The main difference between Compact Flash, Secure Digital, and other card formats is physical size. If you have a camera or other device that uses expansion cards, you’ll find it more convenient if all your devices use the same type of card. Secure Digital cards are the most popular due to their smaller (than Compact Flash) size. Unfortunately, some of the newest cell phones and Smartphones use one of several new mini-mini cards that aren’t compatible with anything else. Purchase an external card reader ($10 – $30) for whatever format(s) you use to back up your external media to your computer. I use Windows Explorer to copy the card contents to an external hard drive I use for backups.
You may decide on a particular OS, even a great hybrid PDA/phone, but here’s a big variable. Cell phones and PDA/phone combos available now work with one specific wireless carrier. In the US, PalmOS Treos are available for Sprint PCS, Verizon, Cingular, and T-Mobile. The phones look identical, most hardware and firmware is fundamentally the same, but Verizon’s Treo can’t work on the T-Mobile, Cingular, or Sprint networks. Carriers use different wireless technologies and different frequencies. There’s no clear winner, no good or bad wireless technology; each wireless technology has different technical advantages for you and the carrier. You may be perfectly happy with a device and carrier, but find that carrier has poor coverage in areas you frequently visit or move to. Data coverage is improving all the time, and “Who has the best data rate plan, coverage, and fastest network in a particular area” changes constantly. I’ll define “the best” data plan as a mixture of coverage area, network speed, versatility (variety of supported devices), and other usability factors. In the Pittsburgh area, Cingular and Verizon Wireless are now “the best” for data, but their $80 monthly charge for unlimited data is much higher than T-Mobile’s $20/month for unlimited data. Both data networks are much faster than T-Mobile, but T-Mobile says they’ll upgrade to a high-speed network this year or next. Will they, and what will they charge per month then? How will the Sprint-Nextel merger affect the data offerings from this carrier? Verizon plans to offer their higher-speed network nationwide within the next two years, and Cingular recently signed a contract to replace their current data network with an even better one. You tell me — who will have the best data service in Pittsburgh in six months? Next year at this time? Now insert travel into the mix — will business locations or recreation areas you visit frequently offer the same services and quality in the same time frame? Probably not. Now your perfectly good $500+ converged device must be replaced with a similar unit from another carrier. No free cell phone here — these units come with a high price tag!
The one place where converged devices may have the edge is data plan pricing. Some cellular carriers price their data plans different for different devices, and may offer a special rate for specific converged devices. Notice I say “may…” Depending on the carrier, there may be no pricing differential, or you may save money by using a converged device, either by itself or as a wireless modem, connected to a notebook or another PDA.
Do the wireless carriers make it easy to compare service and rate plans? Of course not! Here’s an example. Long distance plans for your home and business telephones are everywhere. The advertised price per minute usually sounds low, but is that what you really pay? The advertised price is probably the off-peak interstate rate. What is the weekday interstate rate? The in-state Inter-LATA rates? The Intra-LATA rates? What are the different rate periods? The monthly service fee? Is this with a carrier, rebiller, or sales agency? Do you know all the specifics of your long distance plan? If you think long distance plans are confusing, wait until you look at all the variables of two different plans (one for voice and one for data) with a PDA/phone combo! Another example is the choice between Windows, Linux, and Mac. Suppose you found that in your neighborhood Windows only worked with dial-up Internet access, Linux only worked with cable modems, and Macs with DSL? That’s where we are with all-in-one converged devices.
How many megabytes of data are you going to transfer on a monthly basis? It’s hard enough to estimate possible voice usage when purchasing your first cell phone; imagine estimating your monthly data usage. Some carriers have an Unlimited Plan, but the cost is usually $80 monthly + taxes. Verizon offers 3 data networks: connect at 14,400 Baud at no additional fee (just use your voice minutes for data), their dial-up-speed NationalAccess network (formerly called Express Network), and their new, very fast Broadband Access network (DSL speed) in 30+ cities and airports; $80/month for unlimited usage on either the NationalAccess or Broadband Access networks. I used the low speed Verizon network for years — my plan offered unlimited free voice and data usage at nights and all weekend, so I connected for free during these periods.
Speaking of Verizon data networks, some Verizon devices and cell phones can access the fastest Verizon network, while other Verizon devices and cell phones can only access the low-speed or NationalAccess network. It’s the same with other carriers. Cingular offers a GPRS data network through much of the USA, their higher speed EDGE network is available in major metro areas. Cingular, T-Mobile, and other GSM wireless devices and cell phones have a data “class” rating – the higher the class, the faster the phone or device sends and receives data. EDGE devices and cell phones are usually 2 – 3 times faster than GPRS class data devices and cell phones. T-Mobile offers GPRS data wherever they have voice service, but no EDGE (high speed) networks. The T-Mobile GPRS network and data devices are about the same speed as Cingular’s GPRS data network and devices. The speed at which Cingular and T-Mobile devices send and receive data depends on the device “class,” how far you are from a tower, how many users are currently using that tower, and other factors. For a more complete explanation of GPRS speed, right-click on this article, “What is GPRS?” [http://www.geekzone.co.nz/content.asp?contentid=207] then select, “Open in New Window.”
