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E-mail for the on-the -go


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 2, 1998

Everyone loves e-mail, right? Not exactly.

A chance to try out an e-mail pager did not thrill my wife, unlike attempts with a voice-mail pager and a cell phone. "I don't do e-mail," she said.

Undeterred and more enthused than I had been with the pager and cell phone, I went ahead with the experiment, the third (and final) attempt to find a solution for portable communications in the family (as well as an excuse to play with gadgets on the job).

This one started with a gender gap. My son sided with me that the wireless device from PageNet (http://www.pagenet.com) was cool. My wife and daughter shrugged it off, both still preferring a cell phone.

I set up the Two-Way service (the Times pays the fee) to test the Motorola PageWriter 2000, which is about the size of a regular pager and includes a small keyboard. It does require touch typing in the truest sense. Users can compose their own notes and replies, or choose from a set of 16 stock answers (such as "yes," "no," "need more info"). About nine lines appear on the screen.

I found the device intuitive. It doesn't have a mouse, but does have a navigational button that is easy to figure out and use. It also has a "Home" button that will return users to the main menu at a touch. I found the PageWriter easier to just pick up and use than the cell phone's extra features.

In addition to messages, the device stores e-mail addresses, phone numbers and other information, can send faxes and has a voice mail feature. It includes a headline service from CNN, ranging from news and sports to business, weather and show biz.

The battery charge is supposed to last about seven days, and it was about a week before I needed to recharge it after the initial use. (The charger unit also can connect to a PC to transfer data.)

Things went well with the initial batch of test messages in the office, except it was set to ring when messages arrived, an irritant to others. I changed it to a vibration setting, and silence was indeed golden.

The gender gap continued when I showed the device around the office and to friends. Most men thought it was cool; only one woman in the office shared that opinion. However, my wife finally agreed to carry the device, as she had previously with the voice-mail pager and a cell phone.

That is when the glitches showed up. A couple of test messages she sent were not received; a couple I sent to her did not make it. We finally did make the connection, with her replies sounding awkward -- "is maybe" and "is thank you" (who says romance is dead?).

During the Hurricane Georges weekend, I asked a friend in Fernandina Beach, north of Jacksonville, to send e-mail not only to my home address but also to the wireless device. That worked, but in some cases the replies I sent to him were cut off in midsentence.

Since the device is being marketed for business uses, those kinds of problems would seem to be more than a nuisance.

As with the other devices we tested, this one is not cheap. The PageWriter 2000 costs $360 to buy, or $19 a month for two years to lease to own. The service ranges from $24.95 a month for up to 8,000 characters (you won't be writing long memos on this anyway), plus 12 cents for each 10 characters over that, to $129.95 for 60,000 characters, plus 4 cents per each 10 characters over that limit. The service rounds up the number of characters in messages. The word "yes" would count as 10, for example.

In the cell phone test, we used the AT&T One Rate plan, $90 a month for 600 minutes of air time, local and long distance, and the phone would have cost $200-$230. The voice-mail pager from Conxus cost $80 at the time, and $20 a month for unlimited messages (though recent ads have had lower prices).

Since my wife didn't find the e-mail pager to be the most exciting gadget since sliced bread, we didn't end up using it that much, as we found with the voice-mail pager.

One message that continues to be received, loud and clear: the "We want a cell phone" battle cry in our household.

And that appears to be what will win out (eventually) for our wireless needs, though I'll let my wife do the comparison shopping on that one.

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