Cool mobile tools

Digicam with video and sound

Camera phones are all very well if you only need to take low-resolution snapshots as memory aids. If you have employees on the road who need to take pictures, and occasionally video, for print or Web publication or to provide detailed visual information for technical support, consider the Sanyo Xacti C4. It’s a very compact, easy-to-use 4-megapixel (MP) digital camera that can also record excellent MPEG4 video at 640×480 pixels and 30-frames-per-second (fps) with “CD-quality” sound.

The test photos we took were very sharp and clear with good colour. The 4MP sensor captures enough image detail to print at sizes up to 5×7 inches without degradation. The video is equivalent to analog broadcast quality, even when viewed on a big screen TV. The unit comes with a 128MB SD memory card that is capable of storing five minutes of best-quality video or 20 minutes of 30-fps VHS quality video.

The physical design is brilliant. The unit measures 68.6 x 109.2 x 33 mm and weighs only 170g loaded. You hold the C4 like a pistol, the 5.8X optical zoom lens making a stubby barrel. The 1.8-inch LCD viewfinder flips out to 90-degrees from the side and swivels 270 degrees. The controls are on the top rear surface, easily manipulable with a thumb. A docking station/battery charger lets you plug in to a PC, TV or VCR.

One nifty laptop

This should be your CEO’s next laptop. The JVC Mobile Mini Note PC is a tiny but powerful portable that clearly sets itself apart in the travelling notebook market. At 91/4 x 11/4 x 87/16 inches and 3 lbs. 4 oz. with the clip-on battery it will be easy on the presidential shoulder. Yet it includes a built-in DVD-CDR/W drive, and the battery life is a remarkable three hours when playing DVDs; almost seven when it’s used for PC functions.

The Mini Note is a response to the post-9/11 realities of air travel, with longer waits in airports. You can’t expect the Big Guy to be working all the time. This way he can pack a few movies and while away the downtime watching them on the Mini Note’s seemingly undersized, but brilliant 8.9-inch (1024 x 600) widescreen LCD. When the unit is sitting on your lap or on an airline seat-back table, the effect is similar to watching a big-screen TV 10 feet away.

As a PC, it’s no slouch either, with a 1GHz Pentium M processor, 256MB of memory and a 40GB hard drive. The Intel Centrino Mobile Technology includes built-in Wi-Fi (802.11b/g) wireless networking for connecting at airport hotspots.

Given the screen size, it’s perhaps not a computer you would want to spend hours staring at, though in our testing it was perfectly comfortable for viewing at close range. The keyboard is also not ideal for touch typists – the keys are too small and close together. You can touch type, but you’ll make more mistakes. These might be problems for power users, but shouldn’t be for the average travelling senior executive.

Smart phone for mobile power users

The Nokia 6620, a Bluetooth-enabled, tri-mode GSM/EDGE/GPR S smart phone, could be the only device your mobile power users ever need. It’s a phone, camera, camcorder, PDA, e-mail device and mobile entertainment centre, all in one pocket-size device that measures 4.28 x 2.29 x .93 inches and weighs only 4.37 ounces. The 6620 is slightly bigger than the smallest Nokia phones, but it’s way more than a phone.

Your peripatetic employees can use the built-in camera to shoot pictures of new products at trade shows, or broken down equipment in a factory, or even brief video clips. They can view them on the bright 176×208-pixel LCD, and use the carrier’s EDGE (3G GSM) network to transmit them wirelessly at up to 118 Kbps. The camera lacks a flash, but this is true of virtually all built-in phone cameras.

The 6620 also works well as a PDA. The included Symbian Series 60 applets – contacts, calendar, to-do – are perhaps slightly less functional than some Palm and Pocket PC PDA applets, but if your users mostly read data on the PDA and use a PC to enter new records and then synchronize them to the handheld, the 6620 applets are perfectly adequate.

The EDGE/GPRS functionality makes the 6620 a great device for e-mail and even Web browsing. It’s still a far cry from a BlackBerry in terms of making e-mail a perfectly transparent process, but if you want a mobile device with a cell phone form factor and need the multimedia and EDGE capabilities, this one is a good bet.

