In the mid-1990s, Nokia wowed Americans with one of the first phone/PDA combos, the 9000i Communicator. At the time, it was a breakthrough product that today has a permanent home in the Smithsonian. The company's latest Communicator for the United States, the 9290, is about half the size of the original and features a stunning color screen and a more robust interface. While it's not without its downsides, we liked it more than we expected. In the mid-1990s, Nokia wowed Americans with one of the first phone/PDA combos, the 9000i Communicator. At the time, it was a breakthrough product that today has a permanent home in the Smithsonian. The company's latest Communicator for the United States, the 9290, is about half the size of the original and features a stunning color screen and a more robust interface. While it's not without its downsides, we liked it more than we expected.
Like earlier Communicators, this model has a clamshell design. Closed, the 9290 resembles an oversized (1.1 by 2.2 by 6.2 inches), candy bar-style mobile, with a standard numeric keypad and a black-and-white LCD. Open this baby up and you'll find a sharp, 4,096-color TFT display (640x200 resolution) and a QWERTY keyboard. At 8.6 ounces, the 9290 is far from pocket-sized, but to our surprise, it didn't weigh us down when we carried it in a purse or a briefcase.
Running the Symbian OS on its 32-bit ARM processor, the 9290 is also a full-fledged PDA. You can sync the phone with as many contacts as your MultiMedia Card can store and send e-mail from Microsoft Outlook and Lotus Notes. Since the 9290 also has a full QWERTY keyboard, you can easily update, access, and edit to-do lists and calendar appointments on the 9290.
Above the keyboard, there are eight dedicated keys that launch various applications such as Excel, Word, the calendar, Telephone (make calls via the speakerphone while editing documents on the phone's screen), messaging (send e-mail with attachments and SMS messages), and a Web browser (view HTML or WAP sites). Other phone features include a calculator, a world clock, and the ability to conference call up to five people. You can store additional info, apps, and games on the included 16MB MultiMedia Card. (Note: It doesn't accept SD cards.)
We tested all of the Communicator's features and found them to be better than adequate in a pinch. If you get acclimated to the odd-sized keyboard (reminiscent of those found on some of the first Windows CE devices), you'll probably use the data and PDA features frequently. Since the phone lacks a touch screen, you'll have to get used to the four-way rocker key on the keypad and the four buttons on the side of the screen to navigate through the phone's menus.
As noted, you can sync with your corporate or personal e-mail. By far, this is one of our favorite features since the 9290 supports IMAP4, POP3, MIME1 and 2, MHTML, and SMTP mail protocols and you can have at least five mailboxes on the device. We synched with our corporate e-mail and were able to access and respond to messages while on the road. Additionally, we could even send attachments, such as images that we ported to the device via its IR port.
The only downside of this app is that you first have to download all e-mail (new and old) every time you log on before your messages are sent. Since this Communicator doesn't support GPRS data networks, you're trudging along at a sluggish 9.6Kbps or 14.4 Kbps, depending on your location. If you get a lot of mail (200 or more messages) with attachments, this can be a taxing process.
Big size, big battery
We tested the 9290 (GSM 1900) phone in Florida, New York, Connecticut, and San Francisco using both Cingular and VoiceStream networks. Overall, call quality was sufficient. However, we did have to search for the speaker's sweet spot in order to hear people better.
Thanks to the automatic sleep mode, the 9290's battery life was impressive. Nokia rates talk time at up to 10 hours and standby time up to 10 days. While we fell a couple of hours short of talk time, we managed to meet the standby time. We should note that the phone's battery tends to drain faster with constant use of the color screen and digital-imaging applications or when sending and receiving photos.
During testing, we also carried around the ultracompact Nokia 8390 and swapped the SIM card between the two mobiles. By day, we used the 9290, then the 8390 at night, making for the best of both worlds. If you opt for any of these phone/PDA combos, whether it's the Handspring Treo 270 or this Nokia, you might want to consider getting an inexpensive compact mobile to use on nonbusiness days. That said, although we'd like to see Nokia trim this device's dimensions and add GPRS compatibility, its robust features, built-in keyboard, and sharp screen make it one of the better phone/PDA hybrids. At $599, it's not a bargain, but it's reasonably priced for what you get.