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David Strom is a networking and communications consultant based in Port Washington, NY. Along with Marshall Rose, he co-authored
Internet Messaging: From the Desktop to the Enterprise (Prentice Hall).

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By David Strom, david@strom.com Web Informant Archives »

Choosing the right pocket–sized gizmo for your email needs

Web Informant #147, 15 March 1999

E-mail on the go

I would take the Telmail on the road with me, particularly when I travel outside the US or in places where I know that RJ11 jacks will be hard to find. The monthly service charge isn't onerous, and while you can't receive attachments on the thing, you wouldn't want to stand around at a payphone all day while waiting for them to download either.

       Trying to stay on top of one's email has become a real challenge for many of us frequent travelers. The trouble is the heavy flow of messages means devoting regular time to sorting, deleting and occasionally responding to your email. If you leave town for a few days, you know your inbox will be bloated when you return.

       So what to do? The usual solution is to buy a laptop, load it up with the same software that is on your desktop, and cart it around with you when on the road. Indeed, some people now use a laptop as their main machine, perhaps augmenting it with a better keyboard and screen when in the office. That is all well and good, but not my style. Laptops are too heavy, too expensive, and too much trouble to connect to hotel phone systems.

       I got rid of mine in January 1997, and haven't looked back since. Sure, sometimes it would be nice to have one, but I find that as planes get more and more crowded, my ability and motivation to work on them drops quickly. And once I get to where I am going, there are usually plenty of computers for me to work on. Back about 18 months ago, I wrote an essay with tips for dealing with this issue, covering many of the services then available for those of us who are laptop–free.

       A number of new products and services have come out that make it worth revisiting the issue. The alternatives, in increasing weight and size are:

  • the RIM Blackberry interactive pager ($39/month),
  • the AT&T PocketNet CDPD phone($35/month),
  • a Palm Pilot with some kind of modem,
  • the Sharp Telmail device($10/month), or
  • a Windows CE machine.

       Except for the phone, all run on replaceable AA or AAA batteries that can be found at any airport in the world. All weigh less than a pound and are easy to carry around. I've quoted the approximate monthly cost above and beyond what you need to pay for an ISP account because that is more important than the purchase price of the products.

       All of these products work with your existing email account, so you don't need to set up a special mailbox just to go on the road. But they do so in different ways, which I'll get to in a moment.

       The Blackberry is an interesting idea, and currently only works with Microsoft Exchange servers. You can forward all of your Exchange email to the pager, and type replies on its miniscule three-inch keyboard. Wireless coverage is pretty good, and if you want to stay in touch without having to worry about finding a phone jack, it is a good choice. Of course, if you don't use Exchange, this isn't going to help you. Batteries last several days to a week, depending on how long the radio is on.

       The PocketNet phone is what I continue to use. It is a combination cell phone and wireless IP device. It works in most major cities with the notable exceptions of Atlanta and Los Angeles. You can read and reply to your existing POP email account through the services of MailandNews.com, one of the many browser-based email services. (The phone contains a miniature web browser and three–line screen.) While the phone's keypad is annoying for anything longer than a few words, it works and does the job. Battery life is barely a full day, depending on the phone and which battery you get.

       The Pilot has certainly become the most popular gizmo around, but it is more useful at contact and time management than a pure email scheme. While there are many people who swear by their Pilots, I have never much cared for them and don't really trust them to hold critical information. I still use a paper diary that is instant-on, always available, and works under the widest and harshest operating conditions. Batteries last several weeks.

       Most people who use their Pilots for email do so in conjunction with their desktop email system: you synchronize messages when you place the Pilot in the cradle connected to your desktop. You can get either a wired or wireless modem and have it send and receive email directly to the unit, but that gets very pricey and adds lots of weight and bulk to the small Pilot. Also, you'll need to learn its Graffiti language, which some people take to quickly and others stumble over. If that is an issue, you can buy a separate keyboard.

       The next step up is Sharp Telmail device. This is about the size of a large eyeglass case and contains a small acoustic coupler that pops out the back. You dial an 800 phone number and hold the gizmo up to the phone to transfer your mail. It is painless, although a bit slow. You can set it up to collect your mail from your existing POP account. Unlike the units mentioned so far, it has an almost usable six-inch wide typewriter keyboard. It also has address book and calendar functions, although those aren't as good as what you can find with the Pilot. Batteries last several weeks.

       I would take the Telmail on the road with me, particularly when I travel outside the US or in places where I know that RJ11 jacks will be hard to find. The monthly service charge isn't onerous, and while you can't receive attachments on the thing, you wouldn't want to stand around at a payphone all day while waiting for them to download either.

       Finally there is Windows CE. I tried an HP 360LX which has a PC card slot for adding wired or wireless modems or video adapters and an almost usable seven-inch keyboard. There are several dozen devices to choose from, including ones that look a lot like the Pilot and ones with bigger keyboards and color screens. CE is for those of you that use Microsoft Office and want to take your PowerPoint presentations or Excel spreadsheets on the road. You can set up the Pocket version of Outlook to act as your email software for POP and Exchange servers, as well as synchronize with the bigger brother version of Outlook on your desktop. Batteries last a week at most.

       HP makes a VGA PC card adapter that I haven't field tested yet, although it works fine in my office. The theory of being able to project from this tiny thing has lots of appeal for me, given the number of presentations I do and how much trouble it is to get a rented machine setup at the show's site. I probably would use it as a backup rather than my main presentation machine, though.

       The CE computers are expensive, costing about a third to half of what a low-end laptop goes for these days. And getting the synchronization tools set up isn't as easy as the Pilot. The Pocket Office versions are feature-poor but do most of what you need. What is appealing about CE is the wealth of games that you can install on the machine, making those hours of flight time go by quicker.

       Buying any of these gizmos is a compromise. You trade off the features and typing ease of your full–size PC with the portability and battery life of the units. The PocketNet phone is still my favorite, but then I've had it the longest and gotten used to its quirks. Still, it is nice to have lots of choices when you are planning your travels and need access to your email. But the best solution for me still is borrowing a machine at a cybercafe, library, or at a client's office. It doesn't add to your suitcase and you get high–speed Internet access at minimal cost.

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      Web Informant copyright 1999 by David Strom, Inc., reprinted by permission
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