Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

Two Challengers Enter The Smartphone Wars

When it comes to smartphones that have a full keyboard and good email capability, Palm’s fast-selling Treo is the best. New devices are constantly being announced in hopes of becoming the “Treo killer.” Most of these challengers use Microsoft’s Windows Mobile software, formerly called Pocket PC, which was designed to evoke the Windows computer experience on a hand-held device.

None of these Microsoft-based devices has gained much traction, however. The most notable entry so far has been a hybrid gadget — a Treo that uses the Windows Mobile software, the 700w. But this model is mostly aimed at the computing staffs of big companies, who rigidly favor Microsoft products. For individual users, Palm still offers the Treo 650, which uses the Palm operating system and will soon be replaced by a newer Palm-based model capable of running on faster networks.

This week, we tested two of the latest Microsoft-based, would-be Treo killers: T-Mobile USA’s $400 MDA and Sprint Nextel Corp.’s $600 PPC-6700. (Both cost less when purchased with service plans.)

These new email phones have some very nice hardware features. But they suffer when compared with the Treo because of their Windows Mobile software, which often requires more clicks and greater menu navigation to get simple things done than the Palm-based Treo does.

Sprint
Sprint PPC-6700 by Sprint Nextel Corp. $599.99. www.sprint.com.

The two devices are nearly identical. In fact, they’re really the same core device made by the same Asian manufacturer, HTC Corp. Sure, there are various small physical differences between the two, such as their different styluses and navigation buttons. But they both offer the same two striking features: a generous 2.8-inch color LCD screen that can switch automatically from portrait to landscape view; and a full QWERTY keyboard that slides out from behind this screen. Like the Treo, each offers Bluetooth short-range wireless networking. Unlike the Treo, they also offer Wi-Fi wireless networking.

The biggest difference is in their speeds over cellphone networks, and it’s a major distinction. Like the Windows-based Treo, and the forthcoming new Palm-based Treo, Sprint’s PPC-6700 works on an EV-DO network, a high-speed wireless broadband connection comparable with that of a home DSL line. T-Mobile’s MDA offers only EDGE, a drastically slower alternative that constantly reminded us that we were using a pokey mobile device, rather than a home computer.

The two devices have physically bigger screens than the Treos. But while their resolution — how much material they can display — is better than that of the Treo 700w, it’s actually less than on the Treo 650. The new contenders have much larger, roomier keyboards than the Treo does.

We tested most of the features in both devices without much trouble, synchronizing digital photos, Word documents, Internet Explorer Favorites and music files from a Dell desktop computer to each. Both have built-in 1.3-megapixel digital cameras, like that found on the Treo 700w, and the photos that we snapped around the office turned out surprisingly well. We sent them off in emails with a few simple steps.

We used each smartphone to place calls, and immediately noticed another deficiency compared with the Treo. Because the keyboards on these new models are typically hidden when the phones are held vertically, you are forced to tap soft keys on the screen to dial a phone number. With the Treo, the keyboard, which includes number keys for dialing, is always available.

The Sprint felt bulkier and more rectangular when held up to our ears compared with the T-Mobile MDA, which has more rounded-off edges. Their specs say that these two share roughly the same dimensions (about 4″ by 2″ by 1″), but the MDA’s tapered edges give it a better feel in your hand. The T-Mobile is also lighter than the Sprint, 5.29 compared with 6.1 ounces, respectively.

t-mobile
T-Mobile MDA by T-Mobile USA. $399.99. www.t-mobile.com

After sliding the full keyboard out, the screen view on each of the smartphones automatically switched to horizontal view for use with the keyboard. We preferred this view for Web browsing, as it offered a wider screenshot for each Web page and made it easy to type in new Web site addresses, using the keyboard.

We also tested email, which worked OK, though it was very slow on the T-Mobile device and we found the email software to be limited and clumsy compared with the Treo’s.

But it was difficult to use Windows Mobile on either device as we walked around or stood in a crowded subway. Many commands seemed to take multiple steps, and many of them required the use of the stylus, which was a pain to get out so often. By contrast, the Palm-based Treo has been engineered for minimum steps and one-handed use, with the stylus rarely required.

For instance, you can delete an email on the Palm-based Treo with just one keystroke. But, in Windows Mobile, you have to open a menu, and hit “Delete” — two keystrokes. Those extra motions really add up if you’re clearing out a lot of messages. And there are similar extra steps all over the interface.

T-Mobile’s MDA has two handy one-touch buttons at the top of its screen: one for mail and another for Internet Explorer. The Sprint didn’t have a direct access button for mail, and its Internet Explorer one-touch button was poorly positioned on the side, where we accidentally turned it on a few times — especially while sliding the keyboard back in.

Using the T-Mobile’s EDGE Internet access, it took our device a full 50 seconds to pull up the Journal’s home page, WSJ.com. The same page came up in its entirety using the Sprint PPC-6700′s EV-DO connection in only 25 seconds.

If you’re wowed by the larger screen, or need the roominess of the slide-out keyboard, these devices might appeal to you. But the T-Mobile MDA is slow; and the Sprint PPC-6700, while quite fast, is hampered by a bulky design and oddly placed navigational buttons. Both suffer from the extra steps, and frequent stylus use, dictated by their Windows software. On balance, neither of these devices offers the form and functionality of the Treo 650.


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