Costly way to tap e-mails

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 May, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 May, 2002, 12:00am

I have never been tempted to buy a hand-held computer.

I sometimes laugh to myself when I see people poking away at their personal digital assistants (PDAs) with a plastic pen or using the clumsy built-in phones. I find mobile devices to be a largely unsatisfactory collection of expensive gizmos that do not do what I want, or do it so badly I would rather do without.

But I have always wanted an affordable, easy to use device that would let me send and receive e-mail away from my desktop.

Needless to say, I was pleased to hear Canada's Research in Motion was finally going to bring its BlackBerry products to Asia, three years after they appeared in North America.

Hutchison Telecom is marketing the Rim BlackBerry 5810. For those unfamiliar with the product line, the device provides always-on access to e-mail via general packet radio service (GPRS), a wireless Web browser, a mobile phone and basic PDA features.

There are no bells and whistles on the BlackBerry, and that was fine with me. There are no expansion slots, limited internal memory, the screen is monochrome and there are no speakers or handwriting recognition capability. For those wedded to the idea that more is better, the BlackBerry will seem barren against the iPaq or other high-end devices.

But when used for what it does best - send and receive e-mail - the BlackBerry is fantastic. The always-on GPRS connection has messages arriving as quickly as they would if you were sitting at your desktop. When you return to the office, you can synchronise your e-mail account using a docking cradle that plugs into a serial port.

Also on the plus side, the BlackBerry has a full alphanumeric keyboard that you operate with your thumbs, and a roller wheel that lets you scroll through the menu and choose your options. The unit is compact, lightweight, rugged and has an internal aerial.

I didn't bother with the instruction manual and had the basic functions mastered in a few minutes of trial and error.

I was also impressed with the battery life of the BlackBerry. I charged it up for two hours when it arrived and then used it for five days without a recharge.

There were some technical problems with the BlackBerry I tested. The first unit was not configured properly and had to be exchanged. The second one ran well for five days and then stopped receiving a signal from the network. The customer service staff was helpful and got the device going again with a minimum of fuss. With a new product, these kinds of glitches are not unexpected, but I hope the wrinkles are quickly ironed out now the product is being offered to customers.

The main thing I disliked about the BlackBerry was the price. Existing Orange customers can choose from two plans: One where you pay HK$3,980 for the unit and HK$538 per month and another where you pay HK$1,880 for the unit and HK$738 per month. If you are not an Orange customer, the cost goes up to HK$5,480 for the unit and $638 per month.

If you want to use the phone function, or browse the Internet, you pay a usage fee. Unlimited e-mail use is included in the subscription package.

That puts the basic cost of ownership at between HK$10,000 and HK$13,000 for the first year. At such a high price, the BlackBerry is up against far more capable hand-held computers whose features it cannot hope to match. I'll allow that Hutchison is looking to the corporate market, but it is a Porsche price for a Volkswagen product.

There are plenty of people in Hong Kong who would love to have mobile access to their e-mail, but they will have to get past the price tag first.

Graphic: rev14gwz