You can take it with you
- By Michelle Speir, Patrick Marshall
- Apr 05, 2004
Nearly 40 years after Capt. Kirk of "Star Trek" first whipped out his "communicator," we almost have it — anywhere and everywhere connectivity. The latest generation of wireless phones and handheld and tablet computers promises to deliver the Internet and access to the mother ship's desktop computer to all of us roving space cadets, whether we're sitting in traffic, lounging in a café or waiting for an airplane.
Indeed, in our survey of state-of-the-art portable Internet devices, we found that it is now feasible to perform Internet-based tasks such as checking movie times, sports scores and airline flight status in addition to downloading e-mail. For those who need to write e-mail messages or other documents, some devices can be used with folding keyboards. And some even let you make phone calls.
So why are we only "almost there?" Fact is, there are still some significant challenges to overcome to access the Internet from anywhere and everywhere.
The first major limitation is display size. Obviously, wireless phones face the greatest challenge in this respect. Even with their newer, sharper color screens, a wireless phone offers only less than 2 square inches of display area. Handheld computers offer a bit more room — with screens measuring about 4 inches diagonally — but navigating Web sites and viewing data can be tedious.
Developers have come up with an array of potential solutions. Wireless Markup Language (WML) allows Web page designers to create pages that work more effectively on small displays.
But that strategy puts an additional burden on designers, especially because there is no standardization of design tools. Some designers have turned to compact HTML or Handheld Device Markup Language in addition to WML. Not all browsers are able to handle multiple types of Web designs, and portable browsers embedded in wireless phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs) may not be able to run the full array of scripts being used on Web sites, thus limiting their functionality.
Other developers are focusing on developing browsers that will automatically adjust Web content to the smaller displays. Microsoft Corp.'s Pocket Internet Explorer (IE), for example, offers a fit-to-screen option that will rearrange material to make sites easier to navigate. Scientists at Opera Software ASA, a Norwegian company, recently developed a version of the Opera browser that automatically scales sites designed with standard HTML to work effectively on wireless phones and PDAs. Unfortunately, we were not able to obtain a device using Opera's new technology in time for this article.
Speed is another issue for Web surfers on the go. There are two primary ways to connect to the Internet while out and about: a direct connection via a cellular telephone network or a wireless connection through a hot spot, an access point commonly found in coffee shops, hotel rooms, airports and meeting rooms.
Obviously, wireless phone connectivity is more flexible, but it is also slower. If you're used to Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) speeds, the service on a wireless phone will seem painfully slow. Although some phone networks are faster than others in certain locations, don't expect your Internet experience to match that of even a 56K telephone connection. In fact, wireless phone Internet rates seem to range between about 10K and 12K.
There is hope for faster service in the near future. Vendors are developing newer technologies, broadly described as 3G wireless, that promise higher-speed data communications using wireless phones and other devices. So far, however, only Sprint PCS has offered consumers 3G technology in the United States. Company officials claim it can deliver connections at up to 144K in some areas. Other vendors plan to upgrade to 3G technologies, though there are no firm dates for implementation.
This is one area of technology in which the United States is playing catch up with Japan and Europe. Japan's NTT DoCoMo Inc. launched the first 3G system in October 2001, and 3G has been offered on a limited basis in Europe since 2002.
Wireless standard 802.11 connectivity is decidedly faster — with a maximum speed of 54 megabits/sec — and hot spots are quickly popping up nationwide, especially in airports and hotels. Unfortunately, hot-spot providers aren't working together to provide their services. For instance, to use the Web at Starbucks Corp. cafés, you must pay a subscription fee to T-Mobile USA Inc. to use T-Mobile HotSpot, the provider the coffee giant partnered with. But when you check into your hotel, you likely will have to pay again to connect via a different provider.
Security is a major concern, especially with 802.11 wireless connectivity. Although it is now possible to provide a reasonable level of security in controlled wireless environments, public access points can't effectively implement some of the measures that provide the most security because they would require too much configuration by end users.
