#13 Article — One Piece or Two?

(This article was originally written for “PACC Talk,” the monthly newsletter of the Pittsburgh Area Computer Club)

One piece or two? Not swimsuits, handheld computers. You wouldn’t want to carry an external modem for your notebook PC. Until recently, you had to carry a separate wireless modem or a cable to connect your wireless phone and PDA. Then came the first combination cell phone/PDAs with the styling and weight of a brick. The newest units are small, light weight, and you don’t have to configure a PDA and cell phone to talk to each other. Accessories add to the cost, size, and weight you must carry. Instead of buying and carrying accessories for two units, you can reduce the bulk and carry accessories for one combination PDA/phone. Magazines and web sites, trying to be trendy and “cool,” proclaim that the PDA is dead; everyone wants and needs a connected and converged device such as a palmOne Treo or Windows Mobile Smartphone (or so they say). Sounds like the perfect match… the perfect device? Maybe not.

First, what do you want/need to do while mobile? This may be the hardest question of all. Many people say they’d never need or use a cell phone, until they buy one. Then they can’t do without it. I assume you’re an experienced computer user. How much mobile access do you need, for what, and how much are you willing to pay? Verizon Wireless has a low-speed data network that uses plan minutes, which are free with most plans on nights and weekends. Connect an Internet-capable cell phone to many PDAs, and you’re online, although at a slow speed. If you’re a VZW customer, your only cost may be to purchase a cable. This is perfect for someone who needs infrequent data access, and doesn’t want to purchase a several-hundred dollar converged device, then pay hundreds of dollars every year for a wireless data plan. This data network works most everywhere and free technical support is available. Other carriers charge $20, $45, up to $80 per month for wireless data, but you’re on faster networks – maybe even faster than your home/office wired connections.

Second, many of the arguments for “all-in-one” aren’t well thought out. Cell phones, notebooks, PDAs…they’re all just tools. And no brand, no specific tool is perfect for everyone, whether it’s a hammer, screwdriver, power tool, or electronic device. Don’t accept any writer’s conclusions as fact, no matter what the topic. Someone else has surely written as compelling a treatise for another viewpoint. I know, it makes life more complicated. No impulse, spur of the moment purchases — you need to become a semi-expert on most everything! Converged devices may be the perfect device, but only for a certain segment. Do you know all the disadvantages? The magazines and web sites often forget to tell you, “The Rest of the Story.”

Not everyone says converged devices are perfect. A review of the Treo 650 in the February 18, 2005 North America, Europe, and Asia editions of Business Week had these comments in a generally favorable review: “A lot of the basics, however, still need work. The Treo 650 is a great PDA — but a not-so-great phone. Making a good cell phone isn’t easy. And that goes double for a phone with multimedia capabilities.” “The sound is distant and muffled. I enjoy my conversations a lot more when using the Treo with a headset or when I resort to the handset’s speakerphone function.” “If you decide to change your wireless service providers, you’ll have to throw away your Treo and buy a new device.” “In all, the new Treo 650 is a good device, but it needs many fixes to make it a winner.” Many other reviews and Internet forums devoted to cell phones and Smartphones detail the many shortcomings and problems with converged devices.

Third, consider the technologies involved for cell phones and PDAs. Cell phones and handheld computers are two different devices, at two different stages of development, evolving at different rates. Many PDA/phone hybrids remind me of cartoon characters that are part one animal, part another. Unfortunately, the cartoon critters are more lovable and perform much better than some phone/PDA combinations.

Fourth, proponents of converged devices make it sound like carrying separate devices means lugging two large, heavy, unwieldy contraptions, which you know isn’t so. The average cell phone weighs 3-4 ounces, the average PDA 5 ounces, the various Treo 600/650 models average 6 ounces. Carrying one device instead of two saves 2 ounces and a few cubic inches. That’s not much of a saving, and you lose total battery capacity, screen size, redundancy, and many features along with those 2 ounces.

Fifth, when choosing a handheld computer (PDA) or converged device, consider the features and drawbacks of each PDA operating system. The differences between the main choices – PalmOS and Microsoft’s Windows Mobile – are narrowing but still significant. Windows Mobile devices have either the PDA OS, Phone Edition OS, or Smartphone Edition OS – features, capabilities, and included programs are different between these similar sounding OS versions. Don’t believe the sales pitches from either Palm or Microsoft; they both bend reality in print and online ads, making the other appear almost useless. Faced with poor sales, Microsoft made their interface more “Palm-like.” Palm’s current operating system, OS5, has better security and many WinCE features such as better multimedia support. The operating system is important because it determines the exact software you can use on the handheld. You need to answer this question: If you could magically pull your desktop computer out of your shirt pocket at any time, what would you do with it? For instance, I do a lot of writing on my PDAs, but have no interest in playing music files. I manage my e-mail and check web sites (mostly news, weather, travel, and technology sites). I rarely have games on my PDAs – no time to play them. Ask others how they use their PDAs, read magazines and web sites devoted to handheld computing, and develop a list of things you want to do and features you expect. The capabilities, features, and “look and feel” of the 4 PDA platforms (1 Palm, 3 Windows Mobile) are very different.

