Walt Mossberg

BlackJack Beats Out Palm 750, but iPhone May Well Top Both

When Apple rocked the cellphone world Tuesday by unveiling its radical and gorgeous new iPhone, it was bad news for Palm Inc., whose Treo smart phones will be severely challenged by the new iPhone when it goes on sale in June.

I attended the iPhone launch event, and was able to use one for a little while. That’s too brief an encounter to allow me to write a proper review. But I can say that it has the largest and most beautiful screen I’ve ever seen on a cellphone, even though it’s incredibly thin. It felt great in my hand. It has a brilliant new user interface; the handsomest email program and Web browser I’ve ever seen on a phone; a full-blown iPod music and video player built in; and even a cool new voicemail system.

The iPhone has some potential downsides — it doesn’t use a physical keyboard, instead relying on a virtual keyboard on the screen, which may put off heavy email users. It runs on the relatively slow EDGE cellular data network, though that flaw is partly offset by the fact that it can also use speedy Wi-Fi wireless networking. And, with a $499 base price, it’s expensive.

Still, the iPhone made my relatively new Treo 700p seem primitive in many respects when I compared them side by side. And the Apple product isn’t Palm’s only problem.

Palm’s position as the design leader in smart phones has been under assault for months. Major phone makers like Motorola and Nokia have introduced models that have most of the Treo’s capabilities but are thinner, sleeker and lighter — and much less expensive.

The Treo maker is starting to respond, but haltingly. It has brought out a couple of slightly smaller new models, but they’re no match in sleekness or style for competitors like the Motorola Q. They also aren’t as cheap. They do, though, have some advantages in software and functionality that, for some users, will make them preferable.

I’ve been testing the latest skinny contender, the Samsung BlackJack, along with Palm’s newest Treo, the slimmed-down Treo 750. Both of these phones — like the Apple phone — run on the Cingular Wireless network. Both also use Microsoft‘s Windows Mobile software.

The new Treo 750 is slimmed down a bit from the familiar Treo 700 and 650 models. The 750 is also a little shorter, because it does away with the protruding antenna. In addition, it’s a hair thinner and about 16% lighter.

But next to the new Samsung BlackJack, the Treo 750 looks bulky. The BlackJack is a striking, all-black model in the slim tradition of the Motorola Q. It manages to cram a full keyboard, like the Treo’s, into a body that is much sleeker and better looking. The BlackJack is 35% lighter — and 36% smaller overall — than the Treo 750. It has a physically smaller screen, but that screen has a third better resolution than the Treo’s. (Of course, both screens look tiny and grainy compared with the display on the new Apple phone.)

Also, the BlackJack claims 38% better battery life than the Treo, and it runs on a faster data network than the Treo. (Neither phone includes Wi-Fi.) And, to top it all off, the BlackJack is half the price — $199, compared with $399 for the Treo 750.

One of the Treo’s biggest advantages has been its Palm software, which I consider to be better designed for email and phone calls than the Windows Mobile software from Microsoft. But the new 750 model can’t claim that advantage because, while it has Palm hardware, it uses the Microsoft software.

The Treo does have a small software advantage over the BlackJack. It uses a fuller version of Windows Mobile that has more features than the stripped-down version used on the BlackJack and the Motorola Q. And, because it has a touch screen, the Treo is easier to navigate than the BlackJack, which must be controlled with buttons and a scroll wheel on the side.

Also, the Treo’s control pad felt better to me than the BlackJack’s, which was cramped. I kept hitting other buttons on the BlackJack while trying to scroll or select icons.

In my tests, both the Palm and the Samsung sent and received voice calls well. Both also exhibited the clumsiness that is inherent in Windows Mobile — multiple key presses were needed to do simple tasks. Both have basic cameras with resolutions of 1.3 megapixels. (The Apple iPhone’s camera will be two megapixels.)

The BlackJack runs on Cingular’s new broadband data network, called “3G” or HSDPA, while the Treo 750 uses a slower network called UMTS. Oddly, however, in my tests, the Treo was generally as fast or even faster at retrieving Web pages than the BlackJack.

Of these two phones, I prefer the BlackJack. But if you’re in the market for a smart phone and can afford $499, you might want to wait until June for the Apple iPhone. The Apple entry is so full of promise that anyone buying a smart phone in 2007 should at least wait for the full reviews and a chance to try it out.

Email me at mossberg@wsj.com.

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