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One of the greatest scams in the world of tech journalism-in the world, for that matter-is that of the product reviewer. Reviewers get showered with toys, gadgets and software from companies hungry for publicity.  Some of the stuff gets reviewed, some gets sent back, and most ends up in the reviewer’s house. I know: I started reviewing gadgets when I graduated from Columbia University back in 1988 and spent the next 12 years trying to keep up with the constant torrent of new stuff.

You might think that it’s fun to have a continual supply of gadgets and geek toys to occupy your time. In fact, it is tremendously fun. But it’s also pretty hard to keep up-there is just so much stuff coming out. What’s worse, I think, is that most reviewers don’t write reviews that are particularly relevant to the typical reader. They write about the check-list capabilities that a product has or lacks, but reading these reviews doesn’t let you know what it feels like to have the thing in your hand or on your desk.

With this column, I’m starting a new series on that will try to change this. While my column in Technology Review magazine, “The Net Effect,” examines larger issues of the digital age-with particular focus on privacy-here I’ll bite into specifics. Each month I’ll profile a new gadget that is both captivating and significant.

This month, I tried out Handspring’s Treo 270, the latest incarnation of the Palm Pilot that made its debut back in 1996. In that time handheld computers have gone from being an object of ridicule to being an indispensable tech accoutrement for many knowledge workers. If you have a Palm and a phone, you should think about getting the Treo-it combines both devices, and more, into a single unit. If you can’t stand Graffiti (Palm’s weird shorthand nobody really understands), you should think about getting the Treo-it’s the first Palm-based system to have a keyboard for your thumbs. But if you want to look cool in a conventional sort of way, you should definitely avoid this product.

As its name promises, the Treo combines three basic functions into one device. First and foremost, the Treo 270 is a cell phone. For times when a phone is to intrusive, Treo is a two-way pager that can send short messages to any digital phone or Internet mailbox. Finally, Treo is an organizer that runs the PalmOS operating system-one with a great color screen and a glow-in-the-dark thumbboard, which saves you the chore of learning Graffiti.

For those of us who would never be caught dead with a pocket protector and feel constricted by pockets bulging and belts drooping with geekware, the Treo is good news: it lets you shed ounces of electronics without losing a tad of functionality. What’s more, the Treo is not just nimble, it’s positively svelte: the Treo 270 is both smaller and lighter than the Visor Prism, Handspring’s previous color organizer. (Treo weighs 5.7 ounces, compared with 6.5 ounces for the Prism.) The smaller size means that the Treo readily fits in both shirt and pants pockets-something that not even a Palm V can do with grace.

Alas, it’s conventional wisdom that combining three devices into one means making compromises: after all, there are smaller phones on the market today, and many of them get better battery life. But if you think of the Treo primarily as an organizer-one that happens to have a built-in pager and cell-phone-then there is really no compromising at all.

All Treos have a flip-top cover with a window to see the organizer’s screen. You can quickly check your schedule or address book without opening the lid by just tapping the buttons along the bottom of the face. The side of the Treo has a volume control that does double duty as a jog dial for scrolling the organizer through lists. The screen itself is magnificent: it’s a brightly-colored reflective LCD that’s equally visible in direct sunlight, dim light, or absolute darkness. And unlike other Palm-based machines, the Treo’s alarm is really loud (thanks, no doubt, to the alarm’s use of the cell phone ringer.)  I can even hear the Treo’s bell when it is buried in my backpack!

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