If you buy a handheld because it’s great at one task such as e-mail, then buy and carry another unit for other tasks…that defeats the purpose and idea of a “Swiss Army Knife” handheld computer/phone. The Blackberry works well for e-mail, but not very good as a PDA or cell phone, so Blackberry users often carry two or three devices. The Microsoft Smartphone OS includes Pocket Outlook 2002, but omits Pocket Word and Pocket Excel — you need additional programs to view or edit MS Office documents! If you receive e-mail that includes an Excel spreadsheet, PowerPoint presentation, Word document, etc., you can’t open it without additional programs. You must forward this e-mail to another computer, then wait until you return to your office or home, or carry another device. Most PalmOS PDAs and Smartphones come with programs to view and edit MS Office documents; a few low-priced Palms don’t. Windows Mobile PDAs come with Pocket Word and Pocket Excel. In other words, some so-called Smartphones aren’t true converged devices; they may have limitations that may force you to carry another device. Tip: Pocket Word on Windows Mobile PDAs is a horrible program that strips formatting and content of Word documents! If you do much writing, or refer to formatted MS Office documents, you’ll want to purchase TextMaker, a better word processing program.

What do I carry?  Usually, four separate devices.  I may not bring everything if I’m just doing a few nearby errands, but I’m often sorry I left a device behind.  Two PDAs (one PalmOS, one Windows Mobile) and two cell phones.  I use the Sony PDA (PalmOS) most often, but the Dell Axim (Windows Mobile) is a great backup, and my choice to get online.  It can use a cell phone to get online most anywhere, without wires connecting the two.  Why two cell phones?  One for talking, and one mostly for data.  In the near future, it will be easier to use the same cell phone for both voice and data.  If your computer is connected to the Internet through your cell phone and a voice call comes through, you’ll just answer the phone, possibly continuing to check e-mail or download files as you talk.  That technology exists today in a few cities, but Pittsburgh isn’t one of them.  Most areas and most carriers require you to interrupt your data session to answer or place a voice call.  I hate to use my primary voice cell phone to connect to the Internet – I’ve missed important calls doing this.

Until recently, most wireless data (not voice) used CDPD (Cellular Digital Packet Data), essentially a digital overlay on the old analog network. I used CDPD for several years and was thrilled with it, because it was the best thing going — then. CDPD was the original wireless IP packet data standard; the first commercial service was launched in 1995. CDPD has a maximum data rate of 19.2 kbps, however some of this capacity is used for error correction and system overhead. The data throughput varies, but is usually in the range of 10 kbps to 15 kbps, which is one reason why CDPD is essentially dead.  Additional negative factors with CDPD: 1) Coverage is good in a few metro areas but spotty nationwide. 2) Since the speed is limited, wireless carriers are promoting their newer data networks. 3) CDPD users need to frequently call Tech Support, not a good idea for something aimed at mass-market consumers. AT&T Wireless (now Cingular) will dismantle their existing CDPD network in the near future. Verizon Wireless still offers CDPD service in this area. No combo units use CDPD, but modems/adapters are available for notebooks, Pocket PCs, and Palms. Carriers and other entities with CDPD hardware offer low clearance prices, but I advise you to avoid this entirely and go with a better data technology.

Ergonomics is an important factor. I frequently use a cell phone and PDA at the same time. I may be casually chatting with someone while doing an unrelated task on the handheld; I may be entering data or referring to a document onscreen that is the topic of the conversation. Either scenario means I can’t hold a PDA/phone to my ear. Use a headset, you say. If I’m just listening, they’re OK, but most headset microphones don’t have the fidelity of the microphone in the cell phone handset, so it may be hard for the other party to understand me (this is changing — more on headsets later in this article). Some headset microphones are so bad that background noise is as loud, or louder, than the person speaking! The headset may be uncomfortable if worn for long periods. Studies have found that headsets connected to the cell phone with a cord actually increase the Specific Absorption Rate (RF Emissions) to your brain; the cord acts as an antenna that directs the radiation to your head. My current cell phones have a speakerphone option, which I use when in the car or where I won’t bother others.

How legal is it to use a cell phone headset while driving? You may remember a few years ago when the Pennsylvania State Police were giving tickets to motorists who wore a headset while driving. I called the Pennsylvania State Police and asked this question. Their response is that it’s legal to wear a headset if the headset covers only one ear. The other ear will hopefully hear a horn or other warning sound.

