Internet to go

It's a matter of compromise when it comes to wireless access on a handheld device

"Kentucky officials go wireless"

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 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.

All of these devices can fit in a pocket or purse. And all 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.

For all their promise, however, handheld Internet devices are riddled with compromises. The smaller the device, the less processing power, memory and screen area it has, not to mention inconvenient input methods.

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. And increased power means increased battery size and weight.

Web sites 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.

Web developers are also designing versions of their sites specifically for wireless access by other third-party providers. However, 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 browse the information off-line. So with a little planning, it's possible to view 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 more than a minute. 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 off-line 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). Those channels are also free, but the 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 solution from RIM. We set out to discover just how practical — or impractical — those 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, the devices 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 are 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, 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-size keypads and clickable scroll wheels. Some operating systems are more robust than others, and some devices offer color displays while many are monochrome.

Jornada 545

The HP Jornada 545 Pocket PC is palm-sized and runs the Windows for Pocket PC operating system with a full-color backlit screen. Preloaded Microsoft software includes Pocket Outlook, Pocket Internet Explorer, Pocket Word, Pocket Excel (for managing stocks and checking accounts), Reader (for reading electronic books) and Windows Media Player.

It also comes with supplementary software, such as Microsoft Pocket Streets (for viewing U.S. maps), AOL Mail SM 1.0 (for sending and receiving America Online e-mail) and more. All this software makes the Jornada 545 a versatile device.

The 16M of RAM and 16M of ROM should be enough to hold a good number of Word, Excel and other documents along with a host of applications.

The rechargeable lithium-ion battery should give you about eight hours of battery life, according to HP. The unit's AC power adapter features worldwide auto-voltage compatibility. HP has added some clever features to the hardware design, including a flip-up metal cover with a flat stylus nestled inside, a rubber strip around the perimeter of the unit for a secure grip and a jack on top for using headphones while the Jornada 545 is in a pocket or bag.

The device also features a speaker on the front, a record button and microphone on the left side and, best of all, a convenient "action" button above the record button that can be used in place of the stylus to navigate the system.

A Type I CompactFlash card slot at the top of the unit features an integrated door that folds into the unit when it is open to accommodate oversize accessories, such as bar code scanners and modems.

Data entry presents the same problem it does on all handhelds that lack keyboards: It's much more time-consuming than regular typing. You can either tap out words with an on-screen keyboard or use the character recognition capability to "write" letters on the screen. For quick notes or short e-mail messages, however, either method works fine.

Another notable Jornada 545 feature is its ability to embed short voice recordings into the notes portion of any program in which you can write or draw on the screen, such as calendars, tasks and contacts. You can save recordings in several formats: pulse code modulation, Dragon Systems Inc.'s Mobile Voice, Microsoft's GSM 6.10 and HP's Dynamic Voice.

Our unit came loaded with the OmniSky wireless Internet and e-mail service. The service reaches more than 118 major metropolitan areas and uses cellular digital packet data technology — a secure, open-standard network.

We had no problems with the service and found the interface simple to navigate. The color display made browsing easy on the eyes.

The Jornada 545 does not have a built-in radio like the Palm VIIx and the RIM devices, so you'll have to buy a wireless modem to access the Internet. The Novatel Wireless Inc. Minstrel 540 modem, designed for the Jornada 540 series and available exclusively through HP, costs $349. That makes the Jornada 545 considerably more expensive than the other wireless devices we tested, but you'll get a lot more functionality with this device. The modem also adds a fair amount of bulk to the device.

Palm VIIx

The Palm VIIx is an updated version of the Palm VII, the first Palm device to feature Internet access when it was introduced in 1999.

The new features in Palm OS 3.5 include an agenda view that allows the viewing of appointments and to-do items together on one screen; access to menu views by tapping at the top of the screen; security so that users can "mask" and password-protect personal entries; and a "snooze" feature for the alarm.

The Palm VIIx has a monochrome display and several shortcut buttons on the front of the unit. Navigation is limited to the stylus and there is no headphone jack.

Internet access is provided by the Palm.net wireless communication service, which is designed around the BellSouth Corp. wireless data network. It covers more than 260 metropolitan areas across the continental United States.

