Mobile devices: a buyer's guide

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.


Notebooks, tablets and UMPCs
Notebooks come in many shapes and sizes, each with their particular advantages and disadvantages. Although the smallest notebooks are the most portable, they also have smaller keyboards and displays, fewer features and slower performance than their bulkier brethren. Conversely, higher-spec notebooks are generally harder to carry and take up more space on your desk and in your bag. So until the perfect portable computer is made, you'll have to sacrifice something: think about what's most important to you — computing power, a complete set of features, long battery life, good looks, a small form factor or a low price.

Ultraportable notebooks
The smallest, most lightweight notebooks are called 'ultraportables'. Their compact form factor is crucial for people who need to have a computer with them all the time, especially mobile professionals. What you gain in portability, however, you usually give up in terms of weaker performance, smaller keyboards and displays and fewer features. What's more, ultraportable notebooks almost always carry a premium price tag. Still, a compact, lightweight profile can make all the difference if you spend a lot of time on the road.

Weight  2kg or less
Size  less than 2.5cm thick
Display  smaller than 14in. (diagonal)
Processor  slower, low-voltage mobile CPUs; some dual-core models
Features  fewer ports and connections; 60GB-120GB hard drive
Networking  LAN, modem, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth (optional), WWAN (optional)
Miscellaneous  small keyboard and touchpad; may lack an internal optical drive
Price range  start at ~£600; fully loaded £1,200 and up

See the latest ultraportable notebook reviews

Thin-and-light notebooks

A thin-and-light notebook offers an optimal combination of portability, performance, features and cost. Power-tuned mobile processors deliver enough power to keep you working smoothly, and unlike ultraportables, most thin-and-lights have a bigger keyboard and display, a larger hard drive and a built-in optical drive. They're more expensive than slightly larger, heavier 'mainstream' notebooks, but if you need maximum productivity in a portable package, this is the best choice.

Weight  2-3kg
Size  ~2.5cm thick
Display  12in.-14in. (diagonal), probably wide-screen
Processor  mid-range to fast dual-core CPUs
Features  most ports and connections; 80GB-120GB hard drive; optical drive
Networking  LAN, modem, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth (optional), WWAN (optional)
Miscellaneous  small keyboard and touchpad
Price range  start at ~£400; fully loaded £800 and up

See the latest thin-and-light notebook reviews

Tablet PCs and UMPCs
Usually comparable in size and weight to ultraportable or thin-and-light notebooks, Tablet PCs let you take handwritten notes and navigate menus, documents and web pages using a stylus directly on-screen. The most common type is the convertible tablet, which looks much like traditional notebook but has a display that swivels 180 degrees and folds flat over the keyboard. Slate tablets, on the other hand, lack keyboards — they're all screen. The smallest tablets, Ultra-Mobile PCs, bridge the gap between handheld and ultraportable, with 7in. touch-screen displays and enhanced media player features.

Weight  usually 2kg or less, with some slates weighing as little as 1kg; UMPCs weigh less than 1kg
Size  less than 2.5cm thick
Display  12in. (diagonal) or smaller touch-screen; UMPCs generally have 7in. screens
Processor  moderate-speed mobile CPUs
Features  fewer ports and connections; 30GB-60GB hard drive
Networking  LAN, modem, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth (optional), WWAN (optional)
Miscellaneous  Windows Vista or XP Tablet Edition; handwriting recognition software
Price range  start at ~£600; superior models cost closer to £1,200

See the latest Tablet PC and UMPC reviews


Handhelds and smartphones
The perfect handheld device does not yet exist, so you're going to have to consider whether you want one primarily for making voice calls, sending text messages and monitoring your email, for example, in which case you'll be looking at a smartphone, or whether your data entry needs are greater, in which case a handheld of some kind — with a bigger screen and perhaps a keyboard — will be more appropriate. Operating systems used in handhelds and smartphones include Windows Mobile, Palm OS, Symbian, RIM OS (BlackBerry), Linux and now Mac OS X, following the release of the Apple iPhone.

Handhelds can range from (increasingly rare) 'classic' PDA-style devices with no wide-area connectivity and basic personal information management (PIM) functionality to highly connected, keyboard-equipped bits of kit that some mobile professionals may prefer to carry instead of a fully fledged notebook. An example of the latter is the T-Mobile Ameo.

