Now that the holidays are upon us and 2003 is almost a memory, we thought it would be a good time to dig into our mobile grab bag and look at some of the truly innovative and useful devices and gadgets that were introduced over the past year.
Obviously, it is impossible to write about every device in just one column, and our opinions are every bit as biased and one-sided as the next person's. We also realize that given the inevitable march of technology and the inescapable laws of obsolescence, the devices mentioned today will be the landfill of tomorrow. But, as we sit high up on our sheltered analytical perch, these are the products we feel have at least made some real difference to the day-in day-out mobile and wireless challenges faced by executives and IT managers.
There were quite a few new entries in the category of mobile systems, with most manufacturers focusing more effort on extending battery life and on developing systems that offer a variety of 'built-in' capabilities rather than removable and plug-in options. Like many people -- especially consumers -- we are innately attracted to the Sony Corp. Vaio series of systems because they are sleek, feature-packed, and about as close as you can get to the Apple iBook experience without jumping over the fence to the Macintosh operating environment (which is still small potatoes when it comes to enterprise computing).
In fact, the Vaio PCG-GRT190G (Note to Sony: Come up with a more compelling model name!) is a neat system -- especially since it comes equipped with the company's Giga Pocket DVR technology, which allows people to pause and record live TV programming onto a hard drive for future playback (a feature previously limited to Vaio desktop models); and it has an impressive 16.1-inch active-matrix display and dual-format DVD+/-RW drive.
We have heard some complaints about the ruggedness of these systems in the field, however, which leads us to believe they are much better-suited to the home office than the rigors of airport security and flimsy airline tray tables. There are also some questions about battery life and the possibility of overheating and exploding power supplies in some earlier Vaio models (although that may better be a topic for a future column). So, our criteria for a perfect enterprise notebook start with a mobile chip technology (Intel or AMD), extended battery life (and this does not mean trucking along extra battery packs!), and a high degree of ruggedness when on the road.
With this in mind, we recommend the IBM T40, one of the more recent additions to the 10-year-old ThinkPad notebook line and a system that features a manageable weight (roughly 4.5 pounds), a Pentium M mobile processor architecture, a 14.1" SXGA display, embedded wireless and security subsystems, and a CD-RW/DVD-ROM. Two of the more attractive features of this "thin and light" notebook are its incredibly long battery life (roughly 5.5 hours for a six-cell battery, and a whopping 7.2 hours with a nine-cell battery) and a ruggedized design that sits the hard drive on a series of springs and rubber padding to shield it from bumps and bruises. Just the thing when you are dropping into that airport screening bin and then hastily collecting it along with your shoes, belt, coins and wallet at the end of the screening line. (More info at www.ibm.com).
If mobile tablet PCs are more to your liking, then we recommend Motion Computing's M1300 system, which is based on the Intel Centrino architecture (900 MHz), has an Intel 855 graphics chipset, and an integrated 802.11b wireless networking capability. The M1300 is also very durable, since it sports a very slick magnesium allow composite body that quite effectively resists the little dings and scratches that inevitably result from everyday use. This alloy is also much lighter than previous composites, which helps with the overall weight of the system. The M1300 also employs 'nano-paint' technology, which essentially bonds the color of the system right into the magnesium casing itself, which also tends to reduce the visibility of scratches and scuffs.
In terms of screen technology, the system has a 12.1-inch LCD TFT display, which is protected by acrylic overlay sheet that not only protects the LCD surface from scratches but also eliminates the 'pooling' effect that is common to all LCD displays when pressure is applied by fingers or stylus. The system also does away with the annoying cooling fan within most mobile systems (like the very loud fan pumping away inside our HP Pavilion notebook right now!), replacing it with a single cooling vent and a series of well-placed 'heat spreaders' to disperse the heat and cool the system's internal parts. The system also has a 20G-byte hard drive (upgradeable to 60 GB); 256 MB of internal memory (upgradeable to 1 GB); an external keyboard, AC adapter, and assorted software.
Motion recently introduced a 'value priced' version of the M1300, which sports a less powerful 800 MHz Intel Celeron processor. But, our recommendation, as well as that of many of the T managers we talk to, is to opt for the Pentium M model instead of the Celeron. More information on these systems at www.motioncomputing.com.
In terms of handhelds, we are again drawn to the 'all things to all people' Pocket PC environment in general and the Hewlett-Packard (Compaq) iPAQ line of systems. These are the standards when it comes to enterprise-class Pocket PC devices. The iPAQ h5550 is a terrific little system, featuring integrated WLAN 802.11b and Bluetooth wireless technology, an integrated biometric fingerprint reader, an SD/IO slot, and a basic 128M bytes of memory. It is also based on a 400 MHz Intel Xscale processor, which means you will have plenty of multi-tasking muscle. The h5550 also has a 3.8" transflective TFT technology screen with 64K colors and a resolution that defies the rigors of daylight. More info at www.hp.com.