These acronyms aren’t meaningless jargon. GPRS = General Packet Radio Service, the GSM (Global Standard for Mobile Communications; Cingular and T-Mobile in the USA) medium-speed data network. GRPS is not related to GPS (Global Positioning System). See how confusing acronyms and abbreviations can be! EDGE (high-speed GSM data network) = Enhanced Data for GSM Evolution. Verizon’s service name for their fastest network is Broadband Access; technically known as CDMA2000 1xEVDO. EV-DO = EVolution Data Optimized. The medium-speed Verizon NationalAccess Network is technically known as 1xRTT. Sprint’s data network is also 1xRTT. I know, you’re sorry you asked.
Each wireless carrier has a different local and national “footprint.” AT&T Wireless (now Cingular) introduced a new GSM network for voice and data, but nationwide (and Pennsylvania-wide) coverage on their new network is limited (their old TDMA digital network remains in use). Nextel, T-Mobile, and Sprint offer good coverage in many metro areas, but little service out where cows outnumber people. Verizon Wireless currently has the best national coverage. Most carriers have “roaming” agreements with other carriers, but roaming airtime may cost extra. If you spend all or most time in one area, local coverage is important, but do you also spend time at another office, relative’s house, campground or other recreational area? Check the coverage maps. The latest coverage maps are usually available online, so every few months I save local and regional coverage maps to my handheld computers as .jpg files for convenient reference.
I’ve had 8 cell phones from 5 different wireless carriers in 7+ years. The coverage area and service quality varies from carrier to carrier; they also vary by carrier over time. The usual cycle is something like this: a carrier starts off with limited coverage areas and high rates. They build up their network, offer more features and better pricing, but eliminate some of the reasons you chose that wireless carrier in the first place. Their tech support and customer service are clueless at the beginning, get better over time, then go downhill as their success and volume of customers grows. Same thing with their wireless network. It gets better, then worse, as they add more and more customers. They claim to offer complete coverage in major areas such as Pittsburgh, but I continually lose calls on the Parkway West.
Tech Support is very important when choosing a wireless data service. Most people you’ll talk with at all the carriers know wireless data exists, have no knowledge of the details, and can’t begin to offer advice or troubleshoot. My experience is that tech support at the carriers is like other tech support – uneven. One person knows nothing or gives very bad advice; the next one is friendly and solves your problem in minutes. As this is a rapidly shifting scenario, I suggest you talk with other wireless data users in your company or computer user group, visit web forums (http://www.howardforums.com/ is a good place to start), and take advantage of the carriers’ return policy if they don’t get you up and running within a few days of purchasing any new wireless device.
Most cell phones and PDA/phone combos can be used as an external modem to connect a PDA, notebook, or other computer online, some can’t. Check the documentation for the particular unit you are interested in. Ask a salesperson? You may get the wrong answer. Salespeople, whether at a wireless carrier or computer store, receive minimal training, and barely a mention about wireless data and technical issues. Equipment and technologies change, and the emphasis is on sales, not studying the fine points of exotic devices. Most customers are interested in features such as an embedded camera or playing music; very few customers are currently interested in wireless data, streaming audio and video, etc. Study web sites, magazines, and online forums where actual users discuss their experiences, problems and solutions. After you’ve done some research, you’ll likely know more than the salesperson you’re talking with.
If you consistently need features found only in a notebook or separate high-end PDA, your cell phone needs are simpler. You don’t want to read documents, check e-mail, or perform other tasks on your phone; you just want to use the phone as a wireless modem.
I don’t carry a notebook computer with me very often. I can do most tasks on a 5 oz. instant-on device that fits in my shirt pocket. I could be talking about either of my PalmOS handhelds, or my Dell Axim that uses Microsoft’s Windows Mobile OS. My handhelds can do things your notebook can’t do. Do you carry your notebook everywhere, 24 hours a day? I carry a handheld with me at all times, and can make a note or refer to something at any time. My grocery list is a free program (HandyShopper) on my handhelds. Do you carry your notebook into the grocery store, referring to it as you shop? Would you want to read documents or write them on a small cellphone-size screen? HandyShopper and similar programs don’t currently run on ordinary cell phones or Microsoft Smartphones; only the palmOne Treo can currently run this type of program (HandyShopper and similar programs are available for both Windows Mobile and PalmOS PDAs). If your notebook is off, will it wake up and sound an alarm at the proper time? My PDAs all do. It’s easy to set multiple alarms on PDAs, but impossible on most cell phones unless they use the Symbian, Palm or Windows Mobile OS.
