With BlackBerry pagers and Treo smartphones all the rage, why would anyone need -- or even

want

-- a pedestrian personal digital assistant?

Dell

(DELL) - Get Report

and

palmOne

(PLMO)

hope they have an answer to that question. Both companies have recently introduced new high-end PDAs. While both offer largely incremental improvements on previous models, each company appears to be taking a different tack to convince consumers and corporations that there's still a place in their pockets for the humble handheld.

Long the leader in the PDA market, palmOne, with its latest flagship model, the $399 Tungsten T5, emphasizes what it hopes will be the new revolutionary feature for handhelds: flash storage.

Flash memory stores digital information in a way that doesn't require electrical power to maintain. That means you don't have to worry about losing your address book, contacts or digital pictures stored on your Tungsten T5, even if it loses all of its power.

Additionally, Tungsten T5 owners can use the device essentially as a portable hard drive. The T5 has some 256MB of storage built into it -- tops among such devices -- and owners can use up to 160MB of that to store MP3 audio files, digital photos,

Microsoft

Word documents and the like.

palmOne's Tungsten T5
Innovation rules; flash memory may be the next big thing

Unlike previous devices using the Palm operating system, the T5 has a file system built into it. After connecting the device to a PC's USB port, users can turn on the T5's "drive mode" and drag and drop files from their PCs into the T5's folders.

This turns out to be a surprisingly useful feature. In order to play audio files, previous devices from palmOne required you to store those files on an external memory card. Now, instead of fumbling around for that card, you can store your favorite songs on the device itself.

But you can also use the device to store Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents, which you can view and edit using the included Documents to Go program. The T5 will even let you store files that it can't open or recognize.

While the flash drive feature is intriguing, it isn't without its problems. The first time I tried to use the T5 as a flash drive, it crashed my PC. I didn't know you could still get the infamous

blue screen of death on a computer running Microsoft's Windows XP Professional, service pack 2; now I know you can. (To be sure, this only happened once, but it was still unnerving.)

On a less dramatic note, 160MB of storage might be a lot for a handheld, but in the overall scheme of things, it's not a lot of space. This is not an

iPod

; you can't store your entire music collection on it. Indeed, before I knew it, I had used up all the storage space on my T5 with audio files and digital photos -- and it was just a fraction of what I wanted.

And beyond the flash drive feature, the device has little in the way of improvements over previous models. In fact, it takes a few steps back.

Absent, for instance, is the built-in microphone that comes with its predecessor, the Tungsten T3, so there's no way to make voice recordings. The developers have also done away with the slider design that palmOne used on the previous Tungsten T models. While this makes the device marginally lighter than the T3, it also makes it significantly more bulky.

Like its predecessors, the device includes a built-in Bluetooth antenna. That's great if you have a Bluetooth-enabled phone to connect to, or another Bluetooth device to exchange files with. But it is worthless for connecting to the Internet via the increasingly ubiquitous 802.11b Wi-Fi standard. In fact, not only does the T5 fail to include a Wi-Fi antenna, but also the external Wi-Fi card palmOne offers doesn't yet work with the device. (Company executives say drivers that will enable the Wi-Fi card to work with the T5 are in the works.)

In contrast to the T5, wireless networking seems to be at the heart of Dell's handheld strategy -- in particular, its new $499 Axim X50v. The device offers both built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi antennas.

Using the Wi-Fi antenna, I was able to surf the Web both at work and at home, without booting up my laptop or using my desktop PC. Had I chosen to, I could have checked my home e-mail accounts using the "Messaging" program. Using Bluetooth, I easily sent a picture from the Tungsten T5 to the Axim X50v. (But I failed at trying to "daisy chain" the devices so that I could surf the Web on the Tungsten T5 using the Axim X50v's Wi-Fi connection.)

To be sure, Axim X50v's Wi-Fi feature wasn't perfect. While I had no problems accessing the Internet via my home wireless network using the device, I had to call in our technical support person to configure the device to connect to the Net using our office network. Even then, access was spotty; despite my being less than 20 feet away from the wireless router with no walls in between, the Axim X50v would intermittently tell me that it couldn't find a wireless signal.

Dell Axim X50V
More, better, faster; load up the power, memory and features

Even when I could get a signal, the Internet experience left something to be desired. Though the device loaded sites such as CNN.com, ESPN.com and

TheStreet.com

quickly, few sites are optimized for the small screens of PDAs. The Windows Mobile version of Internet Explorer that comes with the Axim X50v does a poor job of doing the translation. That often means a lot of scrolling from side to side to read headlines or view pictures. And sometimes -- as was the case when I tried to access my own Web site -- the site doesn't display properly.

The Axim X50v's dual wireless networking isn't unique.

Hewlett-Packard

has a similar device with both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi antennas. And one of Dell's X30 models, which it introduced this spring, also offers the feature.

But the X50v's price and other features help put it over the top. The 624MHz processor is the fastest available on a PDA. With 64 MB of RAM and 128 MB of flash memory, the X50v has as much storage as just about any handheld other than the Tungsten T5. The new 480x640 screen offers a much sharper resolution than previous models. And the new, rounded case is much more aesthetically pleasing -- if a bit heavier -- than the company's previous boxy models.

With its $499 retail price -- $449 directly through Dell -- the device is significantly cheaper than its Windows Mobile rivals--and only $50 more than the Tungsten T5.

As both the Tungsten T5 and the Axim X50v prove, PDAs have come a long way from just being a place to store your address book or calendar. Regardless of whether they become hip again, they're at least worth a look.