A Lean, Mean Handheld
TECH & YOU PODCAST
When Motorola rediscovered design a couple of years ago, its RAZR and SLVR phones made thinness the most desirable feature of a handset. Now Motorola has applied this aesthetic to mobile e-mail devices with the stylish new Q. It's less than half an inch thick and fetches the lean price of $199 (after rebate) with a two-year Verizon Wireless contract.
Like the Palm (PALM ) Treo 700p, which I will write about next week, the Q takes advantage of new high-speed data networks. And like the Treo 700w, which Verizon introduced earlier this year, the Q runs Windows Mobile 5.0 software from Microsoft (MSFT ). But Motorola's design choices differentiate the Q from other Windows Mobile devices -- mostly in good ways.
Before getting to them, it's important to understand that Microsoft provides Windows Mobile in two different flavors. The version called Smartphone is designed for cellular handsets used primarily for voice. The Pocket PC version, on the other hand, is for larger data-centric products, often with full keyboards, that are intended to compete with Treos and BlackBerrys.
The Q splits the difference. It uses the Smartphone version of Windows Mobile, but it's longer and wider than a Treo and features a full QWERTY keyboard and a 2 1/2-in. display. The Smartphone software doesn't use a touchscreen, which enhances its usability. But the software is less versatile than the Pocket PC version used by other keyboard-based Windows Mobile gear.
A MAJOR CONSEQUENCE of this software choice is that the Q is a better phone than most Pocket PCs. It's easy to operate one-handed, since you don't have to tap the screen with a stylus or a finger. You navigate using either a five-way control below the screen or a scroll wheel on the gadget's right side. You can dial by selecting a number from your contact list, clicking on a number in an e-mail message (but oddly, not on a Web page), or entering it manually using the dial pad embedded in the keyboard. Support for Bluetooth wireless headsets and a decent speakerphone are built in.
I gave the Q an e-mail workout using Good Technology's GoodLink, a BlackBerry-like service that delivers corporate mail to a handheld. The screen seemed a bit cramped, but both it and the keyboard were fine for reading mail and responding with brief messages. Even with heavy data usage, battery life was adequate to get me through a long day. And Verizon makes life easy for users by selling spare batteries for just $20.
Verizon's fast BroadbandAccess network lets the mail zip in and out. (Voice plans including unlimited data access start at $80 a month.) The biggest payoff of the high-speed network is in the rapid loading of Web pages. But reading pages not specifically designed for small displays is problematic. Most Web pages are created for screens at least 800 pixels (picture elements) wide, more than twice the width of the Q screen. Even the most heroic efforts by browsers to reformat the contents so they fit the narrow screen often are not enough to prevent the page from collapsing into an incoherent jumble. The best hope is that, as Web-capable handhelds become common, more sites will offer special versions designed to be readable on small screens.
Smart phones, unlike pocket PCs, don't allow you to read and edit Microsoft Word documents and Excel spreadsheets. The Q tries to compensate with software that lets you view Word, Excel, and Adobe Acrobat files. But you only see a tiny and generally unreadable picture of the document, so the feature is mostly useless. (GoodLink converts Word attachments to plain text so you can at least read them, though you lose any fancy formatting.)
If you are looking for a handheld that approaches the utility of a laptop when you are on the go, you will probably be happier with a Treo, BlackBerry, or a Pocket PC. But if you just want a better way to handle mobile e-mail than you can get on any phone with a standard dial pad, the Q's low price -- half the cost of a Treo -- and slender frame that slides easily into a pocket could make it a very attractive alternative.
For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Tech Maven at www.businessweek.com/technology/wildstrom.htm