The Qualcomm pdQ: Kill two birds with one phone
December 3, 1999
By Rawn Shah
(CNN) -- When Qualcomm first mentioned that they were partnering with 3Com's Palm Computing division to build a cell phone combined with a Palm Pilot, the possibilities were exciting. Talk about James Bond-like gadgetry in palm of your hand. This device lets you make calls, keep records, send email, browse the web and run over a thousand different applications, all while on the go. Although a cell phone, it is one of the first truly portable, mobile and multipurpose Internet devices.
Qualcomm pdQ 1900 comes in between $699 and $799 which includes the handset, a HotSync cradle and recharger, and applications for Web browsing and Email. It features a lithium ion battery that advertises 50 hours of standby time and about 2.5 hours of talk time.
The unit itself is fairly large for a cell phone. At 6.2 inches tall, 2.6 inches wide and 1.4 inches thick, it is too large to fit into a shirt pocket comfortably. It can slip into the pants pocket of a pair of khakis, although a belt holster would be more appropriate. Weight-wise, it comes in at around 9.8 ounces, but isn't uncomfortable to hold for long periods of time while talking. But, of course, it can be lighter and less bulky than carrying both a separate cell phone and a PDA.
The keypad is normally closed with the top portion of the screen visible, showing information such as the call status and telephone number. The keypad flips open to give a full access to the Palm. The screen is slightly narrower than that of the Palm IIIe at 160 x 240 pixels, but not by very much. Still, the difference is enough to cause slight problems with applications that expect the full width of the standard Palm units.
There are a number of extra buttons on the keypad, several on the base of the Palm unit, and more directly on the Palm screen. All have different uses, and except for the buttons on the keypad and the volume controls on the side of the unit, they are all user configurable. The unit has a stylus that slips into a hole in the top left side. There is also a button to turn on backlighting and a port at the top into which you can plug a headset for hands-free calling.
If you have never used a Palmpilot before, it takes a little getting used to writing on the device. The Palm has a small area at the base of the screen for scrawling on, and you have to use a specialized character writing system as shown in the manual. You can also pop up the keyboard layout on the screen and hunt and peck for the letters, numbers and symbols, and you may be surprised how quickly you adapt.
The Palm system within the pdQ is the equivalent of the Palm IIIe with 2MB of memory. For comparison, the Palm V uses a faster processor and more memory while the Palm VII is similar to the IIIe with the addition of a wireless connection to Palm.Net. However, the Palm.Net service is not full access to the Web, only to those providers who offer their custom Web sites through this service. You cannot go to any Web site you prefer; only those offered through Palm.Net.
This has both good and bad sides. Through a customized service, you can provide better, well designed interfaces intended for the small screens of handheld devices. However, this does mean the added cost of supporting such a site. For the consumer, having access to any Web site is a benefit, but at the same time, they have to deal with a text-only interface with devices like the pdQ. Since the pdQ's Web browser cannot display standard Web images, animation or frames, you are forced to try and make sense of pages designed for 15 - 17 inch color monitors. It can be hard to make sense of the text-only version of the site, but some may not want to give up the ability to go to any Web site.
For example, immediately after watching the latest James Bond movie, a friend had to bring up the all important question on just how much older Pierce Brosnan (James Bond), is from one of the leading ladies, Denise Richards (Christmas Jones). We ended the discussion in a matter of minutes by seeking out this piece of movie trivia at the Internet Movie Database using the pdQ. (The correct answer is 19 years.)
The pdQ itself is not tied to any particular wireless Internet service, although at this time the only service provider that supports it is Sprint's Wireless Web Connection. With Sprint you have to pay for usage of data services separately from the talk time. Thus Wireless Web Connection service is charged at $9.99 for the first 50 data minutes with 39 cents per additional minute beyond that. This is separate from the talk time charges, starting at $29.99 for 120 minutes, and 35 cents per additional minute. A basic combined plan of 300 minutes of voice or data time is available at $59.99 per month. As with most Sprint wireless services, there are no additional charges for long-distance calls in the US. You should check with Sprint PCS services in your area for your full options on pricing, and promotions.
