Nuggets: Email without a PC from BT

Could this finally be a non-PC email device that works?

Making an email device for people without a PC would seem to be a no-brainer, but attempts to create such a tool for the UK market have mostly stumbled on design flaws. BT's Easicom 300 might stand a better chance of survival.

Easicom 300 falls somewhere between the awkwardness of an email phone such as Amstrad's em@iler and the inconvenience of the set-top box. It is a stand-alone, battery-powered terminal, about the size of a compact PC keyboard, with a small LCD screen that folds neatly down into the unit. Turn it on, press the "get mail" button and it does all the work for you.

The package, which costs £99, is a rebadged version of Cidco's MailStation (click here for ZDNet's review), available only in the US. MailStation cost less -- $100, or about £62 -- but you'd pay another $100 a year for email access.

At a light 1.9 pounds (860g) and measuring 11.6x10.3x7.0in (290x257x175mm), the Easicom is ideally suited for portable message management. You can lounge by the pool and compose email to individuals or address groups for batch transmission, or you can permanently connect it to a phone line. With the unit's user-defined periodic polling feature for new messages, the device will not tie up a phone line.

With one keystroke, you can toggle between two highly viewable fonts on the 2.3x6in (57x150mm)LCD. A graphical interface, crisp menus, and well-labeled function keys provide stress-free navigation. The 16.5mm-pitch keyboard is comfortable and includes prominent keys for the main menu and email retrieval.

The Easicom reserves 384K of its 512K flash memory for email and up to 1,000 contact records. If the batteries drain, the Easicom retains your data indefinitely in flash memory. You can set incoming message parameters from 1K to 8K. You cannot open email attachments on the Easicom, but a free PC mail account for attachment and long-message retrieval is provided for PC-literate users at the company's Web site.

Easicom messages can be printed in email format or a more abbreviated letter format. The printer interface is limited to HP DeskJet and LaserJet, Epson Stylus, and Canon ink jet series printers. A limitation deserving mention is that there is no address grouping available for outbound faxes.

Easicom has several advantages over other types of non-PC email. Since it's a stand-alone unit, you can carry it around anywhere in the house to compose or read messages -- it only has to be attached to the phone line to send and receive. Em@iler and BT's own phone-email terminal forced you to stand by the phone and type on a cramped keypad, not ideal for composing anything longer than a paragraph.

Set-top boxes have become an increasingly popular way to access email and e-commerce, with BSkyB's Open platform and On Digital's online service seeing some success. But for a simple, useful application such as messaging, the television is not great: you have to read text on a television screen, for one, and there's no email while EastEnders is on.

Setup is simple, and finding your way around the interface is easy. Memory is limited, however, and once the inbox is full you'll have no choice but to either delete messages or print them out on an Easicom-approved printer (there's a standard PC printer port).

There are other limitations as well, the most glaring of which is that you must use BT's free email service, Talk21. This is a tactic used by most vendors of Web and email appliances to offset the cost of the hardware, but for experienced users -- who will invariably already have an email account -- the switch to Talk21 will be a reason not to buy. And, of course, it's just email -- don't look for Web or e-commerce access.

For non-PC users who want to get connected to email, Easicom 300 is one of the better products out there. It's a solidly-built device that even PC owners might consider as a second point of access in their homes.

  • Easicom 300

  • £99, available now from BT and through Argos outlets

  • Stand-alone, battery-powered email terminal

  • 512Kb memory

  • Maximum email size: 8Kb

  • SMTP/POP3/RFC822 support

  • 33.3kbps modem

  • 3xAAA batteries required, or runs off mains

  • 860g

Bruce and Marge Brown of PC Magazine contributed to this report.

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