To assess the newest portable Internet access devices, we selected a varied group to test drive: a wireless phone, three handheld computers and a tablet.
Trade-offs exist no matter which device you choose. If you want the compact portability of a wireless phone, you're going to have to give up some display size and convenience in typing messages. If you opt for a handheld, telephony is not nearly as convenient. And, for the time being, you're going to have to choose between wireless phone connectivity and 802.11 wireless connectivity.
Motorola Inc.'s MPx200 phone is nothing if not elegant, with its stylish black case and trim outline unmarred by an antenna. Its flip-top reveals a sharp 1.5-inch by 1.75-inch color display. The MPx200 comes loaded with Microsoft Windows Mobile software, which includes a Web browser and e-mail, calendar, task and contact utilities.
With the service we tested, provided by AT&T Wireless, the MPx200 has an always-on Internet connection, so there is no delay in getting to the Internet itself. But calling up Web sites can be painfully slow because most sites are not designed specifically for PDAs and wireless phones. Those that are offer an interface with few graphics and well-placed text menus for easy access on a tiny screen. Accordingly, wireless phone service providers generally give customers a directory to compatible sites that have been designed with WML. AT&T Wireless, for example, offers a listing of several dozen sites covering sports, entertainment and news.
Before signing on with any service, however, bear in mind that not all providers offer unrestricted Internet access. Some, such as AT&T Wireless allow users to go anywhere on the Internet, but others restrict users to certain compatible sites.
On the whole, our MPx200 Internet experience was frustrating in many ways, but we nevertheless found that checking movie times and breaking news was easy and effective.
We had expected that one of the biggest pluses would be the ability to check e-mail using the phone. We were wrong for a couple of reasons. First, there's no spam filter, so the inbox was inundated with dozens of spam messages for each real message. Second, although the MPx200 can be configured to synchronize with Microsoft Outlook on your desktop computer, we were disappointed that we couldn't set it up to integrate with your desktop inbox and download new messages. Instead, you have to do one or the other.
We did, however, find the MPx200's integration with Outlook to be welcome in other areas. Whenever we placed the phone in the provided USB cradle, which was linked to our desktop PC, the two devices automatically synchronized our contacts database, calendar and task list.
You can even load Microsoft MSN Messenger for real-time chats — though we can't imagine
trying to type messages of any length on the phone's keypad. Of somewhat more possible utility is the MPx200's ability to play video using Windows Media
Finally, you can use the phone to download and play MP3 audio; a headset is included in the box for private listening.
HP iPaq Pocket PC h4350
Hewlett-Packard Co.'s iPaq Pocket PC h4350 runs the Microsoft Windows Mobile 2003 Premium operating system and is the first iPaq to feature a built-in thumb keyboard. We especially liked the keyboard's backlight, which illuminated all the keys in blue when we typed.
This model is slimmer than previous iPaqs we've seen, but the keyboard adds about an inch of length. When viewing photos, you can change the display's orientation to landscape mode. There is also a handy voice memo feature.
The iPaq comes with integrated 802.11b and Bluetooth wireless connectivity. We used the 802.11b protocol to connect to the Internet, and our connection speed was very fast. Surfing felt about the same as it does using a high-speed connection on a desktop PC.
Pocket IE comes with many of the same features Internet Explorer users are used to, including a favorites list, viewable history and standard navigation buttons such as Home, Back and Refresh. Helpful options include the ability to choose the number of days you'd like the program to save items in the history list, a check box that lets you enable or disable cookies and an optional warning if you attempt to enter a nonsecure Web page.
You can also choose not to display images or to hide the address bar, which adds a little more real estate to the viewing area.
One of Pocket IE's most important features is the fit-to-screen option. Without it, using a Pocket PC to view Internet content would almost be prohibitively inconvenient.
