Being the typical multitasker, I've often longed for a small, cheap computer for my home's nerve center -- the kitchen, of course. There I could send or check e-mail as it occurs to me, in between boiling pasta, supervising the spelling homework and monitoring the finger painting. I've also been on the lookout for an inexpensive and easy way to communicate with my Hawaiian in-laws, who are often tough to reach by phone but whose e-mail communications have been so fraught with complications that it's sometimes faster to send a letter.
So I was eager to try the Mivo 200, made by a California company called Cidco that advertises it as "personal e-mail without the PC." But this $130 device proved to be as limiting as it was liberating, and I doubt many people, including my thrify in-laws, will be willing to pay its monthly fees ($13 a month or $130 a year).
The 2-pound, 9-by-11-inch gadget is a cinch to set up and get going: All you need is a telephone jack and a electrical outlet (the Mivo can also operate on four AA batteries, but Cidco recommends against that, since the machine can lose information when the batteries die). You even get a week of free usage before you must call the company to set up an account and receive a personalized user ID.
The Mivo's tilt-up, 2 1/4-by-6-inch screen, which shows 10 lines of type in full-screen mode, is pretty readable and offers a good contrast control. Its keyboard, however, is quite cramped, the navigation keys line up a little strangely, and it throws in some irksome idiosyncrasies, such as a delete key that works more like a backspace key. In two weeks of use, I never got completely comfortable typing on it.
The machine can store up to 400 typical e-mails and has a 1,000-entry address book (organized alphabetically by first name). You can print out messages if you have a cable and a parallel-port printer, but I never tried it, reasoning that forwarding the mail to another address and printing it out from would be infinitely less complicated.
It also comes with a calculator, a read-only calendar and a 20,000-word spell checker. A free but not very useful daily news service called My Mivo Information delivers such minimalistic updates as news headlines, prime-time network TV listings, the weather and your horoscope.
Once the excitement of learning to use this thing fades, it's hard to escape realizing that using the Mivo 200 for your e-mail is kind of like relying on postcards for your paper correspondence. Even newcomers to e-mail are unlikely to find this terribly satisfying.
For example, the Mivo 200 cannot send or receive attachments, or messages of more than one to two pages (66 to 90 lines). To view long messages or attachments, or check for new mail when you're away from the unit, you can visit the Cidco Web site -- with a PC. The Mivo itself cannot access the Web at all, so forget about replacing an existing Internet account with this.
There are some convenient features. It fits just about anywhere, and you can unhook it from the phone jack and carry it elsewhere to read or compose your mail, which is kind of fun. Or take it on the road and just use the closest dial-up number -- although there are no international numbers, except for Canada.
But unless you're happy to pay extra for countertop or bed-table convenience, or content to send and receive only short messages, the Mivo 200 is probably not for you.
In June, Cidco plans to introduce a unit -- the $180 Mivo 300 -- offering more memory, the ability to accept attachments, a five-picture photo album and limited access to a few designated Internet sites. Sometime down the road, the company may come out with a model with full Internet access. Until then, though, I think I'll continue to burn calories by running upstairs to check e-mail, and keep writing those letters to Hawaii.
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