Juiced-up BlackBerry

One of the new 7700 series models will make a sweet upgrade for the BlackBerry addicts on your corporate Christmas list. BlackBerry is still the best mobile e-mail tool by a country mile because of the way the service pushes messages out to the devices. These models, however, are also cell phones and excellent for Web browsing as well. They’re available from Rogers Wireless, Bell Mobility and Telus Mobility in slightly different versions.

The big improvements with the 7700 series are the new colour screen, which is larger and higher-res than previous BlackBerrys (240×240 pixels, 2.13 x 2.13 inches, 65,000 colours), and the refined user interface. They make a surprising difference to how easy it is to read text and find things at a glance. All the main menu icons now fit on one screen, for example. The once innovative, now often copied BlackBerry QWERTY keypad and thumb wheel – again, subtly refined in these models – are still arguably the best PDA input tools available.

We tested the 7780 on the Rogers GSM/GPRS network. It worked well as a phone – you can hold it to your ear or use the included hands-free headset. It also works well as a WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) Web browsing device. The Rogers WAP service is very slick with lots of news, sports, weather and other information formatted for small screens.

Handy PDA for note-takers

AlphaSmart’s Dana Wireless could be the ideal PDA solution for the right user. It’s a Palm OS device with an integrated notebook-size PC keyboard and a 7.25 x 2.25-inch monochrome LCD screen. The unit measures 1.9 x 12.4 x 9.3 inches and weighs 2 lbs. It was designed as a lower-cost alternative to laptops for students, a device small and durable enough to carry from class to class, but one that would let users type notes and essays.

It could also work nicely for business users who need basic PDA-style personal information management, but also want to be able to type notes and data-entry items in meetings. The unit comes with standard Palm Desktop applications – address book, calendar, memo, to-do – plus a more full-featured word processor from AlphaSmart. All the applications are optimized for the Dana wide screen. It’s also possible to use any Palm-compatible application. Dana Wireless only comes with 16MB of storage, but does include two SD memory card slots.

This model includes built-in 802.11b wireless networking. There is no wide area wireless networking capability, but in an enterprise campus with a Wi-Fi network, or at a Wi-Fi hotspot, users can surf the Net and retrieve e-mail using software that ships with the product. They can also use the standard Palm HotSync software to synchronize data with a computer – including over a Wi-Fi network – or to exchange data with another Palm or AlphaSmart device.

All-everything PC phone

The iPAQ h6300 Pocket PC phone from Hewlett-Packard won’t arrive in Canada until first quarter 2005. We decided to include it anyway because it’s hot, hot, hot. It’s a sleek, all-wireless, all-everything PDA – an international quad band GSM/GPRS phone (meaning it works virtually anywhere in the world), with integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless networking. It also has a camera built in.

The unit measures 4.6 x 2.9 x .70 inches and weighs 6.7 ounces, which makes it heavier and bulkier than the Nokia 6620 smart phone (see pg. 15) – but you get a much bigger, better screen (3.5-inches diagonally, 240×320 pixels, 64,000 color) and more and better PDA functions. This model runs the latest Windows Mobile 2003 (Phone Edition) operating system and includes pocket versions of Outlook, Word, Excel and Internet Explorer, plus Windows Media Player, Microsoft Reader and HP Image Capture.

The h6300 could almost be a laptop replacement. It uses Texas Instruments’ OMAP 1510 processor, comes with 64MB SDRAM, 64MB Flash ROM and has an integrated SDIO (Secure Digital Input/Output) card slot – you can probably find a 1GB SD memory card on the Internet for less than $100. So who needs a laptop? Or a camera, for that matter, or a digital music player? The 640×480-pixel camera, like all phone cameras, has only limited utility, but it’s better than many. As a music player, the iPAQ running Windows Media Player rivals or surpasses dedicated devices for sound quality.

