Motorola's V200: Wireless the Hard Way

A phone that's also an instant messager and Web browser sounds great in theory. In the hand, however, impracticality trumps inspiration

By Stephen H. Wildstrom

Handheld devices for wireless-data communications are still in their infancy, so we're still seeing the sort of experimentation that has long been forgotten in the PC market. Is the killer application e-mail, instant messaging, or Web access? Is the ideal device a phone, a PDA with wireless capabilities, or a dedicated device, like Research in Motion's BlackBerry pager? None of those questions has yet been decided.

The Motorola V200 Personal Communicator, available for $200 with service activation or as an add-on to an existing Verizon Wireless account, is the latest entry in the dedicated-device field. The V200 is basically a two-way pager that can handle short text messages, standard Internet e-mail, and limited Web browsing. You can also use it for voice calls with a headset or as a speakerphone, but I doubt that many people would choose it as a primary phone.

The V200 has a 6.2-oz. clamshell design, like a tiny laptop, with a six line monochrome display and a keyboard a bit bigger than that of the BlackBerry or the Handspring Treo. Unfortunately, in this case, bigger does not mean better. For one thing, the buttons are about the same size as on the smaller keyboards but are spaced farther apart, which actually makes them harder to use. The spacebar is off to the left side of the keyboard instead of in the middle, and there's no backspace key -- instead, you have to use the left "soft key," inconveniently located at the very bottom of the unit. And there are no typing shortcuts or automatic capitalization as provided by Treo and BlackBerry.


  In fact, nearly every function of the V200 is crippled by a dreadful human interface. You would think that with a background in handheld communications that goes back to the World War II walkie-talkie, Motorola would have learned by now how to do it. But even the simplest things are problematic. Nearly all such devices use soft keys that change function depending on what you are doing, but you should always be able to count on pressing the same one to accept an option. On the V200, sometimes the left key accepts and sometimes the right. Ending many operations requires tediously backing out, one screen at a time. I could go on with complaints about the device's interface, but by now you get the point.

Unfortunately, the V200's shortcomings don't end there. Its minibrowser uses the WAP protocol common to phone handsets. This means you are limited to Web sites specially formatted for the limited display. On the plus side, browsing is relatively quick, and the display is much better than on most phones.

Another plus is that communications between Verizon subscribers are very nearly instantaneous. Messages can be sent to the V200 from e-mail accounts (long messages are broken into pieces), Verizon phones, or from the Web site Outgoing messages, whether sent to other Verizon customers or to outside e-mail addresses, use Verizon's short message service and are limited to 160 characters. Subscribers can also use the site to set up their choice of paging alerts on such subjects as stock prices, sports scores, and news headlines.


 One thing Motorola does very well is voice communications. So it's no surprise that the V200 is a very good phone, either in speakerphone mode or used with a headset. But it lacks either a conventional dial-pad or the on-screen touch dialing offered by the Treo. Instead, you dial using the number keys on the right side of the keyboard, which can be clumsy.

As a sort of instant-messaging pager for grownups, the V200 is a good idea. Unfortunately, there are just too many things wrong with its clunky controls for me to recommend it.

Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BW Online

Edited by Thane Peterson

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