They're Not Phones. They're Not Laptops. They're Probably Not Necessary.
How long can you stand to be without access to the Web? WiFi hotspots can bring the Internet to any new laptop computer, and most cellphones offer a more portable but limited view of the Web. Now some devices aim to split the difference between laptop and phone.
Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch have been the most popular examples, but other manufacturers have ideas, too.
Last November, Nokia shipped the N810 Internet Tablet, a slim, pocket-size, device with a slide-out keyboard, a touch-sensitive screen and a WiFi receiver that costs $439. At the end of January, Sony began selling the $300 Mylo COM-2 Personal Communicator, a simpler device built from the same ingredients.
In addition to Web access, these two wireless-enabled handhelds -- each under half a pound -- can also make Skype Internet phone calls, engage in instant-messaging chats, save typed notes, take pictures, display photos and play music and videos. The Nokia can also send and receive e-mail, locate itself with its GPS receiver, play simple games and run optional programs.
In short, they are a lot like laptops, just lighter and smaller.
And like a lot of laptops and desktops these days, their primary reason for existence is Web browsing. As long as you can get a WiFi signal, you can get to the Web.
They don't provide a perfect representation of the pages you know-- the Nokia's browser gets confused by some pages-- but they get almost as close to the genuine article as the iPhone does. They even play some of the Flash movies and animations on Web pages that Apple's device does not.
Typing Web addresses and other text can be easier on the physical keyboards of these devices than on an iPhone's onscreen keyboard, even if they're too widely spaced for veteran thumb-typists.
Web use, however, drains the batteries of these things. To judge from my experience and the manufacturers' estimates, they won't run longer than the most efficient laptops: maybe six hours for the Sony, up to four for the Nokia.
Both devices let you subscribe to the RSS news updates offered by many Web sites, although it's easier with the Nokia. Nokia's e-mail software has no equivalent on the Sony, but Sony's instant-messaging feature, with its support for AOL's popular AIM service, outdoes Nokia's.
These gadgets' greatest contribution to mobile-Internet use may be putting Internet calling in a pocket-size package. Both include Skype's software and hands-free headsets. With that, you can call almost anybody in the world for pennies a minute, a much cheaper alternative than wireless carriers' exorbitant international-calling rates.
These two manufacturers have also thrown in basic music, photo and video software -- not that anybody's likely to throw out an iPod as a result. Neither device includes any sort of desktop program to sync songs, pictures and videos from your computer to your handheld, and neither deals well with large music collections.