Weight  typically over 150g
Size  typically 20mm thick or more
Display  2.8in. (diagonal) or bigger; touch-screen; resolutions up to 640x480 pixels (VGA)
Features  email /PIM client; web browser; third-party applications; office document creation
Connectivity  combination of: infrared, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, WWAN, GPS
Expansion slot(s)  CompactFlash, SD/MMC, miniSD, microSD
Miscellaneous  on-screen keyboard; handwriting recognition; some models have slide-out or clamshell-style QWERTY keyboards; camera (optional)
Price range  start at ~£150; high-spec models cost over £400

See the latest handheld reviews

Smartphones by definition have wide-area connectivity — GSM and GPRS/EDGE or 3G/HSDPA — but can vary in the amount of features they pack in, and the level of data-centricity. If you need to respond to the odd email and like to browse the web occasionally, you may prefer the classic BlackBerry-stlye form factor with a landscape-mode screen and a QWERTY keypad. The most compact and lightweight smartphone has a smaller portrait-mode screen and a mobile-phone-style keypad. Some newer devices, such as HTC's S710, combine the latter form factor with a slide-out QWERTY keypad.

An increasing number of smartphones now come with integrated Wi-Fi, allowing them to become part of a 'fixed/mobile integration' solution, whereby the phone connects to a fixed line via Wi-Fi in the office and uses a mobile network elsewhere.

Weight  typically under 150g
Size  typically less than 20mm thick
Display  2.4in. (diagonal) or less; no touch-screen; resolutions up to 240x320 pixels (QVGA)
Features  email /PIM client; web browser; third-party applications; office document reading (but rarely creation)
Connectivity  WWAN plus combination of: infrared, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS
Expansion slot(s)  miniSD, microSD
Miscellaneous  keypad with multiple character/symbols per key; some models have small QWERTY keypads; camera (optional)
Price range  start at ~£150; high-spec models cost over £300 (without operator contract)

See the latest smartphone reviews


Mobile connectivity
A key consideration with any mobile device is how it connects to the internet, as this largely detemines what useful work you'll be able to do with it. Notebooks routinely have wired Ethernet connections with data transfer rates up to 1000Mbps (Gigabit Ethernet), but handhelds and smartphones don't, and it's wireless connectivity that's the key to truly mobile productivity. Here's a tour of the available options.

Personal-area wireless networks
Infrared  Increasingly rare on mobile devices, infrared — standards for which are handled by the Infrared Data Association, or IrDA — requires line-of-sight access, which somwhat limits its utility. Most of the functions for which infrared was used on mobile devices — such as connecting peripherals and beaming small files — have been, or are being, taken over by Bluetooth.
Bluetooth  This low-power, short-range technology operates in the same 2.4GHz frequency band as 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, but supports lower data transfer rates (721Kbps for Bluetooth 1.2 and 2.1Mbps for Bluetooth 2.0+EDR) over shorter distances. Like infrared, Bluetooth is commonly used as a cable-replacement technology, for connecting peripherals such as printers and audio headsets, and for device-to-device file transfer.

Local-area wireless networks
Wi-Fi   The IEEE 802.11 family of standards form the basis of most wireless LANs worldwide. 'Wi-Fi' is the term coined by the Wi-Fi Alliance, which exists to promote and certify the interoperability of different vendors' 802.11-based products. Wi-Fi networks provide connectivity and internet access to homes, offices and public hotspots; Wi-Fi can also be used for ad hoc peer-to-peer connections between devices — in a meeting room, for example.
802.11a  A 54Mbps WLAN standard using the 5GHz frequency band, which cuts out interference from equipment that uses the crowded 2.4GHz band (microwave ovens, Bluetooth devices and cordless phones, for example); 802.11a is used for wireless networking within enterprises, but is rare elsewhere.
802.11b  An 11Mbps WLAN standard using the 2.4GHz frequency band, 802.11b has largely been superseded by the faster 802.11g but is present in a large number of mobile devices (which can connect to 802.11g access points).
802.11g  Like 802.11a, 802.11g has a maximum data rate of 54Mbps, but it operates in the same 2.4GHz band as the popular 802.11b, making it backwards-compatible. However, a mixed 802.11b/g network will experience slower throughput than a pure 802.11g LAN. Newer mobile devices commonly come with 802.11g Wi-Fi.

