Mar 11, 2001
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Some new wireless offerings

Leonard Fischer, Gannett News Service.

Two new personal digital assistants (PDAs), a new convergence device, a bevy of new cell phones — including one I loved so much I had to buy it. That's what I've got on tap in this latest update about wireless and handheld technology.

New color Palms

Palm launched two new PDAs this week, and, happily, both feature color screens. I ran over to a local retailer to get some hands-on time with the new models, and here's my take.

Palm's new m515 replaces the m505, which Palm had discontinued. The m515 looks identical to the m505 and utilizes the same ultra-thin design that Palm first introduced in the black-and-white Palm V series. However, the m515 boasts some enhancements that will be of interest to power users and corporate users alike, such as a better backlighting for the screen.

I criticized the m505 when it was released because I thought its reflective color screen looked too dim, especially when viewed indoors under typical office lighting. The new backlight corrects this problem and delivers screen images that are bright enough for easy viewing inside or out. The more powerful backlight, however, affects battery life, and Palm has updated its specifications to reflect this, saying that the Palm m515 must be charged after only a week of typical use.

In addition to the new backlight, the m515 has 16 megabytes of built-in memory, which is twice the amount of the m505. This will be handy for folks who use a wide range of third-party programs, gamers who want to install multiple titles on the handheld, and folks who use the m515 in conjunction with a wireless modem to surf the Internet.

The m515 costs $399, which is the same price as its m505 predecessor, but it faces stiff competition from comparably priced Sony models, such as the Clie N610c and N760c that both offer twice the screen resolution (320-by-320 pixels versus 160-by-160 pixels) at comparable prices. Unless you need a PDA that's the ultimate in thin, I still recommend taking a look at the Clies before considering the m515.

I'm a bit more excited about Palm's new m130, which is an entry-level color device priced at a reasonable $279. The m130 shares the same compact shape and styling as other devices in the m100 series. That means the m130 can utilize the same fun, colorful interchangeable faceplates as other m100 series PDAs, plus it can use the same add-on devices.

The m130's screen uses passive-matrix screen technology, which is generally regarded as inferior to the active-matrix technology used in the m515 or the Sony Clie models. However, passive matrix technology has improved considerably so the m130's screen is powerful enough to display photos in 65,000 colors and play arcade-style video games.

The screen is much smaller than that included on the m515 or Clie devices so folks who don't appreciate reading tiny type might want to look elsewhere. But for students or first-time PDA buyers who have been waiting for a low-cost color model, the m130 seems attractive.

That's especially true because it includes a rechargeable battery (essential when using a color screen), the latest version of the Palm operating system, expansion through the built-in SecureDigital/MultiMediaCard slot and an impressive bundle of useful third-party software.

You can take virtual tours of both devices at http://www.palm.com.

RIM does voice

Research in Motion, the Canadian company that developed the popular BlackBerry Communicator, introduced its first convergence device in the North American market this week. The RIM BlackBerry 5810 Communicator continues to boast always-on wireless e-mail capability, which is the feature that made it so popular, but now it can be used to place and receive voice calls also. The new device, which looks almost identical to the PDA-style RIM 857 or 957 Communicators, includes a connector where users can plug in ear bud-style headphones and a microphone for voice functions.

Voice, however, isn't the only new feature included in the 5810. This also is the first model that works with the faster General Packet Radio Service wireless networks that are beginning to appear across the United States. And the 5810 includes a new version of RIM's proprietary operating system that's powered by J2ME, the miniature version of the Java programming language. Support for J2ME is smart because a lot of add-on software and wireless tools are being developed using this technology.

VoiceStream is providing both voice and data service for the 5810. Data service operates on iStream, VoiceStream's GPRS implementation that's currently available on the majority of VoiceStream's network. A number of rate plans are available. Some provide data services only, while others combine both voice and data. AT&T Wireless also plans to support the device when the company finishes its rollout of its own GPRS network.

The new BlackBerry costs $499 and can be purchased directly through VoiceStream. I haven't tried the device myself, but I hope to have a complete review in a few weeks.

Cell phones, cell phones and more cell phones

Lots of new phones are coming to market, and I've had the opportunity to play with a couple of new models recently that work on the Sprint PCS network.