Converged devices, Smartphones, PDAs, etc. come in several form factors. Also part of the question, “What would you do with it?” are factors such as screen size and input. Smartphones running the Windows Mobile for Smartphones OS have a small screen similar to many cell phones, with all input using the keys (the screens are NOT touchscreens). Windows Mobile Phone Edition devices look and act like ordinary PDAs, but also contain cell phone electronics. Hold one of these to your face and you have oils, food, and other bad stuff on the screen. You’ll need to use a headset with these devices. Users I’ve talked with say these devices omit features, and generally don’t perform as well as a separate cell phone and PDA. The only current PalmOS converged device is the Treo line that also has good and bad points.

For PDA input, you have your choice of devices with a built-in tiny keyboard with tiny keys or an input area for printing/writing. The little keyboards are designed for people who, for whatever reason, dislike printing/writing. If you think you’d prefer a keyboard, find a working unit of the exact model you’re interested in at a local store and spend some time typing on it. You’ll either get the hang of it, or decide those little keys are sized for elves, not humans.

The most popular PDA solution is a printing input area and an external, separate keyboard for more extensive text input. Most text input is usually done on desktop or notebook computers, then synced to the PDA device. If you’ll be doing extensive text input away from your other computers, these external keyboards are just what you need. These keyboards take several form factors, but all ingeniously fold into a size no larger than the PDA itself. They communicate with the PDA through a connector, or wireless (infrared, or embedded Bluetooth radio chip).

Ever have someone ask to borrow your cell phone? They need to make a call, their cell phone doesn’t work or they don’t have one, and there you are. I usually say Yes and hand them my phone. I’d be reluctant if the cell phone was a converged device: 1) Unless I stand right there and watch them, they could tap on an icon, access my data, and who knows where that could lead?; 2) They could accidentally do something to corrupt or erase data, or drop the phone. Instead of a blemish on a $100 phone, you’d have a scratched screen or damaged $500 device. Sure, you can say No and try to explain, but do you think the average person will understand?

Converged devices have a switch to turn off the cellular components so the device is “airline safe.” If only all airline personnel were better trained and understood this. You pull out your converged device to read e-mail or an e-book, edit a spreadsheet, etc., and a cabin attendant asks you to please turn off the device and put it away. They may accept your explanation, or you may find out which “passengers” are really Air Marshals. Meanwhile, the fellow across the aisle is working away on a Wi-Fi equipped laptop with nothing said. Relatively few people understand all details of handheld computers or converged devices.

Another reason I prefer two separate devices is backup. Lets say you need to place an important phone call right now. You pull out your converged device and it crashes, the battery is dead… whatever. Maybe you can reset it, troubleshoot the problem, then restore from a backup, but how long does this take? Do you have the 20, 30, or more minutes right now? Will you overlook something and make a mistake because you’re under pressure from the clock? If one of my devices crash, and they all have, it’s an inconvenience, no more. Most phone numbers in one device are also in the others. If my cell phone has a problem, I look up the contact information in my PDA and use another phone to make the call. Believe me, the day your “perfect” converged device crashes at an important moment, taking all your data to a digital black hole, you’ll never carry just one device again.

Columnist and broadcaster Leo LaPorte comments, “There are those of us out there that don’t want everything on one device because if that one device goes out, they are out. I had a Pocket PC, cell phone and pager. I purchased a Smartphone last month and moved everything to the Smartphone. Last week, my Smartphone got stolen and I lost everything! I’m now back with my Pocket PC and cell phone. Also, when I used my Smartphone, I had a lot of problems. The phone would lock up while working, calls would be missed because I was in the middle of entering an appointment, and even appointments disappearing when calls come in!”

Here’s an article from a writer who used to believe all-in-one was the only way to go.  Experience taught him otherwise.  Right-click on this link, http://www.brighthand.com/article/Cellular-Wireless_Handheld_Drawbacks then select "Open in New Window".

You try to reset and restore your device, but nothing seems to work. It doesn’t work at all, some features don’t work, or the unit acts flaky. No problem, you say, it’s covered by a warranty (yes, you should purchase an extended warranty). Depending on the warranty, a replacement device may arrive tomorrow, or you may have to send your device in and wait for its return. Bad enough to be without your PDA or cell phone for a few days, a week, or more; if it’s a converged device you’re without both your cell phone and PDA! Not having either one is bad enough; doing without two very important tools will seriously affect your productivity and mood.

