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Nokia US communicator set for summer release

Faster, roomier, more Operatic than Euro debutant

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The much anticipated Nokia 9290 communicator will finally be available "in the summer", Nokia US told us today. The phone giant had earlier promised a release in the first half of this year, so if you can find one before June 30, we guess that promise could still hold good. Kinda.

It's the first of a flood of rich color, multitasking, integrated devices that could redefine what PDA and phone users expect today. Both Handspring and Samsung have done a nice job of bringing PalmOS-based devices to market, but Nokia becomes the first vendor to guage demand for much more capable, and more expensive, communicators.

The 9290 is a version of the 9210 released in Europe last summer, only it works on the GSM 1900Mhz frequency used in North America. Or more accurately, it's based on the 9210i model launched at CeBIT earlier this month, and there are subtle differences.

The phone will be available without contract for $699, $150 more than a SIM-less Handspring Treo, and in theory it should be possible to find one for even less. Handspring scored a coup in getting a generous subsidy for the Treo, which retails for $399 with a contract.

Which is impressive as carriers are more reluctant to subsidize handsets than they used to be. Because smartphones generate more data usage, creating more downstream revenue, you'd think the networks would be eager to regard them as loss leaders, and price them low to create a data market. But for many, that's too far sensible.

(We've come to anticipate such anti-logic from the wireless carriers here: ie, think of something sensible - like cross network roaming, or interoperable text messaging - and you can guarantee the carriers will do the opposite.)

So what will the 9290 give you that the cheaper, Treo-style models don't?

Well, full web browsing for a start. The 9290, with its 4096 colour screen, will include a version of Opera that supports Javascript and the ability to display two browser Windows side-by-side. Then a highly impressive messaging client. And it plays Doom.

The killer feature is probably multitasking. On the Symbian-based 9210 we got used to taking conference calls through the speakerphone, while flipping between a PowerPoint slide and taking notes in the Word program, all the while recording the call for later use. SMS messages would appear, and it never hiccuped.

What don't you get in the 9290? The Treo boasts USB, a huge advantage over the much-slower, serial-port based synchronisation in the Nokia communicator, and Handspring says a packet-data version will be available in the summer. The Treo is also a true world phone.

There are some differences between the 9290 and 9210: a faster processor in the US model, and 16MB of internal memory. In the 9210, the applications were divided between 8MB of internal storage and a much slower MMC card. Java MIDP applets execute "in place", rather than using execution memory. So Nokia has learned some lessons there. It comes bundled with Real Player and Flash. The 9210i didn't exactly get a warm reception over at My-Communicator.com from the early adoptors, but Nokia's starting with a clean slate in the US market.

For a glimpse of some of this year's smartphones and communicators in the pipeline, see our exclusive preview here. Since we published that article, the "Linnea" Sony/Ericsson tablet flip-phone has become public, and Samsung has announced it will produce a Symbian-based smartphone too. There's a link to the Sony/Ericsson device, officially christened the P800 from this page, and better pictures here). It's a triband device, so it should eventually make its way across the Atlantic, although no commitment has been made yet.
Nokia's 9290 page can be found here. ®

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