How can a hand-held computer user keep e-mail, well, handy? Various companies make dial-up modems, but these generally require either a land-line phone connection or a cell phone hookup. Neither is extremely convenient and both can add to the cost of retrieving e-mail on the fly.
Snagging wireless e-mail for devices such as Palms, Handspring Visors and Microsoft-driven Pocket PCs has been more complicated. Although there are several options for each platform, which one is right for you depends on which device you use and how often.
Palm provides just one built-in wireless option to access e-mail and the Internet: Its Palm VII and VIIx wireless models use Palm.Net, which runs on the BellSouth Wireless network. The Palm VII, with 2 megabytes of storage, retails for $399; the VIIx, with 8 MB of memory, has a $449 retail price.
But San Diego-based Novatel Wireless offers a wireless modem that clamps on to the back of a Palm V or Vx. The modem works with both major wireless Internet providers: GoAmerica (http://www.goamerica.com) and OmniSky (http://www.omnisky.com).
For Pocket PCs, not much has happened--yet. Although the Compaq iPaq can accept standard PC Card devices with an optional sleeve, both the iPaq and the sleeves have been in short supply. Wireless modems for the Hewlett-Packard Jornada are coming.
Until recently, Visor users have been at a disadvantage. A land-line modem has been available since spring, but it's only been in the last month that a wireless modem has been available--again from Novatel Wireless and service providers such as OmniSky. The modem costs $299, although rebates are available. But it runs only with the newest Visors--the Platinum ($299) and the Prism ($449). Both feature a more powerful processor and a newer operating system. The Prism offers a color display and rechargeable battery.
Although wireless access is dominated by three main service providers, just two are truly aimed at everyday Palm or Visor users: Palm.Net and OmniSky. GoAmerica, which supports the Novatel modem as well as devices from Ricochet and other makers, primarily aims its services at corporate and enterprise users. Ricochet service is not yet available in Los Angeles, for example, but it does operate in San Diego. Moving well beyond hand-helds to notebook computers and pagers, GoAmerica Web and e-mail offerings will be examined in a future column.
Both Palm.Net and OmniSky offer e-mail and what could best be called versions of the Internet. Instead of the usual Web browsing experience, the displays of the Palm and Visor are better suited to Web clipping, in which only relevant bits of a site are shown. You can get online versions of ABCNews.com, for example, that retain the content of the full site but exclude the graphics.
E-mail is also different on a hand-held. Forget about graphics and most attachments. Both services veto nontext attachments, and the e-mail software supplied with the Palm VIIx rejects even the virtual business cards, or vCards, that OmniSky accepts.
Thus, anyone who uses a wireless network on a hand-held computer should expect some differences with equivalent hard-wired services such as cable modems, digital subscriber lines or dial-up Internet access. Speed will also be slower. The Palm.Net service boasts top speeds of 14.4 kilobits per second but can slow to 9.2. OmniSky's service runs at 19.2 Kbps, and the firm says its data-compression techniques keep that speed constant.
In operation, both services performed well in a variety of situations. Palm.Net relies on the BellSouth Wireless network and OmniSky uses AT&T's cellular system. Both sent and received messages pretty quickly, with similar results for Web retrievals.
But the OmniSky software outclasses the Palm.Net applications. For one, OmniSky's e-mail software directly links to a Palm or Visor's address book, making it easy to find and use addresses. With Palm's iMessenger software, there's no such link.
Moreover, the OmniSky software lets you easily add a POP mail account to the list of accounts from which you can send or receive mail. With the Palm VII platform, you need to download additional software.
Finally, there's the cost of service. Although Palm.Net offers several pricing plans, akin to what you'd find with some cell phone carriers, the all-you-can-eat unlimited data service costs $44.99 per month. OmniSky is $39.95 a month for the same service, and the firm is offering $200 rebates on its modems through January. The rebate is actually credited to a user's account after six months of service, however.
For ease of use, overall organization and price of service, OmniSky wins. Palm.Net is a good, solid platform, but it could stand some serious updating and a better software interface. Moreover, Palm should find a way to open the Palm VII to other data carriers so users have a broader choice.
Mark A. Kellner is editor at large for Government Computer News.
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Wireless Internet Providers
* Monthly fee: $39.95
* Top connection speed: 19.2 Kbps
* Network: AT&T
* The good: Full functionality
* The bad: Clipped Web pages
* Bottom line: Best bet
* Monthly fee: $44.99
* Top connection speed: 14.4 Kbps
* Network: Bell South Wireless
* The good: Easy to use
* The bad: Slower access speeds
* Bottom line: The only choice for certain Palm owners