For the last few days, I’ve been living with the Neonode, the closest thing in the market from anyone — including Apple — to what we are likely to see when the iPhone Nano comes out in a few months. Given that this is a generation-two phone, you wonder how many other similar ideas Apple may have “borrowed” from the generation-one Neonode product.

Initial impressions are actually surprisingly good, though the Neonode needs a little more seasoning to be the perfect small phone for me. The humor here is that even though the Neonode was clearly first, there is little doubt the Apple faithful will call it a clone of the iPhone Nano. That title is likely to stick, so I figured it would be fun to get ahead of the curve and use that phrase in the title. However, this shouldn’t distract from the fact that this, too, is an impressive piece of work and a nice improvement over their generation-one offering product.

Neonode 

The Neonode is impressive for its size, does video and music, will link up to Plays for Sure services (iTunes is still Apple-only), and it makes heavy use of gestures to navigate the device. Unique to this phone is the design of the touchscreen, which really isn’t a touchscreen. It uses infrared scanners to see your finger and triangulate its position. This evidently makes the device both more robust and less expensive to build.

Downsides are actually somewhat similar to the iPhone; ActiveSync doesn’t work with e-mail, and this thing won’t connect directly to Exchange or Notes. It will sync the calendar and contacts using ActiveSync, though, and that might actually be a little better for Windows users (particularly Vista users who are on the updated Vista product). Even though the device is based on Microsoft technology, the Neonode folks used the CE platform rather than Windows Mobile, and while that does give them a relatively easy development path, it doesn’t give them all of the native connectivity that Mobile 6 would.

Because of the heavy use of gestures — sweeps of the finger from bottom to top and from side to side — there is a bit of a learning curve with this phone, but that was also the case with the iPhone. Both are fun to mess with, so the learning seems to come easy. For some reason, exploring this class of phone is vastly more fun than it was with Treos, Qs, and Blackberries.

The phone fits in a small phone belt pouch, and you can use a lanyard if you want to wear it around your neck. It uses a mini-USB port for everything, including the headphones, and comes with an adapter. Personally, I prefer a headphone jack simply because it is easier, but the HTC Touch is much the same way, and it does free up space (which is very tight on this little phone).

Get this product if you want a phone that is very small, does most of the good stuff an iPhone does — including MMS and SMS (which is surprisingly good on the iPhone as well) and Camera — but you don’t want to pay the GPRS data charges. This is a GPRS phone, but browsing the web on this small of a screen is painful. The only reason you might want GPRS is so you can use the phone as a wireless data modem for your laptop. This is actually surprisingly handy, though really slow if you are browsing the web (not bad for e-mail, unless someone sends you a large attachment).

In short, if you want to have a lot of the fun without the size or cost of the iPhone, you’d probably like this phone if you could buy it. Unfortunately, it isn’t here yet, and by the time it arrives, like the second-generation iPhone, at least some of the shortcomings are likely to be addressed.

Neonode vs. iPhone Nano

Because both phones are severely limited by the screen size (clearly, I’m guessing that will be the case with the iPhone Nano; this picture looks like a good guess), much of what you would do with GPRS is kind of pointless. The advantage is that you can get an experience similar to the iPhone by incurring potentially only a fraction of the monthly cost and purchase cost.

The Nano comes with Steve Jobs’ and Apple’s marketing, which means that even if it really isn’t as good as the Neonode, people will likely flock like lemmings to the Apple. Still, depending on who distributes this phone in the U.S. — and it is more likely to be T-Mobile than AT&T — there could be a slight upset, because the one thing folks hate almost universally with the iPhone is AT&T (boy, you’d think that was one thing about that brand the company would not want to repeat). But, Apple can’t fix that, and the company is supposedly using T-Mobile themselves in Europe.

Who wins? As always, you do. Choice is a good thing, and by the time the Neonode gets here, it will be a more mature version-two product. Also, the iPhone Nano will benefit from the experience with the iPhone (and hopefully at least have a replaceable battery). Since you are unlikely to use GPRS with either device, both will be more affordable and great ways to lose the now redundant MP3 player and live off your phone.

For me, however, I really need something that gets e-mail, even if I can’t really respond to it well, and that means — at least initially — neither of these is for me. I’ll either be waiting for the generation-two HTC Touch (I carry the generation-one product now), the second- or third-generation iPhone with Exchange support, or a larger Neonode that does e-mail. All of that is likely next year (I kind of wish it was already here). Choice is a good thing, and one thing we are likely to have a lot of as we work into 2008 is choice. AT&T wireless (I’ve actually had good luck with AT&T DSL) may even have to improve its customer service; then again, miracles don’t happen that often.