Business handsets: Keyboard is the route to efficiency

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Almost any phone can show you e-mail these days but you need a real keyboard if you want to do anything useful with it.

RIM’s BlackBerry was the first of what Orange is calling messaging devices but now you are spoiled for choice.

You can have a keyboard below the screen or one that slides out or folds away. You can have a 3G phone, a standard GPRS phone or the in-between Edge devices; some devices even make WiFi connections.

There are keyboard phones with Microsoft’s Windows Mobile and Nokia’s Symbian platform but in spite of its legal battles RIM is not lagging behind.

The new BlackBerry 8700g boasts a bigger, more colourful screen that adjusts to ambient light, a faster processor, better battery life (up to 16 days on standby), Bluetooth, speakerphone and dedicated phone buttons. T-Mobile has the 8700g now but Orange will launch it soon for its higher-speed Edge network.

Size matters, but smaller is not always better. While Sony Ericsson’s upcoming P990 has a keyboard cunningly concealed behind the flip-down keypad, it is small and not suitable for much typing.

At the other end of the scale the PDA-like HTC Universal (you will see it as the Orange SPV 3500, O2 XDA Exec, T-Mobile MDA IV and at some point as the Vodafone VPA IV) opens up like a mini laptop – or you can swivel the screen round and fold it down to use the stylus.

This is a heavyweight device in both senses and the size is not just to fit in a 640 by 480 pixel screen and the WiFi aerial, it’s to give it a big enough battery. This is the first 3G Windows Mobile phone and, with the first generation of 3G radios, “battery life is a challenge” as Ken Wirth of Palm says.

The next generation of 3G radios will be more efficient, making for smaller devices in the second half of the year, such as Nokia’s E61: a slim 3G Series 60 phone with a 320 by 240 screen, WiFi and VoIP.

It is just one of many new devices that put the keyboard below the screen, like a BlackBerry, but the only one announced so far that will do 3G.

If style is important to you, you can look forward to the Palm Treo 700w, the Motorola Q and HP’s iPAQ hw6900 Mobile Messenger or get the new BlackBerry 8700g now.

The 700w is the first Palm to run Windows Mobile 5, though it keeps the square 240 by 240 screen and much of the styling of earlier Treos. Palm has added several new features, including VCR-style controls for voicemail systems, speed dialling with photos to make it easy to spot who you want, a Google search box right on the front screen and the option to send a text message when you cannot answer a call. It will be in the UK in the second half of the year.

But while US users get 3G-speeds on Verizon’s EVDO network with the Treo and probably the Motorola Q, the versions that come to the UK will work on Edge networks – so far Orange is the only UK operator to support Edge – or standard GPRS.

On an EVDO network you can download a web page at up to 700K a second; Edge would get the same page at 60K a second, similar to a dial-up modem, and the GPRS most phones use for data only manages about 20K per second. That is fine for e-mail, which is mostly text, but the extra speed greatly improves mobile web browsing.

If you want a keyboard that tucks away out of sight, there is a new version of Nokia’s Communicator out soon. The 9300i has Edge and WiFi for faster connections but while the thin, wide screen and keyboard make it a fairly sleek device that feels like a real mobile phone, the layout will not suit everyone.

Windows Mobile users have the choice of two GPRS devices where the keyboard slides out from the side – T-Mobile’s MDA Vario – or the bottom of the device – the older O2 XDA IIs and T-Mobile MDA III.

A slightly hipper alternative is the long-awaited Sidekick II. The large screen flips up to reveal a keyboard, there is a camera on the back and it works with AOL as well as standard e-mail.

There are going to be more phones with full keyboards. Simplified interfaces work well on mobile devices because of the size but being able to type normally turns working on the move from a chore to a convenience.

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