This feature does not compress the entire Web page to a size that fits in the viewing area, however. Instead, it compresses the content into columns narrow enough to fit on the screen horizontally. This way, you only need to scroll vertically when reading stories. You can further adjust the content to fit the screen by selecting from one of five text sizes.
We found that not all Web sites are equal when viewing them on a Pocket PC. Some, such as www.cnn.com, contain text content that fits horizontally on the screen only when the smallest text size is selected. In this case, you have two choices: squint to read the tiny words, or select a larger text size and scroll horizontally to read each line.
Other sites, such as www.washingtonpost.com, do not exceed the horizontal viewing area even when the largest text size is
When scrolling vertically, we found it easiest to use the iPaq's navigation button. One click carries out a page-down or page-up command and allows for one-handed operation.
Horizontal scrolling was another matter. Pressing the right side takes you to the far right of the screen, and pressing the left side takes you to the far left. To view information that straddles the middle, you'll have to use the stylus to manually position the
We were impressed by the iPaq's multimedia capabilities. A speaker is located under the keyboard, and the sound is respectable for such a small device. When we played a 56K video file, it
wasn't as smooth as watching TV, but it was pretty close.
Pocket IE comes with some helpful links preloaded in the favorites list. One is iAnywhere Solutions Inc.'s AvantGo, a service that delivers popular Web sites to PDAs and smart phones using special formatting ideal for their size. There's also a Pocket PC Web guide that links users to online communities of users and developers. Another link connects to a Windows Mobile site where you can download programs and access support, resources and more.
Overall, we were impressed with the Internet experience
on the iPaq Pocket PC using 802.11b. For such a small device, surfing the Internet is surprisingly practical. The manual
does warn users that sites that use HTML 4.0, DHTML, animated GIF images and Java applets may not work properly
in Pocket IE without additional software called Java Virtual
Machine for Pocket PC, so that could be a limitation. However, we didn't experience any problems when surfing popular
Toshiba Pocket PC e805
Toshiba America Information Systems Inc.'s Pocket PC e805 runs the same operating system as the iPaq and also employs 802.11b wireless connectivity. Nevertheless, we found significant differences in hardware design that affect navigation. Just as the difference between a track point and a touch pad on a notebook tends to polarize users, people may have strong personal preferences about the hardware navigation tools on handhelds.
The most noticeable physical difference between the two devices is that the iPaq has a thumb keyboard and the Toshiba does not. But the Toshiba is almost the same length as the iPaq, and a closer look reveals the reason: at 4 inches, the display's diagonal measurement is half an inch larger.
The Toshiba is thicker than the iPaq and heavier by an ounce, giving it a somewhat bulky appearance. But the trade-off is the inclusion of a CompactFlash II card slot in addition to the Secure Digital card slot.
We found the Toshiba's navigation button easier to use than the iPaq's when surfing the Web. Although vertical scrolling was about the same, with one click corresponding to a page-down or page-up command, horizontal scrolling was much more practical. Each button press corresponds to a rather short scrolling distance, so scrolling was incremental instead of forcing the screen to the far left or far right as the iPaq did.
The Toshiba also has a scroll wheel you can use to move from link to link on a Web page. To select the link, just press the scroll wheel.
One more difference regarding wireless operations is that the Toshiba has a hardware switch for turning the wireless radio on and off, while the iPaq uses software.
We don't think either handheld is necessarily better than the other for surfing the Internet. It's a matter of personal preference for hardware features such as the keyboard and scroll wheel.
Fujitsu Stylistic ST5000D Tablet PC
The most obvious difference between a handheld device and a tablet PC is the tablet's vastly larger screen size. You can't slip a tablet PC into your pocket.
But for a device with a 12.1-inch display, Fujitsu Computer Systems Corp.'s Stylistic ST5000D tablet PC requires a minimal size trade-off. The tablet is about the size of a legal pad and a little less than an inch thick. At 3.4 pounds, it's heavier than a portfolio containing paper, but carrying it feels similar.