The Sanyo 5150 is one of the first phones to include a color screen. It's a feature that you'll be seeing more and more in phones over the next 12 to 18 months. The 5150 replaces the Sanyo 5000, which was the company's first color phone. The 5000 was criticized for short battery life, and the 5150 corrects this problem by shipping with a bigger battery that provides about 2.5 hours of talk time and about four days of standby time, which are comparable to what you might find on models with black-and-white screens. The 5150 also incorporates some software improvements to make the phone operate more reliably.

The 5150 is a dream to use. The silver clamshell-style handset flips open to show a 2-inch color screen that's capable of displaying 10 to 16 lines of text, depending on which typesize you choose. I've found that the 16-line mode, which albeit displays some pretty tiny characters, is superb for browsing the wireless Web and sending and receiving e-mail. The phone also includes a single-line display on the outside of the phone so you can see its signal strength, the time and the phone numbers of incoming callers without having to flip open the phone.

What's more, the phone features a "Web" key that provides one touch access to the wireless Web, and one of the phone's "soft" keys is dedicated to connecting you to either your Sprint PCS e-mail account or any POP3-compatible e-mail server.

The phone's color screen can display images and information in up to 256 colors. You can add images through an optional PC connection kit ($59.95) or via Sprint's Ringers & More service ($4 per month). The images can be used as "wallpaper" that works like screensavers while the phone is idle, or you can tie images to specific callers. Think of it as picture caller ID. For example, you could set the phone to display a picture of your mom whenever she calls.

The 5150 also supports downloadable ringtones, which are available through Sprint's Ringers & More service, or you can create your own from a variety of PC-based audio formats with the software provided with the PC connection kit.

As neat as its Web, graphics and audio features are, sound quality and call reliability matter most when evaluating a cell phone, and the 5150 doesn't disappoint. Calls sound very clear and are free of the tinny distortion I sometimes experience on the Sprint network. What's more, I haven't had as many dropped calls with this phone as other Sprint phones I've tried.

Finally, Sprint and Sanyo say the 5150 will be compatible with Sprint's new 3G network, which is scheduled to roll out sometime later this year. But if you think that means the phone won't be obsolete when the 3G rollout takes place, don't hold your breath because I doubt it will be compatible with many of the new technologies Sprint has signaled that it will deliver with 3G.

Overall, I got so excited about this phone, which is admittedly quite expensive at $299, that I bought one. You can learn more about the Sanyo 5150 at http://www.sprintpcs.com or http://www.sanyo.com.

Another new phone I've been playing with is the Samsung A400, which is set to go on sale soon through Sprint. This phone is one of the most compact models I've ever used. Its design is vaguely reminiscent of Sanyo's popular 8500 model, with a screen that flips up to reveal a keypad underneath, but it's much smaller — barely 3 inches long by about 1.5 inches wide and about half an inch deep.

Despite its small size, it features one of the largest, most comfortable phone keypads I've used. The number keys are impressively large so it's almost impossible to misdial, and the four-way navigation key is larger and even easier to use than a similar one on the Sanyo 5150.

The A400 isn't a color model, though it's black-and-white screen is very readable and is large enough to display about six lines of text, which is enough for wireless Web surfing. Like many new phone models that are coming to market, this model is compatible with downloadable ringtones, though I wasn't able to determine if you can download graphics, too. Call quality and battery life are both very good, which appear to be the trend with many of the new phones coming to market. The phone, however, continues to ship with the bulky recharging cradles that Samsung favors.

Sprint hasn't set a price for the new phone, but I expect it will cost between $150 and $200 when it hits stores and online retailers. It definitely will be worth consideration for folks who are looking for a comfortable lightweight, compact phone they can stow just about anywhere.

If you're not a Sprint customer, you'll also be glad to know that new phones are on the way from other wireless manufacturers, too. This week Sony Ericsson, a new joint venture between the Japanese electronics giant and the Swedish telecom superpower, announced a range of new phones for the North American market. Most of these phones work on the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) networks favored by AT&T Wireless, Cingular and VoiceStream, and these companies probably will sell some or all of the newly announced models.

Most are expected to go on sale in the fall. Some feature color screens, and one even will have a built-in digital camera, which will allow users to send "picture messages" to folks who have compatible phones. All of the models are wireless Web compatible and support technologies such as downloadable ringtones.


Leonard Fischer is the Technology Section editor for Gannett News Service. If you have questions about how to do something with your handheld or suggestions about what you would like to see covered in our Wireless Update, e-mail him at lfischer@gns.gannett.com.
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