PDA-Cellular Phone Combination Devices Provide a "Eureka" Experience

I get a lot of questions from readers and friends about my favorite PDA. I believe that there are two types of people in the world: those who can use PDAs and those who can't. Since the invention of these devices, I've pretty much fallen into the "can't use" camp. Although I've tried, I haven't found any device compelling enough for me to use every day. The only practical use I've found for my PDA is keeping my schedule when I attend trade shows and want to make notes to bring with me to my appointments. I must also admit that I read novels on my PDA, using the Microsoft Reader software. I've never felt compelled to upgrade my antique Compaq Aero Pocket PC.

I once attempted to use an HP iPAQ, but by the time I finished taking advantage of the many bells and whistles available to configure it, I could no longer truthfully describe it as a "Pocket" PC. I liked the capabilities of the fully configured iPAQ (i.e., wireless networking, email access, folding keyboard), but by the time I set the device up to do what I wanted it to do, I might as well have been carrying a subnotebook computer. I then gave a Research In Motion (RIM) BlackBerry device a test run. Unfortunately, my hands were too large to easily use the tiny keyboard, although the device offered many of the features that I had decided I needed, and in a much smaller package than the iPAQ.

Recently, because many cellular phone service providers have released an assortment of PDA-cellular phone combination devices, I've revisited my PDA needs. Microsoft has been pushing its phone software aggressively, and devices that use the Microsoft software have started to appear. However, I've found these devices to be as large as the largest PDAs. Even the smallest seems a bit large to use as a phone; holding one to your ear to talk and listen is awkward. When I spoke with some of these products' vendors, most simply stated that they expect users to employ a headset to take advantage of the devices' cellular phone functionality. In addition, these devices haven't adequately addressed the demands of data entry to my satisfaction. To use one of these devices, you need an add-on keyboard or must use handwriting recognition software. So, after having investigated some of the combination devices, I moved my interest in a new PDA to the back burner, figuring that eventually something would turn up that I could use. But I wasn't holding my breath.

To my surprise, I found a very nice solution to my limited PDA needs when I added an additional phone line to my cellular account a few weeks ago. When my cellular provider changed its pricing plan and made new services available, I discovered that I could add a phone line for my daughter without raising the cost of my existing account. That was a good thing, but what was even better was that the area I live in transitioned from Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) to Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) support, and a GSM phone existed that met my PDA needs--the Nokia 6800.

The Nokia 6800 is a small, lightweight flip-type phone with a difference: The cover doesn't open the phone for telephony use but rather reveals a relatively large keyboard. Better yet, the phone includes a suite of Windows applications, the Nokia PC Suite 5.12, that lets you integrate the phone with Microsoft Outlook and move data and applications to and from the phone (much like Microsoft ActiveSync does with Pocket PC devices). The user-friendly keyboard makes taking notes and updating the calendar on the phone itself (rather than using the PC link to update the calendar) simple, and creating and sending email is also simple. The screen orientation changes according to whether the keyboard is exposed or covered. The phone uses downloadable Java applications, an Extensible HTML (XHTML) browser, and preinstalled applications to provide a versatile user platform. Internet connectivity is through the General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) and not the cellular network, although the services usually overlap. The only downside to this type of connectivity is that GSM and GPRS network availability is limited throughout the United States. However, coverage where I live is rather extensive, and general coverage around major metropolitan areas and almost all of the East Coast is pretty good. On a recent trip to the Florida Keys, I had no problem connecting throughout southern Florida and all the way out to Key West.

I've configured my Nokia 6800 with three email accounts. I created one account especially for the phone on one of my mail servers, my wireless provider created the second account automatically, and the third account is my MSN email account. One of the preconfigured features on my phone takes me from the wireless Internet home page to my MSN account. (A friend of mine, who also has a Nokia 6800 but uses a different cellular service provider, has direct access to all of her AOL accounts and chat functionality.) Using any of my email accounts isn't any more difficult than using them from a PC, taking into account the limitation of the small screen (128 x 128 pixels, 4096 colors).

The Nokia 6800 has a little more than 5MB of internal memory for storing phone numbers, applications, contact information, calendar information, notes, and images. (Yes, the device can take pictures when I use a small digital camera headset.) Although 5MB might not seem like much available memory, you can always send notes and images to your main email accounts and then delete them from the device. You can download hundreds of Java and Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) applications to the phone, ranging from personal information manager (PIM) software to games designed specifically for the phone's features. The Nokia PC Suite lets you add and remove downloaded applications as you desire.

Finally, depending upon your cellular provider, most versions of Windows (including Windows XP and Windows 2000) will recognize the Nokia 6800 as an external modem over either the direct cable connection to the phone or an Infrared Data Association (IrDA) port on your notebook. Although the packet radio service that the GPRS connection provides isn't the fastest connection in the world, it does provide simple Internet connectivity for your notebook computer without requiring any additional devices.

The PDA and cellular technology markets are changing quickly, but with the introduction of communications devices such as the Nokia 6800, which integrates so well with the way I work in my Windows computing environment, a new level of practicality and usability has arrived. The device that might offer the closest functionality to the Nokia 6800 is the T-Mobile Sidekick, available to subscribers to T-Mobile's cellular service. The Sidekick fits somewhere between the Nokia 6800 and a full-size PDA. Most high-end GSM cellular phones from Sony/Ericsson, Samsung, Motorola, Kyocera, Audiovox, and Panasonic offer many of the features that the Nokia 6800 includes. I've only touched lightly on the features and functionality that the Nokia 6800 adds to my work experience. Feel free to email me with any direct questions.

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