We liked the Palm.net Web site a lot. You can use it to look up information about the Palm.net service and to check the status of your account. The site lists the dates of your billing cycles and even shows a list of all transactions, displaying the date, cost, kilobytes used and kilobytes remaining in your account.

Palm's e-mail application is called iMessenger and it's simple to use. The Web-clipping applications are also easy to navigate. We were impressed that we could connect even from a somewhat rural area, although the connection time took longer than in urban areas.

BlackBerry

The BlackBerry device comes in two models: the RIM 950, approximately the size of a pager, and the palm-size RIM 957. Both contain 32-bit Intel Corp. 386 microprocessors and have monochromatic displays. The 950 is available with 2M or 4M of flash memory, and the 957 comes with 5M. Flash memory saves battery life and retains all information if the battery dies or is removed.

Somewhat surprisingly, the 950's smaller screen is large enough to read comfortably. The adjustable font size also helps.

Navigation on the BlackBerry devices is excellent. Both models feature a track wheel that is clickable, so it can be used for both scrolling and selecting. The devices also feature thumb-size qwerty keyboards — the standard PC keyboard layout — that we had no trouble using.

The unique and robust e-mail functionality of the BlackBerry devices is its standout feature. Instead of requiring a separate account for sending and receiving mail directly from the device, the Black-Berry system integrates with an existing corporate e-mail account. Therefore, users have to manage only one e-mail account.

The system currently supports Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Development Corp.'s Notes.

Another unique BlackBerry feature is its "push" architecture, which allows instant e-mail notification. Unlike the "pull" models employed by most other handhelds, users need not periodically connect to a source to see whether new e-mail messages have arrived. Instead, an e-mail message sent to the corporate account is immediately "pushed" to the handheld device.

The e-mail service runs on the BellSouth Intelligent Wireless Network, a digital network based on Ericsson's Mobitex technology. Mobitex is a packet data network like the Internet, so the connection between the handheld and the company mail server is never broken, dropped or lost.

The network serves 93 percent of the urban U.S. population and covers 266 metropolitan areas as well as major transportation corridors and airports. It features nationwide roaming at no extra cost.

Internet connectivity is available through third-party Web content services such as Go.Web and Pocket-Genie. We tested GoAmerica's Go.Web, available as an add-on to the BlackBerry's e-mail service.

The BlackBerry system also features calendar, memo, task and calculator functions.

REPORT CARD

Jornada 545

Score: B+

Hewlett-Packard Co.
(650) 857-1501
www.hp.com/jornada

Price and availability: The Jornada 545 Pocket PC costs $420. The Novatel Wireless Minstrel Inc. 540 modem required for wireless Internet access costs $349. The OmniSky Corp. Web content and e-mail service we tested costs $39.95 per month for unlimited access.

Remarks: The Jornada 545 is more expensive than the Palm VIIx and the BlackBerry systems. It is designed to be a scaled-down version of a desktop PC. However, its e-mail functionality is not as robust and convenient as the BlackBerry's.


REPORT CARD

Palm VIIx

Score: B+

Palm Inc.
(408) 326-9000
www.palm.com

Price and availability: The Palm VIIx's suggested retail price is $449. Four monthly service plans are available, allowing access to varying amounts of information. The Basic Plan costs $9.99 and includes 50K, which the company estimates at about 80 Web transactions. The Expanded Plan costs $24.99 for 150K. The $39.99 Volume Plan gives you 300K. The Unlimited Volume Plan costs $44.99 for unlimited usage.

Remarks: The Palm VIIx is the no-frills version of a handheld Internet device. It's easy to use and delivers reliable wireless e-mail and Internet access.


REPORT CARD

BlackBerry RIM 950 and 957

Score: A

Research in Motion Ltd.
(877) 255-2377
www.blackberry.net

Price and availability: The palm-size RIM 957 costs $499. The pager-size RIM 950 costs $399 with 4M of memory and $349 with 2M of memory. The monthly flat-rate air-time charge for unlimited e-mail service is $39.99. The add-on Web content service we tested, Go.Web, costs $19.95 per month for unlimited use.

Remarks: The e-mail innovation is the standout feature of the BlackBerry system. We've never seen anything more intelligent or convenient. The Web browsing functionality is comparable to the other devices, and we found input was easier with the small keyboard.


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