Exclusive: First look at the Geofox One e-mail appliance

The idea of a 'pocket e-mail machine' is brilliant, and the Geofox One is designed as exactly that. First impressions of the early samples of this new Psion-based appliance, however, suggest that only the expert user should consider becoming an early adopter.

The idea of a 'pocket e-mail machine' is brilliant, and the Geofox One is designed as exactly that. First impressions of the early samples of this new Psion-based appliance, however, suggest that only the expert user should consider becoming an early adopter. What the Geofox One needs, above all, is a good marketing bundle.

In the pre-release form made available for review, the finer features of the machine were not easy to test, and it's probably sensible to put this down to early production difficulties, because the design is known to be sound. The internal Cirrus Logic-built ARM-7 processor and the EPOC-32 operating software are both standard, tested products; but our review sample had bugs. This wasn't entirely a surprise; Geofox founder George Grey warned us that he was short of review machines, since the launch in the Comdex show in Las Vegas next week has swallowed up all his stock.

The machine has a nice browser bundled with it, plus pre-set connections to various Web information service providers, like CompuServe or BT Internet -- though not, strangely, MSN. So it is, theoretically, possible to get all your e-mail via a short cable link from this wallet-sized computer, to your cellphone. All I can say is that I couldn't manage it. Nearly, as they say, but not quite.

The main difficulty facing anybody from a PC or Windows background, is that the user interface is not Windows. It may well be better than Windows, once you know how to make it work, but initially you're on your own. The key to it is to find the 'Menu' button,

Probably the best way to summarise the problem with this is to say that if you are over 40, you will need your reading glasses to spot it. There are ten big, fat function buttons on the left hand side of the keyboard, each marked with a fairly obvious icon for the built-in applications -- WP, calculator, database, spreadsheet, and browser. There are other applications, too, but those aren't marked. And to be brutal, the manual isn't much help.

What you have to do is look at the five tiny little buttons just between the QWERTY keyboard and the touchpad. There they are: Extras, Menu, Zoom, Connect and System. And if you read the manual carefully, you'll find you can bring up the menu by tapping the top right hand corner of the mouse pad.

Some people will definitely like the mouse pad. I don't. I found it inaccurate, unpredictable, jerky, and I longed for the Psion's touch-screen, where you can put your finger on it, so to speak, with precision. Geofox decided against the touch screen, because it causes display reflections; I think this was a mistake. Well, it was for me. I know other people will say otherwise, because I have watched customers in computer stores say that they can't stand the Pilot because of its reflective touch-sensitive screen, and Geofox has done its research.

When you are online, the advantage of the Geofox becomes instantly apparent: a nice full 80-character display 24 lines deep -- even if the font is rather small. You really can read your e-mail.

When it comes to creating e-mail, however, you're going to have to try one out before deciding. For me, the decision to go for a rubber-mat keyboard with little rubber lozenges is just too reminiscent of the old Sinclair Spectrum keyboard, and I found it hard to type accurately or at speed. For the price, I would recommend that Geofox rapidly create and offer a thicker model with a more Psion 5 style keyboard. I found that usable, if not ideal.

What this machine does have over the Series 5, is a PC Card slot. This functions as serial port 1, though the manual doesn't appear to reveal this, and neither does the setup screen. There are low-power cards that you can use to drive cellphones, and that's the recommended option.

However, if you are in a mains-powered environment, you can plug in the standard Psion Dacom Gold card supplied with the 'Professional' package, and provided you also plug the Geofox into the mains adapter provided, you'll be able to stay online for long enough. The two AA batteries provided would die in half an hour under the load of keeping the modem warm.

An essential part of any pocket machine is connectivity. Being able to connect to the Web is part of it and being able to talk to your PC is every bit as important. Geofox can do this as standard: cables and software are available in the box, and you don't have to write off for new accessories. I couldn't test this in the time provided, because of the early software but it clearly will work. However, the glitch which spoiled handshaking on the modem also prevented me from transferring files to the PC.

I did manage to connect the machine to a standard modem on 'serial port zero' which is the RS-232 port. The handshaking was obviously faulty; the 'terminal' application comes up saying that it's 'Online' even if there is no modem connected. And local echo means that if you connect to a distant system you see every letter you see every letter twice.

However, if you don't want to plug a cable in, there is a third choice: infra-red. We'll try talking to printers and Psion handhelds, as well as generic infrared laptops, when this software beds down -- but again, there's no obvious reason to imagine that when full production is under way, these bugs won't be ironed out.

Summary:

A nice concept; not quite ready for a full First Look yet, and with the PC connectivity as well as the Web connectivity, what this system really needs is simple: a bundling deal with someone like Carphone Warehouse. Sold as a Nokia 8110 accessory, the 4 meg 'Professional' package with its £600-plus price would be seen as good value by the sort of user who wants a top-quality phone and instant access anywhere around the world to their data. And in that context, it would be possible to set it up with exactly the right accessories and software configured to plug-and-go, avoiding the need to familiarise the user with the innovative Psion desktop.

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