Nothing lasts forever, but a cell phone, PDA, or converged device should function well for at least two years, which is also the standard contract term for many cellular carriers. The chance of a PDA or converged device needing service or replacement within two years is quite high. Extended warranties on some items aren’t worthwhile; but they make sense for a PDA. Extended Warranty terms vary from store to store, and are another dimension you should shop for. Store Y may be $25 cheaper for the PDA, but store Z may offer a cheaper and/or better Extended Warranty. Cellular carriers usually offer equipment insurance plans and/or extended warranties for converged devices purchased through them.

If your cellular contract is for two years, but the equipment warranty is only one year, what happens if you need service or new equipment in the second year of your contract? It depends on the carrier and device. Any phone or converged device you purchase has been on the market for 1-12 months. 12+ months from now that device is quite old, probably isn’t sold anymore, and is likely considered obsolete by the carrier. If it was a popular model, the carrier may still have parts and can repair it. But where? Some carriers do actual repair work on-site at local stores, others ship the phones elsewhere for repairs. Before you buy new equipment or sign a new contract, ask about repairs or new equipment in the second year of a contract. Two-year contracts are bad, bad, bad for many consumers! Your needs, physical location and other factors may change; coverage, equipment, plans, and cool features offered by the various carriers will change. The second year of that contract may feel like a heavy anchor around your neck.

1+3=5. 1+5=8. Not “new math” as taught in schools, this is the new math of cell phone devices. $100 cell phone + $400 PDA = $600 combination unit. $100 cell phone + $200 PDA = $500 combination unit. You rarely save money purchasing a combination unit — you’ll likely pay extra. And that’s just the beginning of the “bad math.” There are many costs with each purchase, but consider two. The initial cost, and the cost to buy the phone or combo unit again if you lose it, break it, or it fails after the warranty period expires. Some wireless carriers, such as Verizon, advertise phones at attractive prices, BUT there’s a catch. That price is ONLY available when you activate a new wireless contract or sign a new contract at the expiration of your existing contract. If you have a 2-year contract and lose/damage your phone or converged device in 5 months or a year, you must pay the advertised price PLUS $200 or more to purchase a new phone or data unit. Other wireless carriers, such as Sprint, will sell you new equipment at the advertised price whenever you want; you just pay a service fee to get the new device programmed and activated. Some carriers offer an optional insurance policy to protect against theft, loss, or damage, but this is another cost, and may or may not pay when tragedy strikes. Several friends and I experienced this with Nextel; they finally replaced my phone with a refurbished unit for a $35 fee.

Here’s another case of bad math, where 2 + 2 = 3. Mobile phones come with many features, from built-in address books to selectable ring-tones. You would think that a PDA/phone combination would have even more phone features, since there is more memory, a better CPU, and (often) a more advanced OS. Amazingly, the phone feature list on some combination units is smaller! I wrote down a list of features for any new wireless phone I may buy, divided into 2 sections: 1) Must-have features; 2) Desirable but not mandatory features. This list is just for cell phones; I need additional features in a converged device.

Necessary Features >

  1. Data-capable.
  2. Bluetooth for dial-up networking and headset (more on Bluetooth later in this article).
  3. Long-lasting, removable/replaceable Lithium-Ion or Lithium-polymer battery.
  4. Easy to read display showing: 1) Signal strength; 2) Home/Roaming; 3) Battery strength/% remaining/charging/etc.; 4) If voicemail or text message received; 5) Missed Call indicator.
  5. Can set to work in “Home” areas only so no surprise Roaming charges.
  6. Phone-book memory for at least 100 stored numbers.
  7. Voice dialing of all or frequently used numbers.
  8. One keypress to access voicemail (I don’t want to dial a number, then enter a password + other keystrokes while driving).
  9. Last-number redial by pressing the SEND key again.
  10. Speakerphone capable.
  11. Call-Forwarding, Call-Waiting and 3-Way-Calling capable (the carrier must offer these features).
  12. Easy volume adjustment for ringer, earpiece, and key press tones.
  13. Can display 10 or more last-dialed numbers, answered calls, and missed calls.
  14. Logical, easy-to-remember sequence to enter/edit phone numbers and names in the phone’s memory.
  15. Talk on each phone before purchasing to determine the clearest and best sounding! Some wireless phones sound better than a good landline phone, others sound like a $4.99 clearance special.

Desired Features >

  1. Resetable timer showing total minutes used per month. Last-call timer & total-minutes-on-phone timers are also nice.
  2. Alarm (different sound than ring) that can be set for pre-selected time (I rarely use this feature any more since I usually set alarms on my pocket computers).

If you use a device infrequently, battery life may not be an issue. If you use your cell phone and PDA frequently, this is another argument for separate devices (2 batteries = more power than one battery). Be sure any cell phone, PDA, or converged device you purchase has a removable, replaceable battery!

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About pdacomputing

Small business owner in Pittsburgh, PA. I've used different mobile platforms over the years; currently using 2 very different platforms.
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