This tablet is a slate, meaning it does not have a connected keyboard. But for most Internet surfing, you don't need a keyboard anyway. This is especially true with Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, which offers several alternatives to standard keyboard text entry.
For example, you can use the on-screen keyboard or the convenient Write Anywhere feature that comes with the operating system. When this is enabled, you can use the digitizer pen to write anywhere on the screen. The software then converts the handwriting into text and inserts it wherever the cursor is located. We thought it did a good job of accurately converting our handwriting to text.
For faster and lengthier text entry, you can use the included ultrathin infrared keyboard, which works when the tablet is in portrait and landscape orientations. The keyboard is thin and light enough to easily take with you on the road.
You can also use your voice to enter text and carry out commands, such as opening and closing programs and navigating menus. We were impressed with the breadth of voice commands available.
Training the voice-recognition software takes about 10 minutes. It works fairly well after the initial training session, but you'll probably want to conduct additional training to improve accuracy. We didn't need a headset, finding the built-in microphone and speaker to be sufficient in a quiet room. For noisier environments, however, you should probably use a headset.
Navigating the Internet with the Fujitsu tablet PC was convenient. You can use the pen to scroll vertically and horizontally, or you can press the scroll buttons located on the right side of the unit. You can also use voice commands to carry out menu functions, including Back, Forward and Home.
If you're looking for a portable Internet device that doesn't compromise screen size, a tablet might be for you.
When Research in Motion Ltd.'s first BlackBerries hit the market a few years ago, they were used for e-mail only. Today, the line has expanded to include devices such as the 7280, which you can use for e-mail, Short Message Service (SMS) messaging, personal information management, telephony and Web browsing.
Our BlackBerry used AT&T Wireless service to connect to a General Packet Radio Service/Global System for Mobile Communications (GPRS/GSM) network, so coverage was similar to that of a wireless phone. You can walk down the street with this device, unlike 802.11b devices, which require you to be within 300 feet of a hot spot. The GSM portion allows users to access wireless data in more than 40 countries.
Officials at government agencies concerned with security will be interested to learn of BlackBerry's recent Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2 validation for all of the wireless network standards it supports, including Mobitex Association,
eAccess Solutions Inc. DataTAC, Nextel Communications and Code Division Multiple Access 1X in addition to GPRS/GSM.
Physically, the 7280 looks similar to other handhelds with thumb keyboards. Its display is about half the length of the iPaq's, so the entire device is about an inch shorter. And it doesn't have a navigation button or hot keys like the iPaq and the Toshiba.
Instead, all navigation is performed with a track wheel on the side of the unit. There are left and right arrow keys embedded on the keyboard, but they are not an efficient way to navigate. An escape button located below the track wheel allows you to revert to a previous screen. Navigating with the track wheel was simple, quick and convenient.
Browsing the Web on the BlackBerry is like doing so on a wireless phone. It's a completely different experience from that on 802.11b devices.
Our BlackBerry was set to accept only WML content. According to the manual, the default setting accepts both WML and HTML, but we could not change the option on our unit.
Aside from more limited content, the other trade-off for the wide coverage area of GPRS/GSM is a much slower data transfer speed than 802.11b. It's not usually painful, but don't expect to click through links like you can with non-Wireless Application Protocol devices. It was especially hard for us to get used to waiting several seconds for a site to reload after we hit the Back button.
You'll also have to be patient when reading articles that are longer than a few paragraphs. In most cases, we had to click a link and wait several seconds for the device to load the rest of the content.
As with the MPx200, our BlackBerry came with AT&T's mMode service, which delivers WML content from popular Web sites to the device.
Although it's a far cry from desktop PC or 802.11b Web browsing, the BlackBerry allows you to access content anywhere you can get wireless phone service.
This model also functions as a phone and SMS messenger, and it does both chores extremely well. The 7280 is, in short, a successful multifunction device that delivers every type of wireless service you need.