Walt Mossberg

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Word in The Hand

As smart phones and personal digital assistants become more like little computers, they have begun to compete with laptops as portable digital workstations. For short or light-duty business trips, you can now leave the laptop at home and rely instead on a smart phone with a keyboard, such as a BlackBerry phone from Research in Motion, a Treo from Palm or a keyboard-equipped iPAQ from Hewlett-Packard. These devices can place and receive phone calls, send and receive e-mail, surf the Web in a basic fashion, and maintain your calendar and contacts list, synchronized with your computer. They can even play music and videos, display your photos, and just like your laptop, they’ll let you play solitaire.

But what about the other major function of a laptop-viewing and editing Microsoft Office documents? Well, it turns out you can do that, too, on these devices, at least to a point. Currently, you can read Word, Excel and PowerPoint files, as well as Adobe PDF files, on certain handhelds; you can even edit them and synchronize the changes back to a PC.

Here’s a look at how that’s possible, on the three most popular types of smart phones and PDAs in the U.S.: those powered by the Palm operating system, those powered by the Windows Mobile operating system (formerly known as Pocket PC), and the BlackBerry, which uses both hardware and software from RIM.

First, make sure your device has lots of storage capacity, either in internal memory or on a removable memory card, if your device can accept them. (The Treo, the iPAQ and most other devices running Windows Mobile software can; BlackBerry models cannot.) You will need that room to store your Office documents.

Second, I strongly advise those wanting to edit documents to buy a phone or PDA with a full keyboard, rather than one that relies solely on handwriting recognition or a phone keypad. The software for viewing and editing documents does work on devices without a keyboard, but unless you just want to read documents, the process is painful on these models.

You might think that the devices running Windows Mobile software would do the best job of handling Microsoft Office documents because both systems are made by Microsoft. Or you might imagine the BlackBerry was tops at this task because it is bought mostly by corporate computer departments, where Microsoft Office is the application software of choice. But in fact, the best devices for viewing and editing Office documents are those using the Palm operating system, such as the Palm Treo 650. That’s because of a helpful third-party program, Documents to Go, from DataViz, which is packaged with many Palm devices, including the Treo.

Next best are the Microsoft-powered phones and hand-helds, which come with built-in mobile versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Bringing up the rear is the BlackBerry, which can display Word, Excel and PowerPoint files when sent as e-mail attachments, but doesn’t let you edit or synchronize them with a PC.

Palm OS devices. The best smart phone on the market is the Treo 650, produced by Palm and powered by the Palm operating system, which is made by a separate company called PalmSource. While the Palm software lacks the built-in capability to read or edit Office documents, the Treo comes bundled with Documents to Go, which can import and open Microsoft files in their native formats without downsizing them to some special “pocket” version. It also allows you to edit, or even create, these types of documents and synchronize your changes with versions on your PC.

You can get the documents into your Treo or other Palm device either by receiving them as e-mail attachments or via synchronization with your PC. Documents to Go includes a computer program that performs this document synchronization; I use it often on my Treo 650. It displays documents in their actual fonts, including colors and attributes like underlining, bold and italics. Indents and spacing are also preserved. The Treo 650 doesn’t support different font sizes, and it doesn’t include a spell checker. Documents can be opened from, or stored to, either the device’s internal memory or a memory card. You can also zoom the screen to show more or less of the document, especially important with spreadsheets, which often sprawl across the page and can be hard to read when resized to fit entirely on the small screen. PowerPoint files can be edited and synchronized only if you are using a Windows PC, though they can be viewed if you are using a Macintosh.

In my tests over the years, Documents to Go performed flawlessly, better than the built-in mobile Office programs on Windows-powered handhelds. In addition to being bundled with the Treo and some other Palm devices, Documents to Go is available for independent purchase, in several versions, for $30 to $90, depending on features. There are also versions for smart phones that use the Symbian operating system, including models from Nokia and Sony Ericsson. You can find information and purchase Documents to Go at www.dataviz.com [http://www.dataviz.com].

Windows Mobile devices. There are two kinds of devices powered by Microsoft’s Windows Mobile software. Some are confusingly named “smart phones,” though they generally lack keyboards and some key software capabilities, including the ability to edit Office documents. Others are full-featured handhelds, including some with keyboards, such as several of HP’s iPAQ models, the new Samsung i730 phone and the very latest and greatest Windows Mobile device, the Treo 700w.

The new Treo is the first device built by Palm to eschew the Palm operating system for Windows software. While it’s mainly aimed at the corporate market and, in my view, isn’t as good as the Treo 650, the 700w is probably the best Windows Mobile device. On the new Treo and others, you can read, edit and create Word and Excel files, and synchronize them with your PC. You can view PowerPoint files, but not edit or create them.

As with the Treo 650, you can get these documents into your device either by receiving them as email attachments or by copying them from a PC.

While the mobile Office programs on the Windows devices work okay, they aren’t quite as good as Documents to Go, in my experience. For instance, in a recent test I opened a simple Word document on two Treosa 650 running the Palm OS and Documents to Go, and a 700w running Windows Mobile and its built-in Office Mobile programs. Documents to Go opened the program perfectly in its Times New Roman font and sized it so the words were distinct, and the formatting was preserved. The Word Mobile program in Windows Mobile displayed the document in a different font and in a size that screwed up the formatting. And while Documents to Go allows you to create and edit PowerPoint files, Windows Mobile doesn’t.

BlackBerry. The BlackBerry can view Office documents when received as e-mail attachments, but the function is pretty primitive. You can’t directly import documents or synchronize them with a computer. And you can’t create or edit them, even though you have a full keyboard at your disposal.

There is a third-party program for the BlackBerry that claims to allow editing, creating and synchronizing of Word and Excel documents, but not PowerPoint files. It’s called eOffice, made by a company called DynoPlex, and it’s available in versions ranging from $120 to $200 at www.dynoplex.com [http://www.dynoplex.com].

I wouldn’t want to write a long report on a Treo. But in a pinch, I could have written this column on one. And editing a document like this is a breeze. So you really can leave that laptop at home, at least some of the time.


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