(01/29/2001) – Imagine this: You’re on the way home from work when you suddenly remember that you forgot to e-mail a colleague about a meeting early next morning. Or you’re in a strange town on business and you need directions. Or you’re stuck in line at the grocery and get a sudden urge to fly to Hawaii for vacation. No problem. You simply pull out your PDA, get onto the Net, and take care of everything right there.
The idea of having access to the Internet through a PDA-no matter where you are-is appealing. For anyone who travels for business or pleasure, it means staying in touch quickly and easily by e-mail without having to lug around a notebook (and without having to find a power source and a phone line to plug it into). Wireless access to the Net means access to stock prices, news headlines, flight information, and more, wherever you are. You can even read the news during boring business meetings, and everybody will think you’re busily taking notes.
But how much of this Web-on-the-go works, and how much remains the stuff of science fiction? Can you look forward to browsing for campfire songs as you hike through the Sierra Madre or summoning your Webmaster to fix your Web site when you’re halfway to Waikiki? To sort the facts from the hype, we took to the streets with our PDAs and tried to perform common tasks using a range of wireless-enabled PDA devices and Web portals. Our object: to see what they could do. We used Palm Inc.’s CDN$554 Palm VII with its built-in modem and the Palm.Net service; a $1047 Palm Inc. Vx with an OmniSky Corp. modem and the OmniSky service (the modem is also available for the Handspring Inc. and HP Jornada 540 PDAs); a $749 Research In Motion Ltd. Blackberry 957 with built-in modem and the Go.Web service from GoAmerica Inc.; and a $1571 Compaq Computer Corp. IPaq Pocket PC with a PC Card expansion pack and a Sierra Wireless Inc. 300 AirCard modem and Mobile MSN service.
The mobile Internet access services we looked at charge between $60 and $83 per month for unlimited use, though two offer lower monthly charges with limited use. Of course, other wireless services are available for PDAs, including hundreds of free services for doing just about anything you can think of.
A number of PDA applications exist for particular enterprises as well, such as medical, customer service, and management. For a look at wireless PDAs in the workplace, see PC World’s Special Report on Enterprise Technology.
Because a wireless connection on a PDA can’t send and receive data fast enough to replicate the experience of browsing the Web on a PC with a 56-kbps modem or faster connection, these services concentrate on a subset of the Internet: e-mail and limited Web access. Both Palm-based PDAs use a system called Web Clipping Applications, a small program that runs on the Palm PDA and fetches the bare minimum of data from the Internet in text form. The Palm VII we looked at doesn’t allow you to browse the Web; instead, it relies solely on the Web Clipping Apps. (At press time, Palm announced Web browsing through the MyPalm portal.) Mobile MSN is a purely text-based Web site, and the GoAmerica portal the Blackberry uses offers text-based versions of selected Web sites. By keeping to a minimum the data that must be transmitted, these arrangements deliver the info you want from the Internet in seconds, rather than in the minutes downloading images would take.
Mobile e-mail is a great reason to buy a wireless PDA. The technology permits you to send and receive
E-mail on the move, opening all sorts of possibilities (such as e-mailing your boss while you’re on the way home). All the devices we used can send and receive e-mail, and the messages we sent were delivered quickly and without fuss, as long as we were within the coverage area. But writing long messages on these devices proved frustrating: The only one to pass our crucial stuck-in-line-at-the-DMV test was the RIM Blackberry 957-entering text on its small QWERTY keyboard was far quicker and more accurate than using the Palm-style system of writing the shapes of letters with a stylus. Both Palms and the IPaq device allow you tap a keyboard on the screen, but doing this isn’t much quicker than using their shorthand versions.
All the services we examined let you retrieve e-mail from any POP3 e-mail server (used by most ISPs), but remember to access your regular e-mail account with caution: Big file attachments will take ages to download and will quickly fill up your entire PDA. Fortunately, the e-mail programs on the devices that we reviewed allow you to filter messages from your regular e-mail account, leaving any that exceed a specified size on the server for you to retrieve later. The portals also give you an e-mail account on their service, although this setup may have limitations. The Palm.Net e-mail service, for example, refuses to accept any e-mail message larger than 51KB and bounces it back to the sender with a notice that the server can’t accept it.
