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Handhelds Without a Home

If everybody wore cargo pants or flight suits, today's column might have come to a different conclusion. Unfortunately, most of us have, at most, one purse or two pants pockets available to carry around gadgets.

That doesn't leave much room for a handheld device that browses the Web, takes pictures and plays music and videos--but which does not track your calendar or make phone calls. Nokia's N810 Internet Tablet and Sony's Mylo COM-2 Personal Communicator have a lot of things going for them, but when they're competing for pocket/purse real estate with devices that far more people already own--a smartphone and a digital-media player--they're going to lose out most of the time.

I came to about the same conclusion when I reviewed a predecessor of the N810, the N770, two years ago. When I started planning this review, however, I had higher hopes--the inclusion of Skype Internet calling software gave these handhelds a big advantage over most cell phones.

But since you can already run Skype on Windows Mobile phones and Sony's PlayStation Portable, and that you should be able to run it over an iPhone's WiFi connection, that edge looks to be narrow and temporary.

Sony and Nokia's gadgets also suffered from self-inflicted usability problems.

The Mylo (if you were curious, the name stands for "my life online") has a strangely limited software suite and is on the thick side as well. Its reliance on Sony's proprietary Memory Stick Duo doesn't enhance its appeal either.

The N810 is a far more flexible platform than the Mylo or almost any other handheld, thanks to its use of the open-source Linux operating system; by adding the right third-party programs, you could remedy many of the shortfalls I objected to in the story. But there's not much that I could do about the stability issues that I and other N810 users have encountered. (See, for example, this blog post reporting a startup problem that could only be remedied by removing an N810's battery, then putting the device in the freezer for a few minutes.) I can't use a mobile device that requires this much maintenance.

I would say that perhaps Nokia and Sony will do better on their next try, but I don't know that there will be a next try. I think both of these companies would be better off bringing the best features of these devices to gadgets that most people actually buy, even if that leaves the N810 and the Mylo as ultimately fruitless branches of the gadget evolutionary tree.

Do you have any interest in an in-between device like these things? Would you be happier if Sony or Nokia had built a cell phone into either gadget? What if they included a full set of personal-information-management software that synced to your computer's contacts and calendar programs? How about if they were larger, with keyboards big enough to allow touch typing and more desktop-compatible software, like the Asus Eee PC? I welcome your thoughts...

By Rob Pegoraro  |  March 13, 2008; 11:56 AM ET
Categories:  Gadgets  
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