Review: RedFly helps smart-phone users do real work

A smart 'dumb terminal' for smart phones

In theory, it's possible to do real work such as composing e-mails and editing Microsoft Office documents on a smart phone. In reality, of course, few people use their smart phones for such tasks because of the small screen and tiny keyboard.

However, Celio Corp.'s RedFly brings the theory of working on cell phones much closer to reality. Celio calls its $499 device a "mobile companion." It connects to Windows Mobile smart phones to give them a readable 800-by-480-pixel screen and a cramped but usable QWERTY keyboard.

The result is device that's small (1 by 6 by 9 in.), light (2 lb.) and inexpensive (compared with a laptop) and that has great potential for road warriors and for IT shops that support them. If you're tired of lugging around six or eight pounds of laptop just so you can type e-mails, view Word documents or run PowerPoint presentations, RedFly can lighten your load considerably.

How RedFly works

The RedFly is neither a laptop nor an ultramobile PC (UMPC), although its screen and keyboard are similar to those of the new generation of ultralight PCs such as the Asus Eee and Everex CloudBook.

Rather, it is more like an old-fashioned dumb terminal without its own CPU or internal storage. In operation it works like a PC remote-access package: You can run any application installed on the connected phone through the RedFly.

Output is displayed on the RedFly's screen. Input occurs via the keyboard and peripherals, such as a mouse, that are attached to the RedFly either wirelessly or via its built-in USB ports.

Besides the RedFly hardware, the other key piece of this system is a small driver that installs on the smart phone. The driver works like remote-access software. It reformats and compresses the smart phone's video output and transmits it via either USB or Bluetooth to the RedFly.

Using the RedFly

The RedFly is easy to use. It boots up instantly and connects with your smart phone quickly. Bluetooth connectivity means you can leave your phone in your pocket or your briefcase while you work on the RedFly. The screen brightness isn't adjustable, but, in our tests, we found it to be more than adequate indoors.

The device has two USB ports, which is likely to be enough for most users. Still, you may want to carry a small hub if you need to connect the USB cable, a mouse and a flash drive all at once. And it even has the potential to charge phones when they are connected via a USB cable. So far, though, only two phones from High Tech Computer Corp. -- the Tilt and the Mogul -- support this capability.

The RedFly mobile companion.

There is also a VGA connector on the RedFly so you can attach it to a video projector for your PowerPoint presentation. When you do that, and if you enable Bluetooth on the phone, the phone works as a wireless remote control.

The RedFly looks like a frequent flyer's dream machine. Because it doesn't have a power-sucking processor, its eight hours of rated battery life means it comes close to the road warrior's Holy Grail of being able to work from coast to coast. And battery life is likely to be even longer if you don't use a USB cable to connect the device to your phone instead of Bluetooth.

Also adding to its in-flight attractiveness is that the RedFly is small enough to fit neatly on an airliner tray table.

The RedFly used for this review was a preproduction prototype -- the product will be introduced in April through Celio's Web site and Enterprise Mobile Inc., a systems integrator specializing in Windows Mobile. The RedFly supports both Windows Mobile 5.0 and 6.0, and it has so far been tested with AT&T's HTC Tilt, Sprint's Palm Treo 700w/wx and HTC Mogul, Verizon's Palm Treo 700w/wx, the Samsung SCH-i760 and the HTC XV6800.

The drawbacks

In our tests, the RedFly mostly succeeded in moving the experience of using a smart phone toward that of working on a laptop.

However, there are some drawbacks, most of which result from the fact that, no matter how much the RedFly makes a smart phone work like a laptop, you're still depending on a phone and its limited processor, operating system, applications and storage.

Web surfing is one example. The good news is RedFly provides a 800-by-480 screen and keyboard, all significant advantages over a standard smart phone. The bad news is that you're still running Windows Mobile. That platform's Internet Explorer Mobile browser is, arguably, a highly constrained way to browse the Web. Add to that the limited processing power of a smart phone and network access that's likely to be slower than your home broadband connection. The bottom line is a browsing experience that will be much slower than you are accustomed to.

Moreover, while the RedFly does some screen reformatting, many sophisticated Web sites automatically detect device and browser settings and switch into a "mobile" display mode that presumes a 320-by-240 display. The resulting paradox is that, the more sophisticated the Web site, the worse the result on the Redfly.

For instance, in Google Inc.'s Gmail, the text box for writing an e-mail message stays the same width on the RedFly screen as it is on a smart-phone display. In other words, the text box is less than 300 pixels wide and hugs the left edge of the RedFly's screen.

This problem also afflicts some applications installed in the phone; the more graphics-intensive the app, the less the RedFly can do to remap it to the larger screen. With the Solitaire game on the HTC Tilt used for these tests, the width stayed the same size on both the smart phone and RedFly screens, which made the individual cards smaller than Windows Mobile's icons on the RedFly screen.

Fortunately, the Office Mobile applications work quite well on the RedFly, using the entire screen. Of course, these are scaled-down versions of Office applications, so they don't include the whole range of formatting options, but the basics are there. Once you've adjusted your typing to the delicate touch required by the smaller RedFly keyboard, you can touch-type in Word at a speed that outruns the display.

Wide appeal

The RedFly's ability to combine wireless connectivity with just enough hardware to do real work should make it a hit not just with road warriors but also with IT departments.

Users will love it because it can increase productivity. One reason IT departments will love it is that there's nothing to install or maintain on device, and very little training and support is required. As a dumb terminal, there are no security risks if it gets left in a cab. And there's no upgrading required if the user gets a new phone.

While Celio has no immediate plans to provide drivers for other smart-phone operating systems, the company says there are no technical barriers to someday expanding beyond Windows Mobile. And some Palm Treo and BlackBerry users will surely clamor for the RedFly, if it becomes available for them.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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