Various instant messaging services such as Yahoo Messenger (for Palm and PocketPC) and AOL Instant Messenger (for Palm) are now available for wireless Internet devices. We found them to be a nice alternative for shorter and more urgent messages.
Booking a Flight
When you’re on the move, you may wish to keep track of the next leg of your journey. For example, you’ll want to know as soon as possible if your flight is canceled. All the portals we looked at except GoAmerica can retrieve flight info. GoAmerica includes a link to Trip.com’s Flight Tracker, but that utility allows you to track only flights that are already in the air-not particularly useful for checking the status of your upcoming flight. The others let you obtain details about flights by flight number or by selecting from a schedule, and the OmniSky and Palm.Net portals (both via the BizTravel Web Clipping App) let you book a flight directly from the PDA. If you want to book your flights through someone other than BizTravel, you’ll run into problems. Unless you find sites that are optimized for mobile users, you’ll struggle to connect to other travel sites’ normal Web pages.
Most people will just want to learn the status of already-booked flights, and all the portals except GoAmerica permit this, either through the Travelocity Web Clipping App (on the Palm Vx and Palm VII) or through the Expedia section of Mobile MSN (on the IPaq). These services can tap into an itinerary of existing flights so you can check for any delays or problems. Furthermore, many airlines (including American, Continental, Delta, and United) have their own Web Clipping Apps for the Palm platform; these allow you to obtain information about delays and even check your frequent flier miles while you’re waiting in the departure lounge.
Getting Directions and Finding Things
Few experiences are more frustrating than getting lost. Fortunately, all the portals we tested offer a way to get directions. They all work pretty much the same way: Enter a starting address and a destination, and you’ll get textual driving directions along the lines of ‘Step 1: Turn SHARP LEFT onto ELM ST. Step 2: Turn RIGHT onto MAIN ST.’ The MapBlast service on the GoAmerica and OmniSky portals creates maps from an address, which is handy but underscores the problem with maps on a PDA: On a small screen they’re difficult to read and often omit details (in my case, the street I live on). The Palm VII doesn’t include a Web browser, but the Palm.Net portal provides services such as the Etak Traffic Touch Web Clipping Application, which lists major problems on the roads in your area, and a Starbucks locator for finding the nearest branch outlet of the ubiquitous coffeehouse.
Stocks and Banking
All the portals we tried allow you to get simple stock prices and business headlines for checking what the markets are up to-but that is the only thing Mobile MSN offers. The others provide more financial tools. GoAmerica and OmniSky maintain text-based versions of a range of financial news sites such as Fox Market Wire and The Motley Fool. The Palms take this a step further by letting you manage your stock portfolio wirelessly through Web Clipping Apps produced by brokers such as DLJ Direct, ETrade, and Fidelity. Anyone who wants to browse news and stock quotes has access to all these services except Ameritrade, which restricts entry to Ameritrade users. You can use these services to buy and sell stocks, check real-time prices, and read research reports, and if you have an account with the ETrade bank, you can check your account balance. All of the Web Clipping Apps are installed as a standard feature of the OmniSky portal; they can be downloaded for the Palm.Net portal.
If you need to get some cash quickly, Web Clipping Apps can help you find the nearest ATM that handles accounts with Visa, MasterCard, and some banks and credit unions. The Bank of America also supplies a Web Clipping App to check your account, transfer money, and pay bills, but it can’t find an ATM.
A Wonderful Wireless Web?
Wireless net access is still in its infancy, and though the idea of mobile Internet access is exciting, its real-world execution leaves something to be desired. Downloading information can be slow and unpredictable, and using more-traditional methods continues to be easier in many instances. Let’s face it: If you get lost, it’s probably a lot quicker to roll down the window and ask someone for advice than to ferret out directions on your PDA.
