For Americans who want a smart cellphone with a built-in keyboard for typing email, the best choice by far has been PalmOne’s Treo 650, sold by most major U.S. wireless carriers.
The standard BlackBerry hand-helds from Research In Motion make clunky phones, and the slimmer BlackBerry 7100, while an acceptable phone, lacks a full keyboard. The models using Microsoft’s hand-held software have either lacked keyboards altogether or been too large to make comfortable phones. In contrast, the Treo is both roomy enough to be a good hand-held email device and compact enough to be a good phone.
Starting today, Verizon Wireless will introduce in the U.S. the first Microsoft-based smart phone with a built-in keyboard that is about the same shape, size and weight as the Treo. This new phone, the $599 Samsung i730, has one major capability the $399 Treo lacks — the ability to surf the Web and to send and receive email at broadband speeds.
The new Samsung can operate at speeds roughly comparable to home digital subscriber line, or DSL, connections through Verizon’s wireless Broadband Access network, which works on a wireless technology called EVDO. Or it can use speedy Wi-Fi wireless networking at places like coffee shops and airports.
I don’t expect to see an EVDO-capable Treo until very late this year or early in 2006. And the Treo lacks Wi-Fi capability. So the Samsung is the fastest email and Web device with a built-in keyboard that is small enough to be used comfortably as a phone. It will be available starting today for corporate customers and will be in Verizon stores in a couple of weeks.
I have been testing the new i730 and comparing it to the Treo 650 from Sprint that I carry as my own phone. The Samsung worked as promised for making voice calls, accessing Web sites, and sending and receiving emails. It also played music and videos and displayed photos, though unlike my Sprint Treo, the configuration Verizon sells lacks a camera.
In my tests, I was able to get on the Web with the i730 at speeds ranging from 220 kilobits a second to 534 kilobits a second, which is between three and eight times as fast as the Treo’s average speed of 70 kilobits a second. And that was on the Verizon EVDO network, which is available in most major U.S. cities. Using the phone’s Wi-Fi capability, in my home and at a hotel, I was able to push the speed to nearly 700 kbps.
There were some things about the i730 that drove me nuts compared with the Treo. It has much worse battery life. The Microsoft Pocket PC software it uses is much harder to navigate one-handed, as phones should be used, than the Palm software on the Treo. Even when doing simple tasks, i730 users will have to employ the stylus, and two hands, far more often than Treo users do.
Unlike the Treo, whose keyboard is always visible beneath a square screen, the i730’s keyboard is hidden beneath its rectangular screen and slides out for use. The keys are a little more widely spaced than the Treo’s, though they are flatter and less pronounced. I found typing on the i730 to be about as fast as on the Treo.
The new Samsung isn’t quite as small as the Treo, but it is close. With its keyboard tucked out of sight for making phone calls, it is slightly narrower than the Treo but slightly thicker and longer. It also weighs a bit more. However, when the Samsung’s keyboard is slid out for writing email, it becomes far longer. To dial a call without the keyboard extended, you have to use a virtual number pad on the screen.
The i730’s screen is larger, but it offers less resolution than the Treo’s. Both phones use a five-way navigation pad, four buttons for calling up various functions, and traditional red and green buttons for starting and ending phone calls.
The Samsung has 64 megabytes of memory, double the Treo’s internal capacity, though this is offset by the fact that its Microsoft software needs more memory than does the Treo’s Palm software. Both phones accept standard SD memory cards. I was able to pop the memory card from my Treo into the Samsung, and it played or displayed the music and photos I had stored there. Unlike the Treo, the Samsung has stereo speakers.
Like the Treo, the Samsung offers Bluetooth wireless networking, a short-range technology for use with some cars and wireless headphones and for synchronizing data with PCs.
In addition to its increased need for the stylus and two hands, the i730 has some other drawbacks. In my tests, its standard battery died in far less than a full day and far faster than my Treo’s battery, which typically lasts me for a whole day of moderate phone-call use and heavy email use.
You can’t use the Samsung’s Wi-Fi and cellphone capabilities at the same time, and it can’t hand off your Internet connection from one wireless technology to the other. And, unlike my Sprint Treo, the Verizon i730 can’t be used as a modem for a laptop. These limitations probably stem more from business decisions by Verizon than from technological limitations.
Finally, the i730 is $200 more than the Treo 650. But if you prefer Microsoft’s software to Palm’s or crave having wireless broadband in a phone, the Samsung i730 is a good choice.
Write to Walter S. Mossberg at email@example.com