Internet to go

Wireless. It's quite a buzzword these days, especially when it comes to the Internet. The prospect of anywhere/ anytime Web access — without having to worry about plugging into a network or finding a telephone outlet — is an alluring one.

Today, wireless Internet capability is appearing on all kinds of portable devices, from cellular phones to notebook computers. Advertisements trumpet the amazing convenience of checking e-mail and surfing the Web from places such as airports, restaurants and cabs.

To explore the reality behind the hype, our test center tried three types of handheld wireless devices — a Hewlett-Packard Co. Pocket PC, a Palm Inc. computing device and a Research in Motion Ltd. (RIM) handheld e-mail appliance — choosing one representative of each type.

All of these devices can fit in a pocket or purse for the ultimate in portability. And all of the devices come bundled with desktop synchronization software and a cradle that connects to a desktop PC so users can synchronize e-mail, appointments, tasks and more between the handheld and desktop.

A Matter of Compromise

For all their promise, however, handheld Internet devices are inherently riddled with compromises. The smaller the device, the less processing power, memory and screen area it has, not to mention inconvenient input methods. Increasing these variables to achieve better performance results in a larger device.

Battery life is another trade-off. A full-color screen drains much more power than a monochrome display, and as screen size increases, so does the power requirement. Therefore, the better the display, the more battery power is needed. And increased power means increased battery size and weight.

Web sites themselves present another problem. They are designed for desktop computers with large full-color screens, mice for easy navigation, fast processors and lots of memory; therefore, they don't translate well to devices with tiny keypads, no pointing device, small monochrome displays and limited memory.

In addition, the graphics and animation on most Web sites would severely bog down wireless transactions, and these small devices don't have enough memory or processing power to handle that much information.

This problem has been mitigated in several ways. Palm has developed query applications that use a process the company calls "Web clipping." These applications strip out animation and graphics.

The catch is that a Web-clipping application must be written for each Web site a Palm user can access. However, developers can create their own Web-clipping applications and post them on Palm's wireless Web site (www.palm.net) for anyone with a Palm VII or Palm VIIx to download for free. According to Palm, thousands of developers are doing this, so the list of sites available to Palm users is increasing every day.

At the same time, Web developers are also designing versions of their sites specifically for wireless access by other third-party providers. Be aware, however, that not all providers are compatible with all handheld platforms. For example, OmniSky Corp.'s OmniSky service (www.omnisky.com) only supports the Palm V, Handspring Inc. Visor and HP Jornada 540 series. On the other hand, WolfeTech Corp.'s PocketGenie (www.wolfetech.com) supports various pagers, Web- enabled phones and personal digital assistants. Also, each service has a set list of sites it can access — although most services offer hundreds of sites.

But perhaps the most exciting news is that Web content services are beginning to develop wireless browsers that can read HTML, making every existing Web site available to handheld users. GoAmerica Inc.'s Go.Web (www.goamerica.com) is the only service we know of that currently offers this kind of access across all handheld platforms. And WolfeTech is developing an HTML wireless browser that will be compatible with all RIM devices. (The release date has not been set.)

The connections themselves also have limitations. Wireless data networks don't reach areas underground or deep inside buildings. If you can't make a cell phone connection, you probably can't make a wireless Internet connection. However, most handheld Internet devices enable users to download content and then browse the information offline. So with a little advance planning, it's possible to peruse Internet content on an airplane or in the subway.

When you do connect, prepare to be patient. Information retrieval can take anywhere from 10 seconds to a minute or slightly more. Connection time can be slower during peak Internet use times or if users are outside urban areas.

To address connection problems, some software companies have developed "channels," which are Web sites designed specifically for offline viewing on a handheld. One company offering this service is AvantGo Inc. (www.avantgo.com), which offers more than 400 AvantGo channels in addition to live Internet browsing for the Palm Operating System, Microsoft Corp. Windows CE and Web-enabled phones — all for free. Another service, Mobile Channels, is offered by Microsoft partners (www.microsoft.com/windowsce/channels). These channels are also free, but this service does not offer live browsing.

Three for the Road

We tested the Jornada 545 Pocket PC from HP, the Palm VIIx and the BlackBerry wireless e-mail solution from RIM. We set out to discover just how practical — or impractical — these devices are and whether they're viable for business use or closer to novelty toys.

The handheld Web browsing experience was essentially the same for all three models. Users first choose a broad category such as news, entertainment, traffic or weather. Each category is then broken into subcategories or lists of sites. The information retrieved appears as text.

The bottom line is that none of the devices came close to replicating Web browsing on a desktop computer, and e-mail functionality varies depending on the device. But despite the limitations, they do offer a level of convenience unmatched by desktop PCs or mobile devices without wireless capability. We also found that wireless connection ability and speed is generally consistent across the different types of devices, and much of the same information is accessible via the different Web content services.

When selecting a handheld to buy, consider the hardware features as well as the operating system. Input and navigation can be quite different between devices. Some feature a stylus and touch screen, while others offer thumb-sized keypads and clickable scroll wheels. Some operating systems are more robust than others, and some devices offer color displays while many are monochrome.

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