- The Washington Times - Monday, January 21, 2002

LAS VEGAS — Verizon Communications is offering a two-pronged system for retrieving e-mail and browsing the Web while on the go: the $599 (with activation; $699 without) package that twins an Audiovox "Maestro" Pocket PC with a cellular phone/modem from the same firm. A cable connects both devices.
On a visit here for the recent Consumer Electronics Show, I used the system extensively to send and receive e-mail; it was a welcome alternative to what I felt were usurious local phone call charges at my hotel, the Paris Casino Resort. Those started at $1.25 per call and 10 cents for each additional minute, whether the call was local or toll-free.
The Audiovox product seemed strangely familiar, because it was: the company has relabeled Toshiba's e570 Pocket PC, which I've worked with before. The basic device comes with 32 megabytes (MB) of memory for storing data and 32 MB for storing programs; a SecureDigital media slot accommodates SD cards and allowed me to add 32 MB of data storage easily. The unit is also equipped with a Compact Flash Type II slot for either a wireless modem or a micro-size hard disk drive, on which multimedia files could be stored.
The screen on the Maestro is exceptionally sharp and clear, and during a day of heavy use, the battery held up quite well. Sound quality for the device is excellent when using headphones; the built-in speaker is one of the better ones on a Pocket PC. Controls on the device are among the better-placed items out there: the side-mounted voice-recording button is difficult to activate accidentally (a feature other pocket PCs could do well to copy) and the front-panel buttons are also clearly marked and easy to use.
But Verizon presumably isn't interested in selling just a personal digital assistant (PDA), but rather in getting folks to use its cellular network. To this end, the package must be evaluated in its ability to dial out, connect to the Internet, and send and receive e-mail.
The good news is that the Maestro comes pre-programmed to dial out onto the Verizon network and connect. In about 20 tests at various hours of the day and night, there was almost instant connection and I never lost a call while connected. The bad news is that these connections are a bit slow. No, strike that, they're very slow 14.4 kbps , which is a modem speed not seen on desktops since the early days of the Internet's boom.
This is a function of the phone, not the PDA, and there's nothing to stop Audiovox or Verizon from ultimately upgrading the phone to a faster modem speed something that will probably happen when higher-speed cellular networks come online in the next year or two. But for now, the speed may work against users in two ways: time to complete a send/receive operation, and its corollary, money.
(There's a further challenge for Washington-area readers: Verizon says it won't offer this package there, although I expect similar products to be offered in the area by other carriers. And, when Bluetooth kicks in, the connection between hand-held and cell phone could be accomplished without a cable.)
For reasons I don't quite get, the Pocket PC version of Microsoft Outlook, when checking for e-mail, will check every message in the mailbox before completing an operation, as opposed to just finding the newest messages and stopping there. This is probably due to the truncated manner in which Pocket Outlook initially downloads e-mail: only the first 2,000 characters are captured; if you want more, you must "mark" the message for download at another session.
This search-and-search-again method means that a mailbox with, say, 200 or 500 messages can take between 10 and 20 minutes to download. That's tough if you're trying to quickly scan e-mail while waiting for an appointment, and it can become expensive. Verizon's lowest-priced cellular plan offers 100 minutes a month for $25, with extra minutes costing 40 cents each; at the high end of the scale, Verizon's $200 per month plan offers 3,000 minutes at a net cost of just under 7 cents each, and 20 cents for each additional minute.
The question becomes one of value: how much e-mail do you want to send and receive, and how much are you willing to pay for it. While the system works flawlessly from a technical standpoint, the price of service particularly in the face of competing radio-based services from Reston, Va.'s Motient Inc., OmniSky (recently acquired by EarthLink Networks), and Palm Inc., each of which offer "all-you-can-eat" data plans at a fixed monthly cost may put this elegant Verizon solution out of reach for some users.
Write to Mark Kellner in care of The Washington Times, Business Desk, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; send e-mail to [email protected], or visit the writer's Web page, www.kellner2000.com. Talk back live to Mr. Kellner on www.adrenalineradio.com every Friday from 5 to 6 p.m. EST.

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