802.11n  A 100Mbps+ standard supporting both 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands, 802.11n supports legacy a, b and g traffic in a mixed mode or n-only for maximum performance. The key advance in 802.11n is the use of multiple antennas: Multiple Input/Multiple Output (MIMO) allows multiple data streams to be sent simultaneously over longer distances. Although the 802.11n standard has yet to be finalised, vendors are already selling 'Pre-N' and 'Draft-N' products. The Wi-Fi Alliance has endorsed this practice by certifying Draft 2.0-compliant kit. Intel's latest Santa Rosa notebook platform uses Draft-N Wi-Fi modules.

Wide-area wireless networks
GSM (2G)  The Global System for Mobile communications (GSM) was the first digital mobile phone network in Europe, replacing first-generation analogue networks. The 900MHz and 1800MHz fequency bands are used by dual-band phones; tri-band and quad-band 'world' phones also support the 1900MHz and/or 850MHz bands, which are used in the USA and Canada. Data transmission rates for GSM are a paltry 9.6Kbps — enough to support text messaging (SMS) but little more.
GPRS (2.5G)  The General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) adds a packet-switched channel to GSM, boosting the data transmission rate to 80Kbps (download) and 20Kbps (upload) or 60Kbps/40Kbps depending on the configuration employed. This is enough to support services such as MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service), push-to-talk, instant messaging (IM), push email, web browsing and Voice over IP (VoIP).
EDGE (2.75G)  Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution (EDGE) boost the data speed for GSM/GPRS networks to around 200Kbps. In the UK, Orange and T-Mobile offer EDGE connectivity, while O2 is in the process of upgrading its network.
UMTS (3G)  The Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS) is the technology behind Europe's third-generation (3G) mobile networks, which are operated by O2, Orange, T-Mobile, Vodafone and 3. Data rates are typically 384Kbps, which allows services such as video calling and TV to be added to those available on GPRS/EDGE networks. A wide range of handhelds, smartphones and notebooks have integrated 3G connectivity; external 3G modems are also available in several formats including USB, PC Card and ExpressCard.
HSDPA/HSUPA (3.5G)  High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) allows 3G networks based on UMTS to have higher data transfer speeds: HSDPA technology supports download speeds of 1.8, 3.6, 7.2 and 14.4Mbps, although the maximum currently available on UK networks is 3.6Mbps. HSUPA is the uplink counterpart of HSDPA, providing upload speeds up to 5.76Mbps; all of the UK's 3G networks except O2 are now rolling out HSUPA connectivity.
Mobile WiMAX (4G?)  Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (WiMAX) is a term coined by the WiMAX Forum, which promotes the interoperability of IEEE 802.16-based products in a similar way to the Wi-Fi Alliance/802.11 combination. WiMAX is a long-range system that delivers a point-to-point connection to the internet from an ISP to an end user; the 802.16e-2005 version of the standard is often called 'Mobile WiMAX' and is seen by some as a contender for '4G' mobile networks. Although there's a lot of noise about WiMAX elsewhere, it has had little impact on Europe up to now thanks to the presence of well-established 3G UMTS networks.

Satellite communications
  The Global Positioning System (GPS) was originally conceived as a US military project, but is now also available for civilian use worldwide. It allows mobile devices equipped with a GPS receiver to get accurate location and time data, and when coupled with suitable software and maps can provide a navigation service. A European equivalent to GPS, Galileo, is currently under development.



Managing mobile devices
For enterprises, the productivity benefits of equipping the workforce — or portions of it — with mobile devices are offset by the additional burden on the IT department. As the devices become ever more capable, adding enterprise applications like CRM (Customer Relationship Management) to traditional email, PIM and web browsing, so the risks of sensitive data falling into the wrong hands increase. And the more applications that make their way onto mobile devices, the more headaches there will be for the IT department over deployment, configuration (including device lockdown), licensing, asset tracking, data synchronisation and backup, in addition to security concerns.

Fortunately, there is a healthy number of Mobile Device Management (MDM) systems that address these issues. Although a full survey of the market is beyond the scope of this article, here's a list of some of the key players:

Avocent LANDdesk Handheld and Embedded Device Manager

BlackBerry Enterprise Server

BMC Configuration Management (formerly Marimba)

HP Enterprise Mobility Suite

IBM WebSphere Everyplace Access

Good Mobile Messaging / Good Mobile Intranet

Nokia Intellisync Mobility Suite

Novell Zenworks Handheld Management

Perlego Horizons

Sybase iAnywhere Afaria

Altiris Handheld Management Suite

Symbol Mobility Services Platform

Visto Mobile Enterprise Edition


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