Mobile Computing: PDAs vs. Smart Phones

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Feature: The Great PDA-Smart Phone Smackdown

Have you dumped, or are you planning to dump, your PDA in favor of a cell phone/PDA combo device? If so, why? If not, why not?

Those are the questions I posed to readers in a July column. My queries were prompted by Sony's announcement that it had no plans to introduce new Clie PDAs in the U.S., concentrating instead on smart phones (another term, essentially, for combo or hybrid devices).

The response from readers to my questions was overwhelming. More than 40 people e-mailed me their opinions, experiences, heartaches, and ecstasies concerning the PDA vs. smart phone issue. Sentiment was equally divided, more or less, between those who'd rather have a cell phone and a separate PDA and those who prefer the all-in-one approach.

But when I took a close look at the explanations behind the sentiments, an interesting pattern emerged. I found that readers who favored a PDA and a cell phone supported their case with multiple reasons, while those in the smart phone camp pretty much harped on the all-in-one convenience issue. So what follows is a summary, of sorts, with six arguments in favor of two devices and three in favor of the combo units.

Whichever side you're on, or if you're still undecided, I think you'll learn a few things. I certainly did.

Why a PDA and a Cell Phone Are Better Than a Smart Phone

1. If you switch carriers, you might end up with a PDA. You know how you can take your phone number with you when switching wireless carriers, but frequently, you can't take your cell phone? Well, that's often true with smart phones, too, writes Jason Stringer of Hollis, New Hampshire. My research corroborates his theory, with a few exceptions.

Suppose you buy a PalmOne Treo 600 from AT&T Wireless and sign a one-year contract for a voice/data plan. Then, after your contract expires, you want to switch to Sprint. Well, guess what? Sprint supports a different Treo 600 model than AT&T Wireless. So the $350-to-$500 PDA/combo device you bought from AT&T Wireless a year earlier will not work as a cell phone with your new Sprint service. (For the latest prices, you can check our Product Finder.)

Sprint's Treo 600 uses the carrier's CDMA-based service, a PalmOne spokesperson explained to me. But AT&T Wireless, Cingular Wireless, and T-Mobile offer the Treo 600 for use on their GSM/GPRS networks. "So you can't switch from Sprint to those other carriers and use your phone with them," she confirmed. What's more, AT&T Wireless "locks" its phones, meaning its smart phones can't be configured for use with other carriers.

Bottom line: If it's possible you'll be switching cell phone providers, consider buying a generic Treo 600 (from PalmOne) that can be used with any carrier except Sprint. The downside: You'll most likely forgo deals and rebates that cell phone providers offer on the Treo 600 to entice you to sign a contract.

2. Combo devices require too many compromises. Smart phones "will eventually replace the untalkative PDAs," writes Craig Edward Given, a systems analyst in Chattanooga, Tennessee. "But currently the offerings are few, feature sets are limited, and costs can rival that of a desktop computer--not to mention the expensive carrier plans that combine data and voice." Craig believes that, for him at least, a better solution is a cable from SupplyNet that lets him connect his cell phone to his PDA to make an Internet connection.

3. The all-in-one design has drawbacks. Lose a PDA but not your cell phone? Bad. Lose both? Catastrophic. "I hate the thought of having all the information that matters to me on a single device that can easily be lost or stolen," writes J. Chinn of Portland, Oregon. There's also the inconvenience. If you lose your combo device, you have neither a cell phone nor a PDA at your disposal.

4. PDAs are more affordable. "I'm planning to stick with my Cassiopeia Pocket Manager BE-300 until PDA/phone combos are cheap enough so that mere mortals can afford them," writes Jeff Partridge of New Philadelphia, Ohio. Jeff says he paid $125 for the BE-300. (Casio's Web site now lists the device as $200 and "not available.") By comparison, some smart phones, such as the Treo 600, cost about $500.

5. A PDA's size is just right. "Smart phones are still too large for the phone I want. And once they get small enough, they'll be too small to use conveniently as a PDA," writes Barry Gottlieb of San Francisco.

6. Combo devices could distract drivers. Using a cell phone when driving is risky enough, notes Bob Hoover Jr. of Lawrenceville, Georgia. "But I am very concerned about how much more of a distraction combo devices will become, with PDA, camera, and whatever else they come with," he adds.

Why a Smart Phone Is Better Than a PDA and a Cell Phone

1. All your data is in one portable device. While this can be a disadvantage, many readers see it as a compelling advantage. Treo 600 user Joe Rothman of Aurora, Colorado, writes: "The ability to look up contact and schedule info and Microsoft Outlook Inbox contents on the same device (through DataViz's Inbox To Go program), while out on a call, is great!"

2. Combo devices are more convenient to use. "Several years ago I tried using a Palm III and a standard cell phone," recalls Bill Heiser of San Francisco. "This didn't work out well. Usually I didn't have the phone number I wanted in the phone, so I had to put down the phone, find the PDA, look up the number, put down the PDA, pick up the phone, and dial the number." Bill switched to a Kyocera 6035, an early phone/PDA combo device, and later upgraded to the Kyocera 7135. "It's been a real winner," he writes, "and I can't imagine going back to a standard phone and stand-alone PDA."

3. Most people just need a cell phone that stores contacts. "For the average businessperson, including myself, there are two critical tools: Outlook and a cell phone," writes Lonny R. Paul, director of e-commerce for TigerDirect, an online/catalog electronics retailer. Lonny uses Yahoo IntelliSync to keep Yahoo Mail and Outlook e-mail in sync with his cell phone, a Sony Ericsson T616. "No matter what, the phone is most critical," he adds. "It's always with me, and it needs to have the information I want. PDAs as we know them," Lonny declares, "are dead."

4. Combo devices don't make you look like a geek. Michal T. Horace of Portland, Oregon, says he feels "like a geeky gunslinger in the Old West when I've got my cell phone clipped on my right hip and my Pocket PC clipped on my left. I'm always needing both, so I always carry both." Michal hopes to purchase a single PDA/cell phone unit in the next year, though he admits having reservations about "putting so much money and data in a single unit that I could lose on any given bad day."

My Two Cents

For the time being, I'm sticking with a PDA and a cell phone. Why? Because when traveling, I often use my PDA in lieu of a notebook, and a smart phone's screen is smaller than screens on most PDAs and just doesn't cut it under those circumstances.

Also, with my new Dell Axim X30 Pocket PC (with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity built in) getting an Internet connection when I need one usually isn't a problem. The Wi-Fi lets me connect at hot spots, such as those at Starbuck's or in hotels. And with Socket Communication's Bluetooth-compatible 56K Cordless Modem ($149), I can easily get a dial-up connection on the Axim when I'm not near a hot spot. Add a full-sized, fold-out keyboard, and I'm in business.

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