The data transmission rate of the pdQ is in step with most other wireless phone services at around 14.4 Kbps. These days this is slower than what most Internet users are comfortable with. The pdQ 1900 version tested only supports CDMA PCS digital wireless phone services. A second model, the pdQ 800 will support dual-mode operation in PCS digital wireless, as well as analog wireless services, such as that with AirTouch. This dual-mode version will be available as soon as one of the analog wireless services start offering Internet access to pdQ users.
The unit comes with a number of software applications: an address book, a calculator, a data book, an expense report application, a To Do list, a memo pad, Palm Mail, pdQalert, pdQbrowser, and pdQmail. In addition there are other integrated applications for use with the phone systems such as a modem emulator for an attached PC, a Call History list, a Dialer, and a Speed Dial list. Basic Palm applications like the HotSync manager and the Security manager are available as well.
The pdQBrowser comes in very handy for personal and business use. As mentioned, it can access any Web site on the Internet and display the text on the site. It does not include a Usenet news reader, but is integrated with pdQmail to send messages.
The pdQmail tool uses the Post Office Protocol (POP) to download and upload email from any Internet server. You can thus download and check your e-mail from anywhere in the Sprint service area. Since e-mail messages can be at times huge, pdQmail also offers abilities to limit how many characters of each message to download, as well as filtering out e-mail from unknown addresses. This can save on your Wireless Web data time costs.
It's a shame that Qualcomm failed to include an IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) mail reader program instead of POP. IMAP offers a much greater level of control for remote access of email, such as downloading the headers of the messages only, or synchronizing your email with the server. The good news is that there is freeware IMAP capable email reader available on the Net, known as MultiMail. A more powerful commercial version of this called MultiMail Pro, is available for $39.95. You do need to check with your Internet Service Provider to see if they offer mail access using IMAP.
The pdQ is wonderful if you need the power and versatility of the two systems in one. You can expect to see many of these units floating around Silicon Valley in a fairly short time. It is the power toy to have for the season. Even Palm users should be excited. Once you use the pdQ, you will not want to go back to using a standalone Palm unit. This is what the Palm VII should have been from the start.
Qualcomm has elegantly integrated the functions of the phone with the Palm system. You can search for a name in your address book, and then click on it to call the person. Similarly, caller ID shows not just who is calling but other information about the person as well. The pdQbrowser uses a registry showing how to associate URL types (e.g., http:, telnet:, mailto:, etc.) with other applications, making it simple to add other applications to the power of the browser.
As an Internet-capable cell phone, the pdQ is head and shoulders above others like the Nokia 9000i or Neopoint products. With its large screen, text and applications are actually readable instead of many lines of text of a few short words. The use of a scrawl pad and virtual keyboard is more helpful, than a small physical keyboard with tiny hard to press keys.
By incorporating the Palm system into their cell phone, Qualcomm has taken advantage of the leading handheld operating system with over a thousand different applications available for it. This software expandability of the pdQ proves the versatility of the device as a tool for business users. Not only can they run applications in their hand, but also upload and download this information in an instant with their home systems from any location.
The pdQ crashed once in the first week of having it, while it was sitting idle. But you can perform a soft reset on the device using a pin to push into a hole in the back. In spite of the crash, all the data was still safe on the device.
One downside of the Palm inside the pdQ is that you cannot upgrade its 2MB of memory. Although the system can store several thousand records in the date book, it would be nice to be able to expand the unit for some more powerful applications, as the Palm V can.
The reflective screen surface is definitely an annoyance. It makes it hard to read the text, often forcing you to hold the unit at different angles to see the screen. Even cupping your hand over the screen only ends up showing a reflection of your palm.
The large size of the unit makes it a hassle to deal with. The days of the oversized cell phone are limited, with the popularity of others like the Motorola StarTac series, or Qualcomm's other small phones. This may turn away those users who may not be happy with the extra encumbrance.
One final point of advice for Qualcomm is that it would be nice if the unit had a footrest, like that of many computer keyboards, to put it at an angle while sitting on a surface. It would be easier to place it on a tabletop than hold it in your hand, and by placing it at an angle, you can read the screen better and avoid the reflective glare a little.
All in all, the pdQ is very handy for business or personal use. Hopefully with time, the unit will shrink in size and weight but for now it's worth it to sacrifice a little to have it handy. Now comes the question: Will airlines allow you to use the Palm system in the pdQ while in flight, even though the cell phone part of the device is turned off?
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