Hands on with the Celio REDFLY

I first wrote about Celio's REDFLY back in March ("A Traveling Companion for Windows Mobile Users" http://windowsitpro.com/article/articleid/98616/a-traveling-companion-for-windows-mobile-users.html) but I've been able to spend some time with the device over the past few weeks and would like to discuss the experience. The Celio REDFLY is promoted as mobile companion for compatible Windows Mobile smart phones, including the AT&T-based HTC Tilt that came with the preproduction REDFLY I've been evaluating.

As a refresher, the REDFLY works in tandem with a Windows Mobile device, either while tethered with a standard USB cable or wirelessly via Bluetooth. Designed as a clamshell, laptop-like device, the REDFLY includes a full keyboard, a trackpad, and an 8-inch 800 x 480 screen. The idea is that mobile professionals can use their smart phone as their primary computing device while on the go, and they access their data with the REDFLY when they need to do some editing or simply want a larger screen for email, Web browsing, or the various Mobile Office applications. It sounded like a great idea when I first heard of the device.

My positive prognosis has been borne out in real-world use. The REDFLY is about the size, shape, and weight of a typical hardcover book, comfortable and light enough for virtually any bag. Compared to a typical mid-sized notebook, of course, the REDFLY is a bit undersized. For example, the keyboard is a mere 8.25 inches left to right, compared to 10.5 or 11 inches for a typical notebook keyboard. This shouldn't be problematic for most people (although it stretched the limits of my own oversized hands). Compared with a typical smart phone keyboard, physical or virtual, the REDFLY is, of course, voluminous.

Connecting to the smart phone is fast and seamless, regardless of which connection type is used. (The first time you link the devices, however, you must use the USB cable.) Performance, too, doesn't seem to be affected by the connection type. That said, the first time I used the REDFLY, I found the performance acceptable but a bit leisurely. What I eventually discovered was that this was due to the smart phone and not the REDFLY: Even when using the HTC device directly, the performance was on the slow side. Certainly, the REDFLY doesn't appear to be slowing it further.

From a user experience standpoint, things work as expected for the most part. The three Mobile Office applications, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, take advantage of the REDFLY's larger screen and work nicely, though we're quickly reaching the point where these applications need to be updated to accommodate such usage scenarios: They're not even at Office 95 functional levels yet. Some applications don't work (yet?) with the REDLY, such as Windows Media Player (WMP); others simply assume a certain screen size. The background image for the home screen, for example, is repeated three times across the background when displayed on the REDFLY, which can be awkward looking if it was designed to look right only at 240 x 320 or whatever.

I'm excited about the REDFLY and think it will find a home with many a mobile professional. But as we switch to a more mobile computing experience via such devices, there are plenty of pragmatic reasons to consider the REDFLY. Chief among these are total cost of ownership (TCO): Because there's no drive to image or manage, the REDFLY is low impact, and if it gets lost, there's no storage or data involved, so you're only out the cost of the device. (And let's not forget that modern Windows Mobile devices support Remote Wipe functionality, making this solution far more secure, in many ways, than true portable PCs.)

I think that Celio is hitting the market at a good time: Not only are smart phones getting ever more powerful, but the slowing economy will cause many to seek more cost-effective solutions than management-heavy and expensive mobile PCs. Combine this solution with the pervasive broadband access provided by the whole and a host of cloud-based data storage services and PC remote control solutions, and there's almost nothing it can't do.

The weak link, of course, is the capabilities of the applications Windows Mobile. Pocket Internet Explorer (IE) is a lousy Web browser, for example, although Opera makes a capable mobile browser. And those Mobile Office applications, as noted, are in desperate need of a makeover. Things are improving--in Windows Mobile 6.1 you can edit PowerPoint presentations on the device, for example--but they can't happen fast enough in my opinion.

The Celio REDFLY is currently available for preorder only. Celio hopes to make the devices broadly available in the coming quarter.

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