When Palm announced its Foleo in May 2007, eyebrows were raised. Most observers failed to see the point of a notebook-like device that connected to your smartphone via Bluetooth to provide a decent-sized keyboard and screen, but did nothing more. In the end, Palm canned the Foleo before it even got to market.
Despite this less than encouraging example, at least one company seems to think that the idea has potential. Celio's Redfly Mobile Companion does a very similar job to the ill-fated Foleo, currently for Windows Mobile smartphones only. But with the market awash with affordable mini-notebooks such as the ASUS Eee PC, surely Celio's product, if not a non-starter (it made it to market), will fall at the first? We just had to get one in (courtesy of Expansys) and take a look.
If the 8in.-screen Redfly Mobile Companion were a proper notebook computer, we'd want one. It's small, neat, well designed and ergonomic, with a footprint 22.9cm wide by 15.2cm deep. The lid and base are a nice plum colour, as is the touchpad inside the shell. The remainder is grey. It weighs 0.9kg and is 2.54cm thick.
The 8in.-screen Redfly Mobile Companion looks like a nicely-designed mini-notebook, but uses a Windows Mobile smartphone to supply its computing power and connectivity.
Inside the casing is a typical notebook-style arrangement of screen, keyboard and touchpad, albeit with a few design tweaks that betray the Redfly Mobile Companion's true function.
The 8in. screen has a native resolution of 800 by 480 pixels and can display 800 by 600 on an external monitor. The full QWERTY keyboard includes a number row and, above that, a set of keys offering shortcuts to Windows Mobile functions.
The keys are necessarily small — especially the shortcut row, which is about two-thirds the size of the rest. Even so, people with small hands should be able to touch type at adequate speed. There's a fair amount of give in the keyboard section, which more heavy-handed typists may find disconcerting. The key travel is perfect and the audible 'click' reassuring.
The back of the 2.45cm-thick device carries a power socket, two USB ports and a VGA connector.
The back of the device carries a VGA connector and two powered USB ports. You can use the latter to attach peripherals like a mouse or a USB stick for data storage; you can also connect your Windows Mobile device via USB rather than Bluetooth if necessary.
The Redfly Mobile Companion ships with a soft drawstring protective case, international power adapters, a printed getting-started guide and CD containing a full PDF user guide and software.
The Redfly Mobile Companion is designed to provide your Windows Mobile smartphone with a larger screen and a proper keyboard, deliver output to other devices such as a monitor or a projector via the VGA connector, and to access storage devices such as a USB keydrive.
The device is completely useless without an attached Windows Mobile device. It is currently compatible with Windows Mobile 5 for Smartphone and Pocket PC and Windows Mobile 6 and 6.1 Professional and Standard. We tested it with an HTC TyTN II upgraded to Windows Mobile 6.1 Professional and it worked fine.
You connect a Windows Mobile smartphone to the Redfly Mobile Companion via USB or Bluetooth, having first installed a driver on your Windows Mobile device. This can be done via a PC connection or over the air. We tried the latter method and it worked smoothly.
With the driver installed and the connection established, the Redfly Mobile Companion becomes a (bigger and more navigable) window on the smartphone's functionality. The Windows Mobile device's screen goes blank while it's connected.
You can now use the touchpad to push a cursor round the screen selecting items from the Windows Mobile device with a tap, creating documents, dealing with email, and doing whatever else you would normally do with Windows Mobile. That row of smaller keys we mentioned earlier includes shortcuts for things like the Windows Mobile Today screen, messaging, internet and softkeys.
If a phone call comes in while you're using the Redfly Mobile Companion, the 8in. screen delivers the visual alert while the smartphone's ringer provides the audible one. You can either use the speakerphone by selecting this on the big screen, or disconnect and use the smartphone in the usual way.
Performance & battery life
Despite our skepticism, the Redfly Mobile Companion does allow you to be more productive with a Windows Mobile smartphone. This article, for example, was typed using it — something we'd never have contemplated using the HTC TyTN II's mini-QWERTY keyboard.
We worked for the better part of a day without any access to mains power. Redfly quotes an average of 8 hours of battery life for the Mobile Companion. Of course, your Windows Mobile device is doing most of the processing work so its battery life is somewhat critical. Note that your smartphone will recharge from the Redfly Mobile Companion if it's connected via USB.
There's a noticeable wait whenever you move between applications, while the Redfly Mobile Companion asks the handheld to deliver or process information and then receives and displays the results. We found the delay acceptable most of the time, but when processing is most intense — for example when web browsing — it can become irritating. You wouldn't want to connect up a Windows Mobile device with a particularly slow processor or a limited amount of RAM.
In the end, it's the concept rather than the execution that bothers us. The Redfly Mobile Companion is a £250 paperweight without a Windows Mobile device to provide it with computing power and connectivity. It can do nothing on its own, and that's its big problem.
Although a few mobile professionals may find the idea of adding a dumb screen/keyboard combo to their Windows Mobile device appealing, the Redfly Mobile Companion made us hanker for Microsoft's old Handheld PC platform — a version of Windows Mobile (or Windows CE as it was then) that appeared in keyboard-equipped clamshell devices back in the 1990s.
If the Redfly Mobile Companion were a Windows Mobile device in its own right, and added Wi-Fi, it might find a niche. As it stands, though, most people are likely to spend their £250 on an ASUS Eee or one of its mini-notebook brethren.