Recommendations and hearsay are important in the mobile computing space. Like every mobile executive in the IT industry, we are obsessed with finding just the right mobile device. You know...the one that can not only access your e-mail and attachments on multiple corporate and POP accounts, but can also give you a vibrating nudge when it senses you are approaching a Starbucks that serves your favorite mocha frappaccino latte.
Truth be told, we have been looking for this mobile Holy Grail since the introduction of the Tandy Model 100 portable system way back in the 1980s. We still have this terrific little system sitting in our office museum (which also contains the Apple Newton, the RocketBook Reader, a Casio clamshell Windows CE system, and who knows how many Blackberry systems). We admit we are packrats when it comes to mobile devices and computer flotsam.
Selecting just the right mobile device is perhaps the toughest decision enterprise users face as they embark on a mobile implementation journey -- which is perhaps why a lot of corporations play it safe and go with the 'known' brands from Compaq/HP, IBM and Palm. Not to say that these devices aren't useful and functional. Heaven knows, Palm has successfully established the entire personal digital assistant (PDA) industry with its many entries, and continues to dominate the worldwide market. The Palm OS is also at the center of an increasing number of terrific mobile devices, which of course adds to the problem of picking the right one -- or at least one that will provide enough functionality and utility for the next year or so.
So, in our never-ending quest to make your job a bit easier and less stressful, we hereby offer our five top picks for mobile devices, which provide a wealth of functionality and service and are also a lot of fun to use as well. While this is by no means a scientific list -- no dramatic drop tests or data access tries from the top of Mount Everest -- it is at least a starting point for business users who are looking to buy pocketable technology that will still be cutting edge this time next year.
- The Handspring (now Palm) Treo 600. We are constantly arguing with other analysts and pundits about how many mobile devices the typical executive should have banging around in his or her briefcase, or tucked into one of the 754 pockets of Levi's mobile pants. Our opinion is that most business can be successfully conducted with a lightweight and wireless-enabled notebook computer, and a reliable smart phone, which merges the organizational functions of a PDA with the wireless communications capabilities of a cellular phone. Our top pick in this genre is the Treo 600, which reportedly becomes available this week through a variety of wireless carriers, including AT&T Wireless and Sprint PCS.
The Treo 600, which is a significant evolution from the Treo 300 (which is now selling for about $99, with a wireless service plan), resembles a lot of the available smart phones today, except for the miniature keyboard that resides at the bottom of the device. While other similar systems offer virtual keyboards and 'tap and touch' data entry, the Treo continues with the tradition of a built-in keyboard, which is familiar to hordes of Thumb-twitching executives who have been spoiled by their use of the Blackberry as an e-mail device. The Treo 600 goes well beyond Blackberry, though, by providing a fast ARM processor, a built-in digital camera, an SD/MMC expansion slot, a terrific and bright color display, an a vastly-improved proxyless Web browser, a threaded messaging capability. The system is also the first in the U.S. to offer a dual-band CDMA radio and a quad-band GSM/GPRS radio, which maximizes coverage opportunities.
- The HP/Compaq iPAQ H550. Okay, this is not a smart phone, which means you'll still have to carry around your little Nextel communicator to talk to the execs back at the head office. But, in terms of pure and unfettered PDA and extended mobile capabilities, this system is easily the Rolls Royce of handhelds (at least in the Pocket PC camp!). In fact, the system offers so many features and capabilities, you may be tempted to leave your notebook at the office or in your per-diem-restricted hotel room while you visit customers to make presentations and transfer orders.
The iPAQ 5550 has both an integrated 802.11 wireless LAN and Bluetooth capabilities, 128M bytes of memory, a removable and rechargeable battery pack, and is based on a fast Intel 400MHz XScale processor. The transflective LCD display is big and bright, and the system can accommodate most any type of plug-in card via an available SD/IO slot and the use of various expansion sleds. By far the most unique feature: A built-in biometric fingerprint reader that can be programmed to recognize the user and no one else. This means if you lose the device, no one can get at your valuable data. Of course, since it is priced at roughly $650 or so, you will have a bit of explaining to do to accounting and the IT department if you should lose it in the back seat of a taxi or restaurant.
- The Samsung i500. This is another smart phone, although Samsung prefers to describe it as a Mobile Intelligent Terminal. Okay. We used to refer to our 10-year-old Volvo wagon as an irreplaceable classic, but the fact is we valued it because it was a tireless workhorse and got us from here to there with a minimum of problems. This clamshell-type device is small, lightweight and combines a Palm OS-based PDA with a fully-functioning wireless cell phone. It features up to 16M bytes of memory, a 66NHz Dragonball processor, an IrDA port for beaming business contact information, a USB synchronization slot, and the Blazer Web browser. The system has been around since Jan. 2003, so it is not exactly front-page news. But, it is a neat little device nonetheless.
Also, if you are a Pocket PC fan, you may want to check out the Samsung i700. This system sports the standard smart phone look and feel, and offers all of the standard Pocket PC applications, as well as a built-in digital camera (which is adjustable), 64M bytes of memory, secure VPN compatibility, and predictive text-entry software for quick data entry. This mobile device was profiled as part of the Samsung DigitAll experience road tour, which hit New York last month. Again, a very cool and capable device.
- The Danger, Inc. HipTop Communicator. We always get a bit of flack for this one, since a lot of people look at it as more of a consumer device and in some cases even a prototype, since it demonstrates what could take the world by storm in terms of horizontally-designed systems. But, we like the system because it is designed well, it can adequately serve most of your data and voice needs (although the integrated wireless phone is not the best we have tested), and the is priced low enough to be an easy pick for most IT budgets.
The HipTop's horizontal format makes it a natural for e-mail, instant messaging, and attachment viewing. You can even add an optional digital camera to take quick snapshots. At the moment, the HipTop is available through T-Mobile, re-branded as the SideKick, and just this year became available on the Canadian market. The system is priced at about $300, but a good friend of ours just acquired on eon eBay for as lot less. So, shop around for the best deal.
And, for those of you who insist that it will always be a vertical world in teems of wireless-enabled mobile devices: Check out the Nokia 3300 Music Phone, a neat little consumer device that takes a horizontal approach to applications and functions that are important to the younger set. However, Nokia has a number of horizontal devices available in Europe and Asia that are designed for business and also take a non-vertical approach to viewing. As we have always said, the devices will ultimately be designed to fit the applications, so form will definitely be dependent on function.
- The Dell Axim X5. This system has quickly become a standard in both corporations and small businesses, both because of its price (right now, about $199) and its incredible flexibility and functionality. Dell took the Palm OS platform and repurposed it into a system that offers a 300MHz XScale processor, 32M bytes of RAM, a CompactFlash card slot and an SD/MMC card slot. The system also has a removable and rechargeable battery pack, as well an optional high-capacity battery for extended service -- good news, since a dead PDA is about as much use as yesterday's fish.
Just why is the Axim X5 priced so low? You could credit Dell's amazing manufacturing capabilities, or perhaps the wonders of mass marketing. You might also check out the FCC Web site to peruse documents reportedly filed there by Dell researchers, detailing a yet-to-be-announced Axim X3 model. The entry of newer systems has a way of chipping away at the cost of an older model.
Well, these are our top five picks for PDAs and smart phones. There are countless others out there, some with more features than you will ever really need and others that parlay simplicity into a real business form of art. What's your favorite? Let us know by e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will report back on the leading candidates.
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.