OmniSky’s Elan Amir, chief technology officer, says that the two chief uses of its service are to send mobile e-mail and to check financial information. It’s easy to see why these capabilities would be quite useful for the roaming business professional or trader. Mobile e-mail can be invaluable, especially when you combine it with a PDA’s other functions, such as the notepad and the appointment book. You could take short notes at a meeting and e-mail them immediately to colleagues, or send a quick e-mail request to a coworker without interrupting an ongoing meeting.
Though the excellent screen and the built-in Internet Explorer Web browser of the Compaq IPaq Pocket PC show most Web pages very well, waiting for them to download will test your patience. Plus, the fully loaded IPaq costs a hefty $1047. The IPaq looks cool, but it doesn’t work as well as as some of the other devices, and Mobile MSN has the narrowest range of features of the four portals.
If you want just e-mail and some basic PDA functions, the Blackberry 957 is the best option. The device is easy to use and has a fairly large screen and a QWERTY keyboard. If you don’t mind waiting, you can use Blackberry to browse the Web; lots of varied information is available via the GoAmerica portal.
For more than mobile e-mail, the Palm Vx with OmniSky has the best overall package, though the Palm VII isn’t far behind. Browsing the Web on any PDA is very slow, but it’s nice to have it as an option, and the Palm VII doesn’t. OmniSky’s bundling of a wide range of Web Clipping Apps and an excellent e-mail program makes the whole Palm Vx package work very well.
Whichever wireless PDA and service you choose, get ready to compromise. People’s expectations for these devices and services, especially as Web browsing tools, are still ahead of the reality.
Mobile or Miserable?
Access to the Internet on the road is incredibly useful but has some downsides. Two major problems with wireless technology are glacial speed and limited coverage. The modems we tested access the Net at speeds generously described as lethargic; if you go out of signal range, they are about as useful as a telescope in a coal mine.
Plan to Take It Slow
Speed is the first big issue. Most of these systems connect to the Net using the Cellular Digital Packet Data standard, which uses a cellular phone network and transmits data at a maximum speed of 19.2 kbps. V.90 modem transmissions are rated to download at 56 kbps and upload at 33 kbps. In informal tests, a sample Web page with images downloaded in 20 seconds on the Palm Vx using the OmniSky service, while the same Web page on a V.90 dial-up connection downloaded to a PC in 5 seconds.
To discourage you from directly accessing regular Web pages, most portals we looked at provide their own versions of Web pages, sans graphics. Palm.Net and OmniSky use Palm-based Web Clipping Applications that send and receive a minimal amount of data. But even with such well-conceived techniques, getting data on these systems often involves waiting a long time for things to happen.
This may change as new high-speed networks become available. OmniSky is working with Metricom to pair Metricom’s Ricochet wireless service (running at a fairly speedy 128 kbps) with a Compaq IPaq. Trials start in mid-2001.
Run for Coverage
Coverage is another key question. The services we tried have sufficient coverage in most large cities, but if you venture out of the United States or out of urban areas, all bets are off. OmniSky claims the CDPD network covers about 200 cities, including 43 of the 50 largest cities in the United States. This comprises about 167 million people-roughly 60 percent of the nation’s population. But once you go outside the big cities, you’ll probably lose your signal, since the CDPD network (which OmniSky uses) is primarily urban. Fortunately, all the providers we tested let you check coverage on their Web sites, and it is worth spending the time to ensure that you can use the services in places you travel to regularly.
You aren’t guaranteed a strong signal even when you’re in the city-especially if you’re sitting in a car. As cellular phone users know, disconnections and dropouts aren’t unusual, and all the services we tested lost signals occasionally when we used them in a car. Until coverage areas expand and signals improve, loss of signal is a fact of wireless life.
Additional Resources on PCWorld.com
You can visit our site to download dozens of PDA applications at www.pcworld.com/downloads/handhelds
For ongoing news about all things wireless, check out the Wireless and Mobile section at www.pcworld.com/channels/wireless.asp
Check out the following two articles on PCWorld.com for more information about our increasingly wireless world:
Here’s How: Wireless Application Protocol www.pcworld.com/hereshow/wap
Bluetooth Brings Cable-Free Networking to Small Devices www.pcworld.com/jan2001/bluetooth
Richard Baguley is a senior associate editor for PC World.
Prices listed are in Cdn currency.