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OmniSky Minstrel V

A beautiful wireless solution for a beautiful Palm V

When the Palm V came out last year, many people chose it over the larger Palm computers for its sheer beauty and excellent screen. Then, when the Palm VII came out a few months later, many Palm V users found themselves with wireless envy. Now it's the Palm VII owners who might turn green with the release of the OmniSky Minstrel V. This little beauty snaps on the back of the Palm V, effectively turning it into a Palm VII, plus a little more.

OmniSky is more than just a modem for your Palm V, it's a wireless service integrator that will eventually offer service for Windows CE devices, pagers, and WAP-enabled cell phones. Its two chief investors are 3Com Ventures and Aether Systems, both with an obvious stake in the product's success. The operation is headed by CEO Patrick McVeigh, former VP of Worldwide Sales and Business Development for Palm Computing, and President Barak Berkowitz, former GM of Infoseek and the GO Network. Because what they're doing is integrating many different products from different companies--all of different disciplines--under one banner, their combined experience will be important to make OmniSky a success.

The service is currently in a public beta test stage, and there are a few bumps in the road to be steamrolled; but overall, the service looks very promising.

Visually, the Minstrel V is beautiful. Made by Novatel, it cradles the Palm V very nicely, matching the flared bottom of the computer much like the Palm V Modem. It is black where Palm meets Minstrel, and almost matches the Palm V's anodize on the back. There's a logo on the left, a button in the middle, and three status lights on the right. On the left of the unit, there's a button for both attaching and detaching the Palm V. The antenna is a rubber-tipped flexible whip that locks in place when extended or retracted. The charging transformer is small and light, appropriate for travel. Unlike the Minstrel III, the battery is not removable. Befitting the Palm V, the Novatel Minstrel V is a simple and handsome wireless solution.

Since it is only logical to continue comparing the OmniSky bundle with the Palm VII, I'll note that the Minstrel V/Palm V combination weighs in at 8.8 ounces, while the Palm VII is an appropriate seven ounces. Thickness is also an issue, with the Palm/Minstrel coming in at 7/8 inch and the Palm VII at just over 5/8 inch. Including the antenna bud, the OmniSky bundle is one half inch longer; excluding the antenna bud, it's a quarter inch shorter. The Palm V and Minstrel case's tapers make the slightly increased bulk insignificant, though. Both units are still very shirt-pocketable.

The big surprise with the OmniSky service is that you can emulate almost all of a Palm VII's functions, down to running just about any PQA. Now there's a direct slap in the face to Palm VII owners: not only does OmniSky offer real web browsing and ISP email out of the box, it has all the benefits of the Palm VII. It's a natural fit, really.

Web browsing is done through the included AvantGo browser. When you launch the application, it looks just like the regular AvantGo--and it is--but most of us used to using AvantGo as a method of getting channels for browsing later, are unaware of the Mobile Application Link, and the ability it offers to open web pages while online in addition to just getting channel updates. It's pretty cool. Finding this feature is a little less than intuitive, however. It's not hard--you just tap on the menu icon, select Open Page, and enter your desired URL--but it could be better done with an onscreen button for the sake of speed. Not only text, but graphics are downloaded, and those that are linked to other pages, be they buttons, ads, or photos, actually work. The screen isn't anything like the 800 x 600 desktop experience, but it does in a pinch.

Wirelessly updating your offline AvantGo channels is just as easy, but because of the slower connection offered by the Novatel Minstrel V (19.2Kbps) it does take a little time; certainly less time, however, than driving back to the desktop computer for an update.

The email software is JP Systems' One Touch Mail, renamed OS Mail. This is an excellent email program that allows you to download headers only if you like, and choose from that to download only what you want to view. It does this a little faster than a Palm VII with ThinAirMail, but not significantly, which was a surprise. Much of what takes up time on both the Palm VII and OmniSky isn't the wireless, but both server and internet lag time. You can send and receive from up to six email accounts.

Other applications that come with the OmniSky service are OS White and OS Yellow, for searching the white and yellow pages; OS Support, a PQA for accessing the User Guide and for giving feedback; Scout Sync from Riverbed Technology, for syncing in an enterprise; Launch 'Em, a menu program; and several PQAs to get you started.

Finally, the standard Palm applications are given a little boost, allowing you to wirelessly send an entry from the Address Book, DateBook, To Do List, and Memo Pad application. Address Book records are sent as a vCard enclosure which can be read by Outlook or Outlook Express, and integrated into the Outlook database. Very useful.

One of the things missed from the Novatel Minstrel III is the way the Minstrel III shut itself off when you shut off the Palm. The Minstrel V instead shuts off after a few minutes of inactivity, though that hasn't always happened. There is also an application on the Palm called Power Switch which will take care of the problem as well, but because it's a regular application, you have to dig for it: its low position in the alphabet puts it a few screens down. Not a huge problem, but it is indicative of the advantage an integrated system like the Palm VII has over an assembled solution, allowing one button to shut the whole unit down.

Also, there were several PQAs that did not run at all; I can only guess that this is because of the beta status. Many PQA providers may not be expecting queries from OmniSky. It doesn't seem like that should be a problem, but there were several PQAs that reported errors. As I said at the beginning, bringing all these separate technologies together is a monumental task, and this is a beta, after all.

In use, the OmniSky service is quite good. Unfortunately, where I live and work, there is little reception, so I have to go to the city for short evaluation visits. On flat land in major metro areas, the OmniSky service is a dream. It's a little faster than a Palm VII, offers more out of the box, and has huge potential. Like the Palm VII, there is no paging feature, so the powers that be obviously don't think that's much of a problem.

OmniSky currently uses AT&T for its CDPD wireless service. The monthly standard service has not yet been determined, but it will be a flat fee for unlimited access. OmniSky is promising it will not exceed US$49.95 a month, and they hinted it will probably be a little lower. Users who signed up before January 31, 2000 got a unit for US$299, and unlimited nationwide usage until April 2000. Such purchasers are considered Charter Members, and will enjoy a 15% discount on whatever rate they finally settle on. Those interested would do well to see if they've extended the program a few weeks, as it was rumored that might happen. A flat fee for unlimited usage is the final point for Palm VII users to envy, and perhaps competition will persuade Palm to offer such a plan of their own.

Because of my semi-rural locale in the Sierra Foothills, I'll have to stick to the Palm VII for now, but city dwellers and flat-landers, especially those already invested in a Palm V computer, will likely find the OmniSky solution a fine one. Businesses will also find the Palm V's very readable screen and good looks combine with the OmniSky hardware and service to form one unbeatable mobile wireless solution for their workforce.

-Shawn Barnett

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