Treo is the best phone/PDA combo yet'but is that good enough?

Treo is the best phone/PDA combo yet'but is that good enough?

The Treo 180 packages GMS cellular service with a PDA, 16M of RAM and a monochrome screen. It's priced at $399 if you get cellular service, $549 without it.

When the year began, Handspring's Treo 180 was the one new gadget that PDA lovers wanted to get their hands on. But they had to wait while Handspring ironed out production problems.

I got to use one for a week. Although the rugged, flip-top device was fun to show off and use, I'm not convinced it will find its way into government and corporate hands.

The Treo's impressive achievement is combining Global System for Mobile communications (GSM) cellular voice and data with basic PDA functions in an appealing, steel-blue 4.3- by 2.7- by 0.7-inch package.

The 5.4-ounce communicator'$399 plus separate GSM service'also takes the extraordinary step of squeezing in messaging capabilities, in this case via the Short Message Service and, in one model, a tiny, thumb-style keyboard similar to a BlackBerry's.

Add Web browsing and e-mail, and there's little that you can't at least try to do on a Treo. Handspring is clearly trying to catch the wireless PDA wave while stealing messaging and e-mail business from Research in Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerry with a platform that is more open and versatile.

The phone and related PDA functions seem to be the most useful and best-performing. It's easy to download contacts from your PC, then dial someone by typing the first letters of the name. Or, you can use the stylus to punch out numbers on a mock dial pad.

Fast transfer, slow download

Web access begins impressively'my Internet service provider settings transferred quickly from my PC'but you soon remember how dog-slow Web downloads are on today's cellular networks.

Handspring uses its Blazer software efficiently to reformat the pages, but the experience still feels like peering through a keyhole into a busy room. Nevertheless, it's acceptable in a pinch, and that's how Handspring expects most customers to use the Web feature.

E-mail isn't as seamless as on the always-on BlackBerry: the Treo must first dial up your ISP'at least until always-on cellular arrives later this year'but I was impressed by how quickly it downloaded my e-mail headers and let me choose which ones to read in full.

The ergonomics are smart. You can activate the phone, contact, Web and e-mail functions by pressing hot buttons at the bottom, below the keyboard. A rocker-style two-piece scroll button greatly simplifies screen navigation. Opening the lid lets you turn on the PDA or answer the phone. The first models' screens are monochrome, and the aquamarine backlight is gaudy, but Handspring says it will release a $599 color version by midyear.

Cell-phone addicts who want to add Web and messaging features without a lot of weight and cost should consider the Treo. But, like other multifunction communicators, it's no PDA and definitely not a miniature programmable PC.
Contact Handspring at 650-230-5000.

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