THERE IS A new contender in the race to create the perfect merger of the hand-held computer and the wireless phone. Samsung, the Korean electronics giant, has introduced the I300 phone, and it’s the smallest, sleekest combo device to date. The $500 phone is designed to work on the CDMA cellular phone system popularized in the U.S. by Sprint and Verizon, and will be initially sold by Sprint.
The I300 follows on the heels of the current combo champ, the Kyocera Smartphone, which was introduced in March. Like the Kyocera, the new Samsung model is a fully working cellphone that is also a genuine Palm hand-held computer. It not only works anywhere on Sprint’s network, it does everything a Palm can do — on a big, bright color screen. In addition to handling voice calls, the I300 can send and receive e-mail and access the Internet.
But there are some key differences between the Kyocera and the new Samsung phone. The Kyocera, which Sprint sells for $400, is a phone with a Palm embedded inside. It looks like a phone, and has a traditional phone keypad that you have to flip up to reveal a monochrome Palm screen and its icons.
THE SAMSUNG, by contrast, takes the opposite design approach: It’s really the first Palm with a phone embedded in it. There isn’t any physical phone keypad. The keypad is drawn on the color screen and you touch the virtual buttons to dial a number. In essence, the phone is just another program running on the Palm, or a wireless modem with voice capacities.
As a result, I believe the Samsung will appeal mainly to data-oriented people and Palm fans who make occasional calls. The Kyocera is probably a better bet for heavy phone users who also like to carry a Palm.
I’ve been testing prototypes of the new Samsung phone for about six weeks, and in general I like it. But some of the phone functionality is harder to use than it could be.
The silver-colored I300 is attractive. It’s significantly smaller and lighter than the Kyocera unit, or a Handspring Visor with the VisorPhone add-on module. And while it’s certainly larger than the smallest conventional cellphones or Palms, it’s easy to carry and hold, with slightly curved sides. It’s much more convenient to carry and use than a separate phone and Palm.
At the bottom of the color screen are the Palm’s familiar function buttons and scroll bar. Separate buttons on the unit’s right side turn the Palm and phone on and off. A button on the left side controls certain phone functions. The left side also sports up and down arrows for one-handed scrolling through the Palm’s address book or for volume control.
On the top of the unit there’s a smaller monochrome screen that displays typical phone information, so that if you carry the unit on your belt, or use it with the Palm screen off, you can quickly check the phone’s signal quality and battery. There’s also a jack for a headset, an infrared port for beaming to other Palms and, of course, a stylus — tucked neatly into a slot on the back. The I300 synchronizes with a PC just like a standard Palm, using a cradle that also acts as the phone’s charger.
SPRINT EXPECTS TO start selling the I300 by the end of September in its phone stores. A variety of calling plans can be used with the phone.
In my tests, the I300 performed competently, making and receiving phone calls in several cities and properly handling my Palm contact and calendar data. I was able to play games and run other Palm software, and synchronization with my PC went well. I tested various Web browsers and e-mail programs successfully and was even able to use the clumsy Palm version of America Online’s Instant Messenger service. It was great to be able to look up a person in my Palm address book and dial him or her with just two taps of the stylus.
My biggest problem with I300 was quickly dialing familiar numbers while using the unit one-handed, as you do on a typical cellphone. The I300 does let you scroll through the Palm address book one-handed, but that process is tedious and slow if you have hundreds of names. You can designate up to 99 of your contacts as speed-dial entries, but inexplicably there’s no quick, one-handed way to scroll through the entries.
Instead, the I300’s designers chose to rely on voice dialing for fast, one-handed calling. You record each person’s name, then when you want to place a call you simply say it. But this system works imperfectly. It wouldn’t let me call my researcher, Danielle, by her nickname, “Dani,” and even when I used her full name it didn’t always recognize it.
Other downsides include the fact that, unlike on other Palms, the function buttons for things like the calendar and address book can’t be used when the unit is off to instantly turn it on and go to the desired function. Also, battery life seemed weaker than on standard Palms and phones, presumably because of the color screen. And the screen is nearly impossible to read in bright sunlight.
But the I300 will do just fine for many Palm fans who yearn for a single gadget that does it all.