For nearly a year, my friend Marshall has been taunting me with her oh-so-cool Blackberry messenger. "I can't believe you don't have one of these!" she says way too often, pulling out a beeper-size device and reading her e-mail at lunch. She is such a show-off. She is also a stylish person, and the Blackberry resembles her in that respect (except for her scary pointy shoes). Both of them are elegant, compact and totally wired.
The device is made by Research In Motion, and used to be available only with Blackberry's wireless service, over the BellSouth Data Network. But last week major wireless retailers across the country began selling an upgraded and even cooler RIM-made gadget for a telecom company called American Mobile, based in Reston, Va. The new device, dubbed the eLink, should shame young Marshall and her fancy Blackberry-toting crowd.
The new, new thing looks just like the old Blackberry but has some notable, hidden differences. Instead of relying on BellSouth, eLink sends its digital packets over the ARDIS network, which covers more territory--220 million people in the U.S., vs. BellSouth's 175 million. ARDIS can also handle faster speeds--up to 19.2 kilobits per sec., according to the eLink folks, twice as fast as their competitor. Finally, the ARDIS network is renowned for its "in-building" penetration, which means that I can travel up, down and around the august Time & Life Building and never miss a bit.
Other cool things about the eLink: I can configure it so that I receive e-mail from my firstname.lastname@example.org account or any of my other e-mail accounts. I can set it up so that only the first 500 characters of each message are transmitted--and push a button to retrieve the rest of any message I want to read to the end. And the cradle that plugs into my PC and allows me to synchronize it with Microsoft Outlook, Scheduler+ and Lotus Organizer--if I used any of those programs--doubles as a recharger, which is included in eLink's $359 price. (By contrast, the Blackberry costs $399, and you don't get a recharger.)
I've been play-testing my eLink for three weeks now, and it's been just super. E-mail keeps track with me even when I'm moving faster than a Long Island Rail Road locomotive. It leaps the tall buildings in a single bound. I'm told that the network is so strong you could send and receive e-mail while flying over big cities, though the FAA frowns on that kind of thing. One AA battery lasted two weeks, the little eight-line screen was surprisingly readable, and the "trackwheel" turned out to be an excellent way to navigate through menus.
On the downside, the $59.95 monthly service for all-you-can-eat e-mail is much too expensive for all but the info elite. (Indeed, Blackberry offers unlimited e-mail for $20 less.) eLink's limited-use plan, at $24.95--which allows roughly 100 short messages a month--is just too limited for my purposes. And on the ergonomic front, the teensy keyboard does not comfortably accommodate this boy's short, fat fingers. I used a pencil. Marshall could probably use the tips of her pointy high heels.