To summarize, which device is the perfect match of cell phone and handheld computer? The Treo 600 with a small, low-resolution screen, non-replaceable battery, no Bluetooth, and varying build quality? We looked at its successor, the Treo 650, early in this article. The Treo 650 has additional problems such as memory issues and crippled Bluetooth; it’s a “make-do” device, not a winner. Microsoft Smartphones have no built-in programs to view or edit MS Office documents, and small screens that are not touchscreens – all input is with the telephone keypad. Microsoft Phone Edition devices look the same as Pocket PCs, but also have a cell phone and extra software inside. They have a larger screen, but you must hold this larger device to your face or use a headset. Symbian OS devices are popular in Europe, but rare in the US. There are many other issues that I detailed in this article. Instead of making-do with a crippled device that lacks features, you can find many Windows Mobile or PalmOS PDAs without the limitations and technical issues. Larger screens, more memory, more included programs, and other features that equal a better user experience. Add in a good cell phone and you’re set. Buy a new cell phone or PDA when you find a better device with the feature set you need. You’ll be glad you decided on “Best Of” for each device, instead of a not-so-great cell phone wired into half of a PDA.
I’ve explained why all-in-one devices have more drawbacks than advantages. Connecting your cell phone to a PDA or notebook via cable has its own drawbacks. First, finding a cable that works with both your particular PDA and cell phone’s connector may be very difficult; in many cases the cable doesn’t exist. Second, you need multiple cables for multiple devices, as they all have different connectors. Third, change or add a cell phone or PDA and you need a new cable. So what is the perfect, or at least the best, solution?
The answer to the “perfect device” may lie with Bluetooth and similar wireless cable-replacement technologies. Bluetooth uses tiny low-power transceiver chips that enable computers, printers, cell phones, headsets, speakers, and other electronic devices to talk to each other within 20 – 30 feet. A Bluetooth-equipped cell phone and PDA can communicate with each other wirelessly and work as one. The cell phone can be in your briefcase or purse; the PDA, notebook, or other computer accesses the Internet as though a cable connects the two units. You can buy the best PDA and the best cell phone, not a bad compromise. Buy a Bluetooth “dongle” for $25 and your notebook or desktop computer can also “talk” to your cell phone, PDA, and other Bluetooth-equipped devices. The units are “smart,” so they don’t try to print to a headset, for instance. Bluetooth has been in development for years, so it’s not science fiction or untested technology. You can update your cell phone, PDA, and other computers separately, as needed. As Bluetooth gains popularity, it’s showing up in many devices. More than five million devices a week now ship with Bluetooth, worldwide. The component cost is only about $5 extra, but you’ll pay extra $$$ to pay for development costs. Bluetooth is not the same as 802.11b/g or other Wi-Fi. Bluetooth draws much less current than Wi-Fi, and at present is a better solution for most of us than a one piece, one-size-doesn’t-fit-all PDA/phone combo.
That brings us to a bit of techie stuff you shouldn’t need to know. Bluetooth drivers are known as “Profiles.” For instance, both the PDA and cell phone must have the Dialup Networking Profile to wirelessly connect the PDA to the Internet through the cell phone. If your PDA lacks the Headset Profile, you won’t be able to play audio files on your PDA and listen through a Bluetooth headset. There’s a Headset Profile, Speaker Profile, OBEX Profile (exchange files between devices) … more than 40 Profiles in all. You’d think each device would contain all necessary Profiles. Some, such as the Headset Profile, are missing from certain devices for no known reason. Then there’s the intentional crippling of Bluetooth by the cellular carriers. Sprint and Cingular removed the Bluetooth Dial-up Networking Profile on the new Treo 650, so you can’t use the Sprint or Cingular Treo 650 as a Bluetooth modem for your PDA, laptop, or other computer. Verizon Wireless crippled their only Bluetooth phone, the Motorola V710, by removing the OBEX Profile. You can’t take a picture or video, then transfer it to a PDA or computer using Bluetooth, as you would with many Bluetooth-equipped cell phones. You must send the picture or video over-the-air, incurring a charge. A friend can’t send a ringtone, game, or other file to your VZW Motorola V710 phone via Bluetooth; everyone must pay and download the files from VZW. Basic mobile phones should support Headset, Hands-Free, Device ID, Object Exchange, Service Discovery, File Transfer, Dial-up Networking, and Serial Port; many phones lack one or more of these Profiles. A higher-end device like a Smartphone should support advanced and generic audio distribution, audio/video remote control, SIM access, Human Interface Device, cordless telephony, PAN (Personal Area Network), and Printing. As I said, you shouldn’t need to know this, but you must check the Profiles of every Bluetooth device you buy to ensure that they all work together as intended.
