Originally created 11/22/04

Product Review: Windows on a cell phone



NEW YORK - With all the grumbling over Windows and its many shortcomings, why would anyone want Microsoft's computer operating system to run their cell phone?

The answer, for better or worse, is the sheer familiarity of Windows. That may mean precious little when it comes to operating your basic cell phone. But it gains significance if you want to harness the wide array of features that are being added to even the most entry-level handsets.

While there are some familiar flaws to the cellular version of Windows - the occasional frozen screen and reboot - the initial trickle of phones running on Windows Mobile has produced some sharp designs. Too bad they've all been too pricey for the average consumer, and too big for the average pocket.

The new Audiovox SMT 5600 Smartphone is different.

Priced and sized modestly enough for a non-wireless warrior, the 3.6-ounce handset is both sleek and packed with features you'd expect from a high-end organizer.

Its bells and whistles include an unusually big (2.2 inches diagonal) color screen for a non-flip phone, a slot for a mini-storage card to play MP3 and Windows Media music, and a low-resolution camera to shoot photos and video clips.

Compact yet solid, it's 4.25 inches long, less than two inches wide, and less than three-quarters of an inch thick.

The phone, which does not ship with a storage card, is priced at $320 but can be had for $200 with a two-year contract from Cingular Wireless, or even free with a rebate from Amazon.com.

And there's a surprising counterintuitive plus: while Windows is a favorite target of virus writers due to its dominance on the desktop, the scarcity of Windows cell phones makes them less vulnerable to attack for now, according to Alfred Huger, senior director of engineering at Symantec Security Response.

But the most appealing feature may be the Windows layout. The familiar desktop icons and Start Menu made it less intimidating as I tried out computer synchronization tools that are more common with hybrid phone-organizers that run on the Palm, BlackBerry and Microsoft PocketPC platforms.

All of those operating systems are easy enough to learn: Synchronizing mobile e-mail, appointments and contacts with Microsoft Outlook or similar desktop programs is no great challenge.

And yet, if you've never used an organizer, the sight of a Windows desktop on the phone may seem more comforting than the prospect of learning a new operating system.

And if you do use Outlook on a PC, what could sound easier than synchronizing it with a program named Pocket Outlook using a third Microsoft program called ActiveSync?

Now, I've rarely availed myself of calendar and contact functions on cell phones because I'm pretty much deskbound most days. When I do wander about, I still print out or scribble down information I might need.

But with the Windows phone, I gave synchronization a try, and I don't think it could have been much simpler.

I loaded ActiveSync on my desktop, instantly establishing a connection between Outlook and the phone, which was plugged into the computer with a USB cord. Within a minute or so, my contacts, upcoming appointments and several days of e-mail were loaded onto the phone.

Once the information was on the phone, I actually began using it when I was away from my computer.

While it was rare that I responded to e-mail in the absence of a full keyboard, I'd be sure to sync up before leaving the office so I could triage the latest wave of e-mail on the train and delete accordingly.

One puzzling shortcoming for a Windows-based product was that you couldn't view e-mail attachments, as you would on a handheld computer, even if they were created in a Microsoft program such as Word or Excel. Microsoft says its working on that, but there's no expected date of arrival.

There were other faults, all relatively minor:

- Maybe it was the phone or maybe it was my three-month-old computer, but I often had to unplug and replug the phone to get the synchronization going.

- Maybe it was the hardware or the Windows software, but this phone didn't deal well with heavy-duty video. The screen froze often with a downloaded trailer for the movie "Polar Express" even as the audio kept playing.

- While one of the layout options for the home screen allows you to fix four favorite program icons at the top, the menu under the start button can't be rearranged by preference. With three screens of applications to scroll through, it would nice to be able to lock some functions to the first menu so, for example, an instant messaging program I downloaded could appear before the embedded MSN Messenger icon.

None of these shortcomings, however, were deal-breakers. The Audivox Smartphone is a standout in a crowded field of cell phones.