Wi-Fi Handhelds? Not for the Footloose

If you're staying within a single network, a handheld has advantages. But if you want to roam, a phone-based PDA is a better bet

When the first Palm (PALM ) appeared seven years ago, the ability to exchange data just by popping your handheld in a cradle and hitting a button seemed miraculous. But that isn't enough anymore -- at least not for many mobile workers who need to keep key information up to date even when they're nowhere near their PCs. So handhelds are going wireless. The question is, what's the best wireless technology?

Wi-Fi, or wireless Ethernet, is the big trend in wireless. The high-speed service is available in many offices, campuses, and at an increasing number of public "hot spots" at airports, hotels, and eateries, where Wi-Fi is provided either to subscribers or as a service to customers. Although I'm a big fan of Wi-Fi on laptops, my experience with Palm Solution's new Tungsten C suggests that Wi-Fi may not be the best choice for most mobile users.

The reason is that unlike integrated wireless phone networks, Wi-Fi hot spots are an archipelago of service with no easy way to roam from one network to another. If I take my Tungsten C from my office Wi-Fi system to the Marriott hotel across the street, I have to log into STSN's iBAHN network, which provides service in the lobby and public areas. Depending on what sort of account I have, I may have to use a browser to give credit-card information as well as a user name and password. If I walk down the street to Starbucks, I have to go through the whole process again to switch to the T-Mobile network.

With a laptop, this system is tolerable. Typically if you want to set up a Wi-Fi connection with a laptop, you are planning to sit somewhere and work for a while. Spending five minutes getting onto the network is a nuisance, but not a big deal. With a handheld, however, you typically want to take a minute or two to grab your five most recent e-mail messages or check a stock quote while running to your next appointment. In this sort of usage, the time required to set up a new Wi-Fi connection is a killer.

In contrast, if you use a phone-based PDA -- such as my favorite, the Handspring Treo 300 on Sprint PCS (PCS ) -- it makes no difference whether you are in Albany or Albuquerque. If you have coverage, you have a connection. You can quickly link to an Internet mail account, use a virtual private network (VPN) to get to a corporate mail system behind a firewall, or use one of the third-party mail services, such as Sprint Business Connection, to relay corporate mail and calendar and contact changes from your desktop. The phone networks are relatively slow, but the mail programs work around that, minimizing the amount of data transferred and either "pushing" new messages to the handheld in the background or connecting on a regular schedule to check and download new mail. Web browsing is limited more by the small display than by the slow network.

There's definitely a place for Wi-Fi handhelds. If you need to connect primarily within the coverage of the wireless network run by your company, school, or other private network operator, the $499 Tungsten C could be an excellent choice. Wi-Fi is built in, so there are no clumsy, battery-sucking add-on cards. Palm engineers did a terrific job with power management, so despite wireless capability and a bright color screen, the C can last through several days of moderate use on a charge. Palm also includes a much improved version of the VersaMail e-mail program and virtual private network software that lets you connect to many corporate networks. With this setup, you can connect and read and write e-mail and run any custom applications that need access to data on company servers. In theory, you can sync contact and calendar information with your PCs over the wireless network, but I have never gotten that to work.

The bottom line is that if you want a wireless handheld, you have to choose your flavor of wireless carefully. Choose Wi-Fi if you want to be connected primarily within your company's offices, a campus, or a medical facility -- many hospitals ban staff use of cell technology but are converting wireless medical devices to Wi-Fi. But if you want the easiest connections in the world at large, go for a phone-based PDA.


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