Zeroing in on Wi-Fi signals

The WiFi Signal Locator from Mobile Edge, a maker of upscale computer briefcases, is a clever little keychain gadget. It runs on a watch battery and detects the presence and strength of a Wi-Fi network signal at up to 300 feet. It will find not only hotspots but also private Wi-Fi networks that leak outside a company’s premises or a home. Is it ethical to use somebody else’s unsecured network to access the Internet? Your call. Point the device in any direction and the four LEDs start flashing. When they light up solidly, you’ve found a network. The number of LEDs lit indicates the strength. Available online from

Capture those business cards

Visioneer CardReader 100 is a compact USB business card reader that’s an ideal tool for collecting business card data while you’re on the go. Plug the CardReader in to the USB port on a laptop – the unit is powered by the USB connection – launch the Visioneer software and feed in a business card. You see the scanned image in seconds, then the software automatically OCRs (optical character reads) the image, extracts data elements from the resulting text and adds them to a new database record. It doesn’t work perfectly on every card. You may still have to make corrections to the new record, but it’s faster than typing in the whole thing. Once you have a corrected record, or a bunch of them, you can export them to Outlook, Outlook Express, vCard, dBase III or a text file. Or you can synchronize to a Palm or Windows CE PDA. The CardReader 100 is slightly larger than a package of cigarettes and weighs only a few ounces.

Keyboard for one-handers

FrogPad for Bluetooth is an innovative keyboard for one-handed touch typing. Its maker, FrogPad, claims users can type at up to 40 words a minute with as little as six hours training and practice. Why would anyone want to type one-handed? To do input-intensive tasks on a PDA, tablet PC or smart phone – you can hold the handheld or tablet in one hand and type with the other. If you’re physically challenged, of course, you might have to type one handed.

The device features a matrix of 15 tightly packed full-size keys for inputting the most often used letters in the English alphabet, plus five larger keys – Space, Number, Symbol, Enter, Shift – arrayed below them. Each of the 15 keys can generate multiple other characters, depending on which of the five larger keys (or combination of keys) is pressed or held.

The design is based on much careful thought and analysis of language (FrogPad has layouts optimized for other languages as well). It’s easy to see that you could type fairly quickly on a FrogPad, if you spent the six to ten hours learning. However, as a touch typist who can already do more like 70 words a minute on a conventional keyboard, the FrogPad learning process – unlearning process, really – was excruciating. The product would be ideal, as the manufacturer suggests, for reformed hunt and peckers.

This model eliminates the wires needed to connect earlier versions. It works with virtually any Bluetooth-enabled PC or Mac (including tablets) and some PDAs.

Trapping a better mouse

Some users just can’t get used to the little touch-sensitive pads you slide your finger across to move the cursor on a laptop, or the little rubber thing sticking up from the keyboard. They want a real mouse. No problem when they’re at the office – just plug in any standard mouse. But a mouse does become a problem when you take the computer travelling. It’s too much extra bulk, too much hassle with tangled wires. The Microsoft Wireless Notebook Optical Mouse solves these problems admirably.

When you plug the included dongle, which is a wireless receiver, into a USB port on the laptop, the mouse works wirelessly up to six feet from the computer. It uses the 27 megahertz MHz ISM (Industrial, Scientific, and Medical) radio band so it shouldn’t interfere with 2.4 GHz Bluetooth or Wi-Fi wireless networks in the vicinity. When not in use, the dongle snaps into a space on the bottom of the mouse for safe keeping. Microsoft’s new power conservation technology means the single AA battery will power the mouse for up to three months.

The mouse itself is smaller than a standard desktop model, making it practical for use on an airplane seat-back table or any confined space. It includes a scroll wheel. The optical technology, which uses an infrared beam instead of a rolling ball to map the movement of the mouse, should have been the standard for all mice long ago. Rolling ball mice gather dust and grease from the table top and eventually require disassembly and cleaning. Optical mice require no maintenance.

Phone/music headset

Don’t tell anyone you found the SkullCandy LINK, a dual-function phone/music player headset, at a place that caters to skater punks. It’s a useful accessory – that’s all they need to know. The LINK is available in exterior back phone or ear bud styles. You plug one end into your cell phone, the other into a digital audio device. Then when a phone call comes in while you’re listening to music, click the multi-function button on the microphone unit dangling in the middle of the cord – the music goes away and you’re on the phone. The LINK comes in various versions for different cell phones. In some cases the multi-function button lets you access features such as last number redial. Available online at

Gerry Blackwell is a freelance writer specializing in information technology and IT management. He is based in London, Ont.