"Instant messaging" is hardly instant when you're waiting for your turn at the shared family PC. And away from home, IM becomes "eventual messaging" unless you're willing to run up text-messaging bills on your cell phone -- and wear out your fingers from typing on its numeric keypad.

A $100 handheld device called the Zipit Wireless Instant Messenger offers another way to get to your IM. This stylish, seven-ounce gadget from Greenville, S.C.-based Aeronix Consumer Media Systems Inc. (www.zipitwireless.com) uses any WiFi Internet connection to link you to the three major messaging networks -- AOL, Microsoft's MSN and Yahoo. And it does so without subscription or usage fees.

Flip open a Zipit's lid and turn it on, and it automatically sniffs out available WiFi signals, giving priority to ones you've connected to previously. It can jump onto encrypted, secure WiFi networks (although it can't register with fee-for-service hot spots that require a logon via a Web page); when you use an open, insecure signal, Zipit's non-Windows software makes it immune from the usual viruses and spyware.

A compact but readable grayscale screen measures 3.9 inches across with a 320-by-240 pixel resolution. As sharp as, but bigger than, the displays on most handheld organizers, this makes it easy to track which buddies are online and which have gone idle.

Zipit's software helpfully merges the buddy lists from all your accounts and makes them accessible via a large "MyFriendz" key. (The Zipit can't create new IM accounts on any of these networks, although it can add or remove people from buddy lists.) Just scroll up and down that list or type the first letter of a buddy's name to start a chat.

The keyboard mostly sticks to the usual QWERTY order (though numbers and symbols don't appear in their customary locations) but is just too small to allow touch typing. Such important keys as Backspace, Enter and Menu also sit too closely to their neighbors. Those accustomed to two-finger cell phone texting, however, should be able to get the hang of thumb-typing on this device soon enough.

The Zipit keyboard features three buttons to send specific smileys ("emoticons" like :-/ for tongue-tied), plus three others that can be set to generate custom symbols.

As buddies sign on and off, the Zipit plays a special tone and flashes an indicator, which can be unnecessarily distracting. You can open multiple chats at once, using the Prev/Next keys to jump among them -- but take care to send messages where they belong! Also, make sure you don't turn the device off before you've read all of a conversation, since there's no logging feature to save a conversation for later scanning.

This device runs on a rechargeable, replaceable battery, which can keep it alive and connected for about 31/2 hours on the standard power-management settings.

Zipit, like the popular third-party IM programs Trillian and Gaim, was developed without help from the companies that run these proprietary messaging networks. That means that its access can suffer mysterious outages when AOL, Microsoft or Yahoo unexpectedly alters its network in some way. For example, Zipit's device was recently locked out of AOL's service for nine days (and Yahoo's for 12) until Aeronix upgraded its own software.

It does help that Zipit automatically checks for and installs software updates to fix these and other issues. The company's Web site has a decent list of tech-support tips and frequently asked questions, with help available over the phone during weekdays. It's also worth giving the clearly written manual a quick read to learn Zipit's features, customization options such as alert sounds and display settings, and troubleshooting routines.

For now, there are far more places to use a Zipit than to buy one, as its distribution is limited to such Web stores as Target, Best Buy and Amazon. Aeronix says it plans to bring the device into regular stores; it also has plans to sell an upgrade that will add streaming music playback. For now, it's simply a cheap, effective way to chat.

The seven-ounce Zipit Wireless Instant Messenger taps into WiFi servers.