Internet to go
It's a matter of compromise when it comes to wireless access on a handheld device
- By Michelle Speir
- Mar 18, 2001
"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
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
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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