My Ideal Mobile Device(s)

imageMy work and home offices have powerful desktop computers. I use these desktops to perform my important daily tasks; email, PIM (contacts calendar, tasks), web browsing, and viewing documents (usually PDF or MS Office).

But often I’m not in the office. I’m the Mobile Barbarian after all. Lugging my desktop (and monitor) with me isn’t very practical. So I need a mobile device to take my office with me, unfortunately to more boring places than shown in the picture (credit).

My ideal mobile device needs to be small and light enough to carry around easily, yet capable of performing the key tasks handled by its far more powerful (and larger and heavier) desktop brethren. There are many choices. I wrote this post because I thought some of you, like me, have to make up your mind, and my thought process, however imperfect, might help you with your decision.


No “One Size Fits All”

There is no ideal mobile device. At best, there is an ideal mobile device for me. Everyone has different needs.

I’m boring. As an attorney and teacher, my needs are business, not entertainment. I’m not planning to use the device to play videos, music or games. What I need and what I don’t affects which factors I consider and the weight I put on them.

My Mobile Devices

There are so many choices. In evaluating choices, I thought it best to focus on what I know. My current stable of mobile devices includes (or soon will):

Blackberry Storm (Blackberry OS, 3.25” screen)
HTC Advantage (Windows Mobile OS, 5” screen)
Fujitsu P1620 (Windows Vista OS, 8.9” screen)
Viliv X70 (Windows XP OS, 7” screen, coming soon, I hope)

My Laptop is not a Mobile Device

My Dell Latitude XT2 in not in the above list. The XT2 is a portable device, not a mobile device.

To me, a mobile device is one I can quickly pull out and use held in my hands while standing, or sitting on a chair with no table. Picture yourself on the street. Would you want to pull out your laptop to quickly look up a movie or restaurant, or view a map of the surrounding area?

Even in business scenarios, a laptop isn’t always convenient. In court, I’m standing before the judge, who asks me if a future date works for a follow up hearing. Looking up my calendar on a laptop requires me to try to use the trackpad while not dropping a large and not very light laptop. Maybe easy for you, but I’m coordinationally challenged. Also, holding a relatively large device between the judge and me is a bit strange and distracting. Transitioning from court to school, I’m meeting with my Dean in her office. I’m now sitting instead of standing, but with no table, so using the laptop requires balancing it in my lap. Less than ideal.

I use the XT2 primarily while sitting at a conference table with an available power source. This is a common scenario for meetings. The XT2 does a great job in those settings. But it’s not a true mobile device.

Communication

My work life revolves around communicating with others. I communicate in real time on the phone, and otherwise primarily by email and texting. I discuss web browsing separately, though I communicate there too, such as in discussion forums with my students, Twitter with anyone who cares, etc.

Phone

My work and home offices have VOIP phones. But out of the office, I need a cell phone. Well, actually I don’t need anything besides oxygen, food and water. But you know what I mean. A cell phone is a practical necessity.

Only two of my devices work as a cell phone. The Blackberry Storm works well. The HTC Advantage can be used as a cell phone. However, its pretty big, like holding a brick to your ear. It also lacks an ear piece. So you either broadcast your call to the world via the speaker, or use a Bluetooth headset and look like a Borg (Star Trek, not Bjorn).

So the Blackberry Storm (or other cell phone) is a must-have. But can it be my only device? Or do I need a second? Read on.

Texting

Texting, while not as critical for me as the phone, nevertheless is important, as I explained recently. The Blackberry Storm and the HTC Advantage are the winners on texting. There are desktop and web SMS applications, more for sending than receiving. Bottom line: SMS is best on a phone.

Email

All the devices handle email well. Really not much to choose among them. Except when it comes to viewing attachments.

Attachments are a fact of email life. Particularly when I’m wearing my lawyer hat, while out of the office, I receive many emails asking me to review an attachment and respond quickly. Or the attachment is a document I happen to need then and there.

Often that attachment is a PDF with many pages. I’ve found PDF viewing frustrating on the Blackberry Storm. There are third party applications such as RepliGo Reader that enable PDF viewing on a Blackberry. But too often the image quality on my Storm makes viewing difficult. And going from page to page isn’t a smooth experience. I don’t believe the fault is the Blackberry OS, the Storm’s screen or the third party application. Rather, I think the reason simply is it’s hard to view PDF’s on a 3.25” screen. Indeed, viewing Word or Excel documents also is problematic on the small screen.

I need to be able to view attachments without undue difficulty. My inability to do this on my Blackberry Storm is one of the reasons it won’t be my only device. But not the only reason. Read on.

PIM

My life is a busy blur. No way I can keep everything in my head. I need a personal information manager, or PIM, to keep track of where I need to be, what I need to do by when, and how I can reach those with whom I need to communicate.

I use Outlook as my PIM. But both Windows Mobile and Blackberry have substitute applications for contacts, calendars and tasks. And I’ve enhanced that basic substitute functionality with third party applications such as Pocket Informant.

Outlook on a Windows OS still is the best for me. But the PIMs on Windows Mobile and Blackberry are not far behind. So again all of the devices are OK as PIMs, though a slight lead to the Windows OS.

Web Browsing

Viewing a web page obviously is easier on a larger screen. But screen size is not the only consideration. Display resolution is another.

Viliv X70 Wrap Up quoted Chippy’s Cellar Talk – 13th June’s discussion of the interaction between display resolution and screen size. Basically a display resolution much less than 1024 x 600 may require horizontal as well as vertical scrolling. Not a great way to read a web page.

