Looking into a new mobile email device

I’ve started the search for a new mobile email device / solution. Here are my thoughts and final decision of why I chose the solution I selected. And as this blog entry is written during the research and selection process, I don’t know yet what the final result / solution is.

I’ve started to look into a new solution that would enable me to get mobile access to my work (and potentially private) emails and provide PDA-type features. This blog entry is going through the selection process and will result (hopefully) in an answer to my needs. I say hopefully as I am writing this blog entry while searching for the answer.

First, what I am looking for? Well I currently use a Sony Ericsson P910i smartphone. This is a really nice little device, that combines a phone, a digital camera, a PDA and an email client. Installed on the P910i, I am about to finish the 90 days trial of Dataviz RoadSync (yes, 90 days… but that’s not the subject of this blog entry) to connect to an Exchange server. While the P910i has a nice user interface (it’s a Symbian OS 7 with the UIQ interface), I was using Palm PDAs for years before that (I started with the PalmPilot 1000 from US Robotics) and am missing the clean user experience of PalmOS. The great thing with this smartphone is that is synchronizes perfectly with my Mac using iSync (but I don’t have direct access to the file system as with a Windows computer), and with Dataviz’s solution, I can access my work email on the go. The keyboard of the P910i, while small, is useable to quickly check something and the Opera web browser that comes with this device is good enough to go online. IM+ software works great and enables chatting on the go.

But on the flip-side, I have never been a big fan of all-in-one solutions. Always to many compromises. If the iPod proved one thing, it’s that a device should only focus on one thing and do it very well. Yes, Donald Norman is discussing this in all lengths in his book “The invisible computer“. The P910i has to much in it, and I am not really convinced of the UIQ user interface.

So I now have to choose between getting a license of RoadSync or finding another solution to continue accessing my emails while on the move. So let’s get started by looking at what I need, what I would like and what I don’t care about.

  • What I need: Exchange (activesync), IMAPS and SMTPS email support, Good PDA (calendar, contacts, notes and tasks) capabilities, instant-on and almost real-time responses when switching from one application to the other, good battery time (at least a few days of normal usage) as well as wireless connection (at least Bluetooth, tri-band GSM / GPRS / … if it is a SmartPhone as I travel a lot an need world-wide coverage). Ability to connect to the internet using a WiFi connect, sharing the connection of the computer (cable or wireless) as well as GPRS through a cell phone with Bluetooth are important.
  • What I would like: Support for my Mac to synchronize and exchange files, WiFi support for network connectivity in a hotspot, ideally being able to view and edit attachments that I receive per email (and as this is a wish list, support for Corel WordPerfect Office file formats), a good web browser to surf if needed, an IM client software (compatible with MSN, Yahoo and AOL) as well as a Skype client, tools such as Metro and simple games when traveling (my favorite on mobile devices is Samegame).
  • What I don’t care: MP3 support / Music player (I’ve got an iPod), video playback capabilities, a digital camera and definitely not a heavy computer.

With all this in mind, I started looking at the different options that I could find. Overall, the options are: Buy RoadSync for my current P910i, get a Palm device such as a Treo 650, a LifeDrive or the Tungsten T|X, get a Windows Mobile device such as an HP iPaq (PocketPC or PocketPC with phone) or a Dell Axim, get a Blackberry, get the new gizmo that I haven’t heard about yet or stop bothering about all this when I travel and read a book.

OK, the last option is out of the discussion. When I am on business travel, I cannot simply put an out-of-office notice and try to catch-up when I come back. So let’s have a look at the alternatives that could replace my P910i. I’m going to rule out smarthones (devices such as the Tréo 650 or the HP iPaq 6515) as I currently have something similar and this would replace a brick with another one :)

Windows Mobile devices

First, I started looking a Windows Mobile devices. www.mobiletechreview.com has many in depth reviews. The Dell Axim and the HP iPaq sounded very interesting. While the high-end Pocket PC devices are quite expensive, their big advantage is that these will be the one that work best with an Exchange server as the OS, the email client, the synching software and the mail server are all developed by the same company. But, as there has to be a but, I always had a hard time using the Windows Mobile OS. Coming from a PalmOS user experience, Microsoft’s OS lacks the clean and intuitive user interface (and don’t get me even started on Palm’s recent announcement to have a Windows Mobile based Tréo!). The Pocket PC devices also seem to be able to share the network of the computer through the cradle / USB cable.

