offers what Bsquare calls "polled pull" service, meaning it automatically checks periodically for new messages. The included browser supports such popular Web technologies as Java and Macromedia Flash.

The device is based on an Intel XScale CPU and targets enterprise and specialized markets such as health care and real estate. A North American vendor could sell it for US$600 to US$800, says Bill Baxter, Bsquare chief executive officer.

-- Tom Krazit of the IDG News Service contributed to this story.

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