Many of the smaller screen devices don’t support a 1024 x 600 display resolution. But even for those that do, the smaller the screen, the higher the pixel density. And higher isn’t better here. It means less readable. You can boost the font size, but that means less screen real estate. Chippy’s conclusion: “[I]f you want to stick with Windows, you’re going to need a 1024×600 screen and you’re going to have to keep the PPI below 200 which means using a 7” screen.”

Another opinion: Jenn at Pocketables tells me that 1024×600 is viewable for her on 4.8"+ screens, and even 800×480 is OK with a full page zoom. How high a PPI is readable for you likely depends on the quality of your near vision. I’d also think how long you will be viewing the web page is a consideration (e.g., eye strain).

Additionally, wearing my teacher hat, I frequently need to access websites that host my online classes or enhance my traditional classes, often to answer questions left by my students on the discussion forums (“Are we going to do anything important in class today?”). These websites use JavaScript, Java, Flash, etc. The Windows OS browsers (Firefox, Internet Explorer) easily support this required functionality. Less so with Windows Mobile, though this is improving with Skyfire and Opera Mobile. Even less so with Blackberry.

Web browsing is another reason the Blackberry Storm won’t be my only device.

I want power!

Don’t worry. My goal isn’t world domination. The way things are going, I don’t want that responsibility. Rather, I’m talking about battery life between charges. You can’t always count on an available power source to plug into. Also, having to carry around a power adapter and cord hinders your ability to travel light.

Battery life varies a lot among devices. The high end is about 5-6 hours, the low end about 2-3 hours. Battery life depends on the device’s specs, such as OS and hardware configuration. It also depends on the battery’s size (in mAh).

Manufacturers often post an estimated battery life. However, be careful of the fine print. Battery life can be affected substantially by tweaks such as which radios are on, screen brightness, and so forth. So you want to make sure you know the battery life under realistic (for you) scenarios. I’ve found blogs and forums to be a good source of accurate and impartial information from end users.

Is your device hot?

No, I don’t mean whether it “fell off the back of a truck” or is offered by a shifty-eyed guy standing on a street corner. And I lust after “hot” gadgets as much as the next geek. I mean temperature. Some of these small devices get uncomfortably hot in your hands, on your lap, or in your pocket.

The heat is a consequence of packing a lot of heat-generating components in a small device. But some devices get hotter than others. The reasons vary, from hardware components, physical configuration of these components, and ventilation.

Here too, I’ve found blogs and forums to be a good source of accurate and impartial information from end users.

Form Factor

We’re talking about a mobile device, so the smaller and lighter, the easier to carry around.

Ideally, I’d like a pocketable device. However, the 5” devices are barely pocketable. And as just discussed above in Web Browsing, the screen size may be too small for that purpose.

The hardware keyboard is another issue. It adds weight, and more important, bulk. And on smaller devices, the keyboard is too small to be useful. This is a problem on my 8.9” Fujitsu P1620. So my preference is a slate, like the Viliv X70. Onscreen keyboards are very useable; see On-screen Keyboard UBoard Still Rocks. When I really need a hardware keyboard, I can use one of my several foldable and very portable Bluetooth keyboards; see Mobility It’s raining Keyboards.

Not everyone shares my preference for a slate. Indeed, I’m probably in the minority. The good news if you disagree with me (usually a safe choice) and need a hardware keyboard is you probably will have more options than I will with slates.

But I’m looking for a slate. The screen size probably will be 7”, such as the Viliv X70. However, 9”, such as the upcoming Archos’ 9” Windows 7 tablet, is another possibility.

Which OS?

Most of the devices have a Windows OS. But which one? Vista may be too “heavy” for mobile devices with at most 1GB of RAM and a power-saving processor. The result is poor performance and battery life. So you see the “lighter” XP on devices such as the Viliv X70. But XP, unless you happen to have the Tablet PC edition, doesn’t support touch well. Windows 7 will, and also will be available soon, such as on the upcoming Archos’ 9” Windows 7 tablet. But Windows 7, while lighter than Vista, is heavier than XP.

Windows Mobile certainly is lighter, which translates to better performance and battery life. The Windows Mobile OS has its limitations. However, this may be a moot point; there really are few if any Windows Mobile devices in my desired form factor.

Blackberry isn’t an option. There are no 7” (or 5”) Blackberries currently, or even on the horizon.

Android may be an option soon. Archos recently indicated it may announce an Android MID by September 15.

Linux is another possibility. But promises of and hope for a variety of Linux MIDs hasn’t really translated to reality.

So for now, my OS likely will be Windows XP with an upgrade to Windows 7, though Android may be a viable alternative soon.

Conclusion

The Nirvana of only having to carry 1 device is not yet here. I’ll carry 2 devices.

One will be a cell phone, though it will be able to perform other tasks. Right now that cell phone is my Blackberry Storm. But it could also be one of the many other large-screen Windows Mobile devices that are becoming available. Or perhaps one of the Android devices that are coming on stream.

The second will be a slate, probably with an about 7” screen. The Viliv X70 is an excellent candidate, though Archos’ 9” Windows 7 tablet is interesting. The OS at this point would be Windows, now Windows XP, but in a few months Windows 7, though soon there may be Android alternatives as well.

I hope to purchase and receive the Viliv X70 next month. I’ll keep you posted!

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