I did have a look at the Windows Mobile device of a colleague (a Pocket PC Phone version) and it seems to do everything from an email and PDA perspective, as well as Bluetooth and WiFi support. But based on the reviews I was reading, battery time is not really there for Windows Mobile devices. Now when it comes to the Mac synchronization support, Microsoft is not there. Markspace’s Missing Sync does not yet support Windows Mobile 5 devices (the latest version of the OS) and Corel WordPerfect Office formats are not supported. Internet Explorer seems to work fine and Skype is available for Pocket PC. Overall, this looks like a good solution for an advanced PDA with a few negative aspects.

The Blackberry

The other devices to consider are those procuded by RIM: The Blackberry. This has really become the universal mobile email device… just look at how many people use it at airports. OK, it needs specific software to interface with an Exchange server, but that’s not a problem. The user interface of the various blackberry devices seems to be outdated, but gets the work done. There is no WiFi, so the only way to get email is through GPRS. As my mobile phone operator charges by the megabyte of transfered data here in the UK (and it is really bad as soon as I am traveling outside of this island), this is certainly not a very cheap alternative… but then again, it’s as good as my current P910i. Over my current smartphone, the Blackberry has a better mobile email capability (GALs and Folders are not supported at this time in RoadSync). But the negative is that it is not as flexible for other things, doesn’t support opening of attachements (Word files, images, …) and is just another big all-in-one device, this time focussed around mobile email and not PDA or phone.

PalmOS devices

Finally, let’s have a look at a device using PalmOS. Two devices that I found particularly interesting are the LifeDrive and the Tungsten T|X. Both come with PalmOS 5.4 (any idea why there is still no device out there with PalmOS 6 support?) and have a very similar product offering. PDA features are very similar, both have WiFi and Bluetooth support and the battery time seems to be a lot better than the one you get from a Windows Mobile device. In addition to that, Blazer (the web browser software) seems to be full-featured and of good quality. Versamail, the mobile email client appears to support POP, IMAP and Exchange synchronization. From what I can tell so far, there can only be one Exchange / ActiveSync account on the machine, and if you synchonize the calendar through this method, the desktop feature is automatically deactivated. I was unable to find more information about GAL and Server folders support when it comes to Exchange email feature, but I have to assume that this is included in one way or another.

MacOS support comes directly from Palm, and Markspace sells a Missing Sync for PalmOS that goes beyond the original capabilities of HotSync. One of the most interesting feature of that additional solution seems to be the Network sharing over bluetooth, so that you can connect to the Internet with the Palm device using the Internet connection of your computer / bluetooth. Sounds like a great solution for synching the device with the Exchange server when the laptop is near-by. And for the Windows users who have Bluetooth capabilities, there are instructions on whizoo.com to get the same type of feature.

As you have noticed throughout this blog entry, I’ve always liked the Palm operating system and have some software I purchased for previous Palm devices that would work nicely on it… the one problem is that Skype does not support Palm devices at this stage. There are many rumors on the Internet about that (more than those about Skype supporting my current P910i), but this has still be become reality. Anyway, there are a few of Universal IM clients that support all the other standards. The biggest different between the LifeDrive and the T|X is that one has a 4Gb Microdrive for storage, and the other is a more traditional PDA with only 128Mb of memory (expandable with SD Memory sticks). The drawback of the hard-drive included in the LifeDrive is that the device is bigger and more expensive. As mentioned previously, as I am not looking for an MP3 / Video player, the T|X seems to be better suited to what I am looking for.

Conclusion

Taking all this into account, I’m going to give the Palm T|X a try, using it with an older mobile phone that has bluetooth and GPRS capabilities. I’ll post another blog entry once I had a chance to try this out in more detail… stay tuned for more information.

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