Another review comparing Samsung SPH-i500 and Treo 600.

Blend of phone and PDA is finally getting it right

Full story:

By Jon Fortt
Knight Ridder Newspapers

At last, I've found the phone that could get me to leave my PDA.

At $600, the Palm-based Samsung SPH-i500 costs a boatload of money, but I've seen offers from Sprint PCS that drop the price by $100 or more. The i500 arrived on the PDA/phone scene several weeks ahead of the Handspring Treo 600, to much less fanfare.

But on the crucial "how does it feel in my hand" test - the i500 beats out the new Treo, for my money.

The dual-band, tri-mode i500 has a bright color screen, and uses a numeric keypad instead of the tiny keyboard that a lot of e-mail-centric phones have nowadays. Calls came through clearly. The antenna provided slightly better signal strength than older Sprint phones I've used.

There are a few features that give it a special touch, including a "voice dial" button on the outside of the phone, and a "voice memo" program built into the phone. The voice-memo feature records the other person's voice if you're on the phone and your voice if you're not.

The i500 runs version 4.1 of the Palm operating system, has a 66-megahertz Dragonball processor, 16 megabytes of memory for storage, syncs to a PC, and does 90 percent of the things I like to do with my traditional Palm-based PDA.

As it happens, 90 percent has been good enough for me to start leaving my Palm at home. Evidently some other people like it, too. The i500 has been on sale since late spring, and local Sprint PCS sales guys tell me they can't keep them in stock.

For about three years, phone makers and PDA makers have been trying to blend the two into one device, and the result has been a parade of Frankenstein's monsters. Over the past year though, the results have gotten markedly better — Handspring's Treo inspired quite a few techie devotees, and Kyocera's smart phone proved that a Palm-based flip phone didn't have to be clumsy and bulky.

With its built-in QWERTY keyboard, the Treo is aimed at the road warrior intent on both receiving and composing e-mail on the road. The Treo not only has a more recent version of the Palm operating system than the i500 OS 5, while the i500 has OS 4 the Treo also has a camera for taking quick, low-quality shots. The smaller i500 is more for someone like me, who wants to keep up with messages and schedule appointments, but who carries a phone for talking, mostly.

Now that I've praised the i500, let me rattle off a few of the problems I had with it:

- The standard battery drains pretty fast. Samsung claims two hours of talk time. Fortunately an extended battery is available.

- The Graffiti input area, pretty standard on Palm devices, is so small that I found myself avoiding it entirely.

- Making a phone call from within the Palm address book is more difficult than it should be. If a contact's primary number is at her desk but you want to call her cell, you have to tap the screen for the second number. Tapping the small screen on the i500 is a pain.

- The keys have a great feel for typing, but their shape makes it difficult to press the correct button without looking.

- EZiText, a quick text-input system, is convenient but limited.

- The i500 wouldn't sync to my home Macintosh, only my work PC. The Treo 600 has Mac support.

- As with many phones, the headphone socket is protected by a little rubber piece that won't sit quite right in the hole. I was tempted to rip it off.