Mobile devices: a buyer's guide

Summary:Businesses going mobile need to consider whether to buy notebooks, handhelds, smartphones or other mobile devices. Then there's the various wireless connectivity options, and the extra management burden on the IT department. We take a look at some of these issues.

Work is no longer something that exclusively means commuting to an office and sitting at a desk from 9 to 5. Widespread wireless internet connectivity has seen to that, ushering in the age of the teleworker and the mobile professional. Most 'knowledge workers' adopt all of these roles to varying degrees, a typical mix involving working from home one or two days a week, going on the occasional business trip, but spending much of the time deskbound in the office.

The IT infrastructure that services these changing work patterns must be flexible, and in particular requires a range of mobile client devices to be available, to suit different combinations of business needs. In this Buyer's Guide we'll be taking a tour of the form factors and technology platforms to be found on the market today, while a forthcoming companion Tech Guide will outline the new developments that are waiting in the wings.

Although we shouldn't get too hung up on classification, it is useful to have a broad taxonomy of mobile devices, around which to base a discussion of ergonomics, functionality and management issues.

Notebooks, Tablet PCs and UMPCs
The most functional mobile devices are those that run the same operating systems and applications as desktop computers — that is, notebooks and their close cousins Tablet PCs and UMPCs. For this article, we can discount large and heavy 'desktop replacement' notebooks, which are not designed to be lugged further than a nearby meeting room or office. Few would wish to carry a 'mainstream' notebook weighing over 3kg on a regular basis either. This leaves 'thin-and-light' (~2-3kg) and 'ultraportable' (<2kg) notebooks as options for the mobile worker.

'Thin & light' (left) and 'ultrportable' (right) notebooks, from HP Compaq and Sony respectively.

There are a number of more specialised mobile devices that run fully-fledged desktop operating systems. The Tablet PC  (which comes in 'convertible' clamshell and keyboard-free 'slate' versions) is one; the Mobile Clinical Assistant (a slate tablet specifically designed for medical applications) is another. Then there's the much-maligned Ultra-Mobile PC, or UMPC, which is basically a mini-tablet and is the smallest form factor into which Windows XP/Vista has yet been shoehorned (with some difficulty, it must be said).

The 'handheld' or 'PDA' (Personal Digital Assistant) is something of a taxonomic minefield, which can make analysts' reports challenging to decipher if their classification doesn't match yours. For us, the defining characteristics of a handheld are a stylus- or fingertip-driven touch-screen and a cut-down operating system such as Windows Mobile.

HTC's multifunctional TyTN II (left) and HP Compaq's phone-less iPAQ 214 Enterprise Handheld (right).

Handhelds are data-centric devices, sometimes with usable QWERTY keyboards, that in their early days had only infrared for wireless connectivity. Since then, they have added Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GSM, GPRS/EDGE, 3G/HSDPA and GPS — usually in some combination, but sometimes (as in HTC's multifunctional TyTN II) the whole lot. Reports that 'the PDA is dead' usually refer to 'standalone' handhelds that don't incorporate a mobile phone and wide-area wireless connectivity (GPRS or 3G). However, HP Compaq has recently bucked that trend with its latest iPAQ 214 and 114 models, which it is aiming at vertical markets and the education sector.

The most portable and voice-centric mobile device is the 'smartphone', which for us is a mobile phone without touch-screen functionality that can handle corporate email, contact management and calendaring over the air, connect to the internet, and install and run third-party applications. Some smartphones, most famously the classic BlackBerry models, have full QWERTY keypads, while others are slimmer and more 'phone-like' with fewer keys and more letters and symbols per key.

The BlackBerry 8820 (left) is a classic example of a QWERTY smartphone, while HP's iPAQ 514 Mobile Messenger is a more compact device with a smaller keypad.

Notable mobile devices that escape the taxonomy outlined above include: the Nokia N800 Internet Tablet, a Linux-based device that sits somewhere between a handheld and an Ultra-Mobile PC (Intel calls this sub-UMPC form factor a Mobile Internet Device); mobile thin clients such as the notebook-sized NeoWare m100 that need to be connected to a server to be fully functional; the frankly baffling — and now cancelled — Palm Foleo, a notebook-format 'smartphone companion'; ebook readers like the iRex iLiad with its innovative E-ink display; and all manner of 'standalone' GPS navigation devices, many of which actually incorporate additional functionality including media playing, data storage and hands-free phone operation.


Topics: Mobility, Reviews


Hello, I'm the Reviews Editor at ZDNet UK. My experience with computers started at London's Imperial College, where I studied Zoology and then Environmental Technology. This was sufficiently long ago (mid-1970s) that Fortran, IBM punched-card machines and mainframes were involved, followed by green-screen terminals and eventually the pers... Full Bio

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