Dell Computer Corp. also offers a nice variation on the Pocket PC (Mobile 2003) environment with its Axim line of handheld systems. The top-of-the-line is the 400 MHz Dell Axim X3, which is based on Intel XScale (tm) processor and is equipped with 64 MB of RAM. It also features an integrated SDIO (secure digital) slot for WiFi, Bluetooth and memory expansion cards.
If Palm is more your style, then you can either go right to the source, and consider systems from the company itself, or take a look at some of the really neat alternatives from vendors who license the Palm operating environment. Once again, we are inexorably drawn to Sony Corp., and in this case its Clie line of handheld computers. The top-of-the-line model is the PEG-NZ90, which features an ARM-compliant 200 MHz CPU, built-in 2 Mega-pixel camera supporting UXGA resolution (1600x1200) for high quality still photos, MPEG-4 video recorder, built-in Bluetooth, and a slot for adding 802.11 wireless. The system also has a neat swiveling LCD screen.
While innovative, though, the Sony Clie may not be the best choice for the no-nonsense business crowd. In this case, we like systems from both PalmOne (formerly just Palm, Inc.) and Dell Computer Corp. (also based on the Palm OS). Two of our favorite PalmOne systems are the Tungsten w and the Tungsten T3. The Tungsten W, introduced in early 2003 as a replacement for the disappointing Palm i705 handheld. The W offers wireless GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) and GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) data services through carriers such as AT&T Wireless, and can be used as both a PDA and a wireless phone. It offers a fairly sharp viewing screen, a built-in keyboard, and incorporates a Motorola 33 MHz DragonBall processor.
The Tungsten T3 gets our vote for the most interesting application of technology in its use of an expanding LCD screen that allows you to flip the device horizontally and get the full picture of a spreadsheet, or watch a video clip in wide-screen mode. The unit's 320x480 Stretch Display rotates from portrait to landscape, offering a 50% greater viewing area than other Palm handhelds and reportedly twice the resolution of Pocket PC 2003 handhelds. The system is based on a 400MHz Intel XScale processor and uses Palm OS 5.2.1. It also has built-in Bluetooth technology for communicating wirelessly with a printer, or connecting to the Internet through a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone. We are currently in the process of reviewing this unit, and promise a more in-depth look early next year!
Despite rumors concerning its early demise, paper is still very much a part of the business experience, so mobile printers are a much-desired option by many in-the-field warriors. One system we like is the MPrint MW-100 from Brother International Corp. The system weighs about 11 ounces and reminds us in size (6.3in x 3.9in) of that sick cigarette case carried by James Bond in some of the earlier spy pictures, before smoking became politically incorrect in most social circles. It has a built-in rechargeable lithium-ion battery, and delivers output on small slips of special thermal paper (3.9in x 2.7in in size), at a rate of about 15 seconds per page. The printing resolution is pretty basic (300 x 300 dpi), but perfect for quick lists and written thoughts that can easily be attached to larger documents. The latest version of this system is the MW-140BT, a Bluetooth-enabled version that let's you print quick items from your equally-equipped notebook, Pocket C/Mobile 2003 handheld, or smart phone. (Again, we will be talking more about this system in a full review scheduled for early next year).
Speaking of smartphones, we stick by our earlier recommendation of the Handspring Treo 600, which just started shipping in the past month or two. This small and lightweight system (about 5-9 ounces) is about 8-10% smaller than previous Treo's, but has slightly larger and rounded keys on its built-in keyboard. It also ha a built-in VGA camera, an expansion slot for third-party secure digital and MMC solutions such as MP3 and wireless networking solutions, dual speakers for really clear and high-quality speakerphone conversations (or MP3 playbacks!), and a dual-band CDMA radio and a quad-band GSM/GPRS radio (one of the first to offer such a capability). The Treo 600 also features an improved battery technology, a much better viewing screen that actually can be used in daylight conditions, and a 'threaded SMS' messaging capability, which allows users to approach message exchanges more like a chat session.
While the Treo 600 is not the 'perfect' PDA/cell phone (s a number of readers reminded us flowing an earlier MMB on the subject!), it is a strong move in the right direction. Rumor has it that companies like Danger, Inc. are planning for some new developments in 2004, and cell phone makes like Samsung, Nokia, Ericsson and others are sure to keep improving their form factors and functionality. We expect 2004 to be a terrific year in terms of very capable and communicative mobile systems, so stay tuned for more tips and suggestions on what to look for as enterprise solutions.
Tim Scannell is the president and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, Mass.-based consulting company specializing in mobile and wireless technology and initiatives. Shoreline works with end users, looking to implement mobile solutions, and vendors, developing new products and seeking business and customer opportunities. The company also specializes in training and strategic planning projects. For more information on Shoreline Research and the company's strategic services please go to http://www.shorelineresearch.com.