Second bit of techie stuff – Bluetooth is evolving, and improving. Don’t purchase a cell phone or other device that uses Bluetooth v1.0; v1.1 and v1.2 are improved and v2.0 is much better. A small sticker on each device should indicate the Bluetooth version used. If not, the device’s firmware may indicate the version. Several notebooks are currently the only devices using the newest Bluetooth, v2.0. Faster throughput and lower power consumption are just two of the reasons you’ll want devices with Bluetooth version 2.0.
Unless you keep extra batteries handy, there comes a time when you must recharge the cell phone battery. The connector where you plug in the power cord is usually at or near where you plug in a data cable, so you can’t use the phone for data while it’s plugged into a power source. Even if you have an extra battery, you must end your data session, change the battery, then sign on again. Bluetooth eliminates this limitation — use the phone as a modem while it’s plugged in to a power source.
As a side note, Bluetooth may increase your health and life! A number of studies indicate that holding a microwave transmitter (cell phone) to your head is not a good idea. Headaches, personality problems, tumors … lots of documented problems here and in Europe. Holding a microwave transmitter near your head for a minute or two is bad enough; many of us talk on our cell phones for ½ hour, one hour, or more every day. Bluetooth uses a different type of radio wave, and a much lower power than cell phone handsets. Bluetooth’s 1 mW maximum (for Bluetooth Class 3 devices such as headsets) barely reaches 20 feet; a cell phone’s .6 watt can travel miles to the nearest cell tower. The lower the emitted RF power against your brain, the better! Each cell phone Owner’s Manual (many are available online in .pdf format) lists the Specific Absorption Rate (RF Emissions) for each phone, or see the links to online charts earlier in this article. 1.60 W/kg is the maximum allowed by Federal law; the lower the number the better. Newer Bluetooth headsets, using Bluetooth v1.2, connect to the cell phone almost instantly, sound great, and are much healthier than holding a cell phone to your head.
You’ll hear about Trojans and viruses transmitted via Bluetooth. Fact is, you must manually accept a transmission from a nearby Bluetooth-equipped device to actually receive a Bluetooth message or other transmission. Unlike computer viruses that can be transmitted from anywhere on the planet, anyone sending something via Bluetooth must be within a few feet (the range of Bluetooth devices). You must choose to accept the message or program, then install the program or open an attachment you’ve received for it to do harm. The program may be disguised as a security update or free game. You’ll see system warnings asking if you really want to install this program from an unknown source, and of course the correct answer is NO. If you receive a Bluetooth message with a suspicious or unknown attachment, just delete it. Bluetooth accessories such as headphones and printers can’t open attachments, so these devices can’t be affected. Data passed through a cell phone via Bluetooth to another device can’t harm or infect the cell phone.
Unless you really like carrying and connecting a bunch of wires, then getting tangled in them, Bluetooth should be a MUST in all your future purchases.
If you’re stuck with trying to connect a cell phone, PDA, or other device that isn’t equipped with Bluetooth, the best solution is to replace the device with a similar Bluetooth-equipped device. You’ll find it worth the investment. If that isn’t possible, here are two companies that sell cables to connect different devices. I’ve satisfactorily used cables from both companies. Browse their web sites to see if your devices are supported. Bluetooth’s growing popularity means companies are less likely to manufacture cables for many newer devices. SupplyNet [http://www.thesupplynet.com/] sells PDA and GPS data cables for many devices. Gomadic [http://www.gomadic.com/] has a slightly more complicated concept that ends up being more flexible. Gomadic cables consist of 3 components: 2 cables and a small cube to connect the 2 cables. You select the 2 cables to match your devices. If you later add a device, you only need to purchase an additional cable ($10, instead of $40 – $70 for a whole new cable). When you replace a cell phone or PDA, you can trade in the cable for your old device for a new cable to fit your new device (no cost for the cable; you only pay shipping charges).
I won’t say that combination PDA/phones are a completely bad idea. They’re getting better, and may some day be my handheld of choice. The Audiovox SMT5600 from Cingular (actually made by the same company that produces most Compaq iPAQ PDAs) performs well by itself, and Bluetooth allows it to also be used as a modem for your PDA or notebook. In the UK, wireless carrier Orange gives this phone free with a contract (it’s currently $200 in the USA, even more in Canada). Free is a powerful incentive to move to a more powerful device! This phone and other new combination units look and work well; just choose carefully so it’s right for you.
Information in this article was correct and accurate at the time of publication, but won’t take long to become outdated. Check for the latest cellular coverage, rates & data plans, data plan specifications, device and Bluetooth information. (Revised June 2005)