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Part Pocket PC, part cellular phone

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Microsoft has been working on two phone designs based on their PocketPC operating system for the past few years. One is a telephone that can handle PDA tasks; let’s call it a phone/PDA. The other is a PDA with a telephone built inside; let’s call it a PDA/phone. Thursday, Microsoft and VoiceStream announced the T-Mobile Pocket PC phone edition, a version of the latter.

InsertArt(1578919)POCKET PCs ARE GOOD. Cell phones (well, some of them) are good. But if the first released model is any indication, Pocket PCs with cell phones are slightly less than the sum of their parts.

Don’t get me wrong. On the whole, I think the brand new T-Mobile PDA/phone is pretty OK. It’s just that there are better PDA/phone designs available on the market already.

First, the stats: The T-Mobile is 5 by 2.8 by 0.7 inches, weighs 6.8 ounces and operates on Microsoft’s Pocket PC 2002 Phone Edition OS. There’s a 206 MHz Strong ARM processor inside, 32 MB of RAM and 32 MB of ROM, a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, a SD/MMC memory card expansion slot, hardware buttons for some telephone services and a place to plug in a phone earpiece. (MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)

If you think it looks a whole lot like an iPaq, you’re right. The T-Mobile is made by the same folks who make the iPaq for H-P/Compaq. Actually, the T-Mobile is a whole lot like the last generation (3800 series) of iPaqs.

The T-Mobile runs on the VoiceStream GPS/GPRS network in the USA. Actually, T-Mobile will be VoiceStream’s new name. It’s the name that Deutsche Telecom has picked for its global mobile services. The switch from VoiceStream to T-Mobile also involves a change of spokespersons, from Jamie Lee Curtis to Catherine Zeta-Jones.

The T-Mobile can make and receive calls on VoiceStream’s GSM network. In my tests, the actual phone section of this device was very good at finding and holding on to signals in fringe reception areas. It’s as good as Handspring’s Treo in its ability to be a cellular phone, depending, of course, on how far away you are from a VoiceStream cellular site’s antenna.

For data, the T-Mobile operates on VoiceStream’s GPRS “high-speed,” always-on data network. Notice “high-speed” is in quotes. That’s because if your coverage area handles GPRS (definitely nowhere near MSNBC headquarters) the best speeds you’re going to get are similar to a 56K modem, if you’re lucky. It’s really more like 28.8 kbps. Connections are still painfully slow. No wonder Handspring is still delaying the switch of their Treos over to the GPRS data network. I also question why, if it’s an always-on network, the T-Mobile shows you a dial-up window when you access the GPRS data network.

EASY ACCESS TO CORPORATE SERVERS On the whole, the T-Mobile is a good combination of PDA and cell phone. You can access data information during phone calls. You can listen to your mp3s or stream music and videos directly from the Internet or a memory card. You can synch your device with your computer at work wirelessly, or via the cable provided. You can even set the device to synch wirelessly every few minutes.

If you like the looks of a Pocket PC then you’ll like the T-Mobile. You’ll also know, for the most part, how to operate the T-Mobile. That’s a good thing.

There are a few differences, though. The PDA application buttons are gone from the beneath the screen and there are two phone buttons in its place, just like on a cellular. And there’s a new line of soft buttons on the Start page giving you quick access to your call log and your voice mail. There’s also a nice feature that lets you extract a phone number out of any document (e-mail or Word attachment) and dial it directly with one touch. That’s very cool.

There’s also an included phone ring sound which gets my vote as the best cellular ring on the market. Check out ‘OldPhone’ when you get a chance. It’s almost worth buying the T-Mobile to get to use it.

The Pocket PC’s ability to VPN (Virtual Private Networking) is one of its strongest points. It allows you to easily access your Outlook mail server and other corporate servers via this handheld device. Plus, I believe the Internet Explorer Web browser is arguably the best browser in any modern-day PDA/phone.

But all this handheld access comes with a price attached. While you can use the T-Mobile as a one-handed phone, you almost always need your other hand to do anything more. The Handspring Treo is a little better in one-handed operation because of the placement of some of its controls and the small keyboard, but not by a whole lot.

BEST MAY BE YET TO COME Then, there is the question of the T-Mobile’s size and shape. The design seems perfect for a PDA, but awkward for a cell phone. In practice, holding this thing up to your ear is not as bad as you might think. But when you’re done with a call, or when you use it with the provided headset, you will be hard-pressed to find a pocket into which this phone will fit. It does come with a leather case/belt clip.

The T-Mobile is available from VoiceStream today, selling for $549 with a service contract. In addition to signing-up for a cellular phone plan you’ll need an Internet access plan: $19.95 for 5MB of data, $39.99 for 10MB and $59.99 for 20MB. Microsoft is also working on versions of PDA/phone designs that will run on CDMA/1xRTT networks.

Which brings me back to my first thought. Microsoft has been working on two different cellular-PDA-phone designs and I’m still waiting for what I think will be the better one. Microsoft calls their upcoming phone/PDA the Stinger smart phone; from I’ve seen, it’s the device to beat. The idea of having a small cellular phone that can do Pocket PC PDA functions and sync with your office e-mail is very, very tempting. Stinger will (hopefully) be available for sale later this year.