Nokia's Communicator phones have built up a strong following among technologists. This is despite - or possibly because - this clam-shell handheld and phone combination has more than a passing resemblance to the Psion Series 3. There is even a shared ancestry: the Communicator runs the Symbian operating system, originally a Psion project.
The latest Communicator, the 9500, is vastly more powerful than any Psion, however. Although somewhat larger than most smart phones, the 9500 opens up to display a razor-sharp colour screen and a qwerty keyboard that is almost large enough for touch-typing.
The 9500 connects seamlessly to mobile networks as a GPRS smart phone; tests on the Vodafone network showed that the built-in web browser works very well, even though the screen is half the depth of a regular laptop display. Other features include a powerful email program, diary and contacts functions. Navigation around these, as well as an optimised version of RealPlayer and other media tools, is through Nokia's Series 80 interface.
The graphics on the Communicator desktop are neatly done, but along with some other smart phones on the market, the 9500 suffers from button-isis. There is a perfectly usable four-way navigation button on the keyboard, so why does Nokia insist on using buttons to the right of the screen as well for critical functions such as exiting an application? By way of contrast, in phone mode with the flip closed, the Communicator follows the rightly popular Nokia menus.
The Communicator's interface is one that becomes more intuitive with use, and anyone who needs this device's full capabilities will struggle to match them elsewhere. Perhaps most impressive, and potentially most useful, is the inclusion of wireless LAN (WiFi) networking.
This turns the 9500 from a smart phone into something of a dual-purpose device. Use GPRS for email on the move, but use WiFi in the office to download large files, connect to wireless peripherals or even to synchronise with other PCs. There is Bluetooth and a USB dock for synchronisation, too, if WiFi does not appeal.
Using WiFi on a smart phone is a strange experience, not least because even a slow 802.111b standard WiFi network is more than 10 times the speed of 3G, let alone GPRS. But it works, and offers the prospect of using the 9500 as a replacement for a PDA, if not a laptop.
In fact, there may well be people who could use a 9500 for all their computing and communications needs. True, the keyboard is too small for extensive typing, the screen too small for graphics, there is no hard drive and the range of third-party software for Symbian is nowhere near as rich as that for Windows. But it does most of what most people will need, most of the time.
The 9500 is tantalisingly close to being the ultimate mobile device. It is large, heavy and not especially attractive and the review sample was prone to the odd systems crash. But laptop and PDA makers will look at the 9500 and be very, very worried. And if you need WiFi or a keyboard you can type on, you will want one now.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Pros: enormously powerful
Cons: chunky design