Phones aren't all that smart



Take a quick glance at Hewlett-Packard Co.'s new smart phone - the iPaq hw6515 - and you might think you've seen it before.

With its miniature qwerty keyboard, touch screen and five-way navigation button on the front, the iPaq - now available - looks a lot like Palm Inc.'s popular Treo 650.

In addition to their similar designs, each can be used - with varying degrees of success - as a phone, address book, appointment calendar, e-mailer, Web surfer, camera and video player.

Of the two, the iPaq has a bigger screen, and it also sports a GPS function.

But it's not necessarily better. After testing the iPaq for several days, I prefer the Treo, mostly because of its superior keyboard and overall ergonomics.

Here's how the two competitors stack up:

Price: The iPaq costs about $450 if bought with a two-year cell-phone service contract. For its debut, it will be offered only by Cingular Wireless.

The Treo costs $300 to $450, with a contract.

Operating system: The iPaq uses Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Mobile software for several functions, including its address book and calendar.

The Treo currently comes with the Palm operating system, which is especially favored by Macintosh fans because it can communicate with their computers as easily as it does with Windows PCs. Next year, the Treo also will be available in a Windows Mobile version.

Internet: On both phones, Internet access is done through cell networks, which require data plans from cell providers. Neither phone is equipped for Wi-Fi.

You can configure either phone to get your home or office e-mail, but don't be surprised if you need some help from a tech support person to get that function going. And sending and receiving mail via a Web site is difficult at best.

As for surfing the Web in general, don't plan on going much beyond text.

Camera: The iPaq gets the edge in this category because it can capture images at a resolution of 1,280 pixels by 1,024 pixels, while the Treo's highest available image quality is at 640 by 480. The iPaq also has a built-in flash.

Even with the higher quality and flash, the pictures shot with the iPaq, like the Treo, usually are not much more than fuzzy snapshots.

Ergonomics: Here is where the Treo shines.

The qwerty keyboards on both phones are so small they have to be used with the thumbs - an adaptation that's surprisingly easy to make if you're a touch typist.

Even though the iPaq is wider than the Treo, the Treo's keys are larger, making them much easier to use. The keys also feature much larger lettering, which is a comfort, especially when getting used to thumb typing.

Not that I'm going to buy a Treo - or any smart phone - anytime soon. Until someone comes up with a less bulky, less expensive model, I'm sticking with a separate, not-so-smart cell phone for my pocket and a rudimentary personal digital assistant for my backpack.

Eventually, I'll probably have to give in and go the smart phone route. Maybe when my trusty PDA or cell phone finally breaks or becomes too outmoded for practical use.

If that time has come for you, the Treo is a solid choice. But there's still plenty of room for improvement - and, one can hope, falling prices.

David Colker writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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