Review: Always in Touch (if, That Is, You Want to Be)

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, March 1999

Review: Always in Touch (if, That Is, You Want to Be)
The latest mobile electronics put the backcountry online

By Brent Hurtig


Last autumn, Viktor Yazykov, a Russian competitor in the 1998-1999 Around Alone sailing race, a solo circumnavigation of the globe, found himself in a pickle. As faithful readers of Outside already know, he had bashed his elbow early on, and halfway through the first of the race's four legs, from Charleston, South Carolina, to Cape Town, South Africa, the injured arm developed a potentially deadly abscess in need of surgical attention. Stuck in the South Atlantic with his fingers losing mobility, Yazykov was forced to play doctor. It was E-mail from a Boston surgeon, relayed by satellite ù together with the anesthetic properties of a stash of merlot ù that helped him navigate flesh and a good amount of blood to lance the abscess. He pulled off the procedure and at last report was bound for Punta Del Este, Uruguay, on the third leg of the race.

Such technology has been standard on open-ocean vessels for awhile, but it's increasingly available in tiny packages that average outdoor folks can tote along. And whether or not you view portable computers, personal digital assistants, wireless phones, and the like as anathema in the wilderness, there are some pretty good reasons ù short of needing instructions for surgery ù to equip yourself with these devices. Given the all-too-frequent choice between meeting an impending deadline and spending a weekend in the woods, any tool that lets you do both warrants a closer look.

On the Case
As handy as a cell phone may be in the backcountry, most aren't designed to take the same sort of abuse as your other gear. To even the score, MDX Industries has trotted out the Cell Safe ($25; 877-235-5723), a protective case that holds your mobile phone. The 6.5-ounce cylinder is formed from rugged ABS plastic and lined with enough padding to take a good licking but not so much that you won't hear an incoming call. An O-ring seal makes it watertight and gritproof. And it floats. Best of all, it snaps neatly into your bike's water-bottle cage, so you can have that pizza waiting at the end of an epic ride.

Thus we present a collection of mobile electronics ideal for handling both scenarios. Each performs multiple functions and has overlapping capabilities, so we've simplified things by dividing the items into three categories: personal digital assistants and smart phones, handheld personal computers, and satellite communication devices. The choices and features therein are amazing. All you're left wanting is a benevolent boss who'll give you the opportunity to use them.

PDAs and Smart Phones

The personal digital assistant is the heart ù or brain, to be more precise ù of some very useful gadgets. Whether it's a stand-alone device married with a wireless modem or built into a cell phone to create a smart phone, you'll appreciate its organizer capabilities, which include a calendar and address book. And most PDAs can synchronize with a desktop computer so you can swap information between the two. Not incidentally, all wireless devices require a service plan. For calls, analog cellular offers broader coverage than digital. To access E-mail or the Internet you'll need a separate data plan, whose coverage will be spottier than either type of voice service.

At nine ounces, the Samsung Duett‰ from AT&T Wireless ($129) is quite the svelte smart phone. In addition to trading E-mail and sending faxes in its PDA mode, you can use it to surf AT&T's PocketNet, a selection of 25 text-only Web sites that offer news, weather, and more ù go to, for example, and you can get reliable door-to-door directions between any two points in the United States. (AT&T's unlimited data service runs $30 per month, and you'll also need an analog voice plan of some sort.) That the sites have no graphics is significant, given the Duett‰'s miniature four-line display. The rechargeable battery provides about 95 minutes of continuous connection time. One caution: You "type" with the keypad, pressing "2" once for "a," twice for "b," and so on, so you'll be keeping those E-mails short and sweet.

3Com's Palm III ($369) has spawned a number of imitators, but none as popular as the original. The seven-ounce wonder stores thousands of calendar entries, addresses, and memos, and dozens of different programs ù including games such as SubHunt, a seductive pasatiempo for tentbound rainy days. If you're looking for a good excuse to bring it into the woods, outfit it with the nine-ounce Novatel Minstrel Plus Wireless IP modem ($399) and you've got portable E-mail and text-only Web browsing. Thus connected, the Palm III will run for up to eight hours on two AAA batteries, and it synchronizes with either a PC or a Mac (the Mac kit costs $15 extra). There's no keyboard; instead, you write directly on the LCD screen with a plastic stylus. A handwriting-recognition program impressively transforms chicken scratch to text. And thanks to the success of the Palm series, the market's awash with software and accessories, including the DeLorme Earthmate ($159), a seven-ounce receiver that you can lash to the top of your pack to turn any Palm-series PDA into a GPS unit.

At first glance, the Nokia 9000il smart phone seems to need a diet. But its 17-ounce heft is easily forgiven: Once you're done making voice calls, it snaps open like something out of a Bond film to reveal a full-blown PDA, complete with a mini keyboard. You can make a list of stuff to bring skiing, check the weather forecast on the Web, or, assuming you can get a connection, send a fax for help if you end up off-piste on the last run of the day. While the display isn't huge, it's bigger than the Duett‰'s and of sufficient quality to handle graphics. The rechargeable battery delivers up to 180 minutes of continuous connection time. You'll need digital voice and data service to make it run.

Handheld Personal Computers

Behold the mighty hybrid: more powerful and flexible than a stand-alone PDA, more compact and energy efficient than a laptop. Most HPCs use Microsoft Windows CE and come with scaled-down versions of Word, Excel, Explorer, and other applications. They can run for six or more hours on a single charge, but for such stamina you give up a battery-hungry hard drive. Instead they're equipped with eight to 20 megabytes of RAM, enough to run several programs simultaneously and to store hundreds of files. HPCs, like PDAs, also synchronize with desktop PCs (but not Macs).

Compaq's 2010C ($599) has an exceptionally bright full-color LCD screen, and with practice you can learn to touch-type on its tiny keyboard. There's also a built-in 33.6Kbps modem, if you have access to a telephone landline. If not, add GoAmerica wireless data service ($60 per month) and its RIM Wireless PC Card ($299 with activation) to turn the 16-ounce 2010C into a no-strings-attached HPC that can handle sophisticated graphics. Want to check out snapshots of Yazykov's auto-surgery in all its full-color glory? Point the 2010C's Web browser to the race's site ( and the 2010C's screen won't disappoint.

The fire's ready, and all that's left in your pack is a tin of anchovies, curry powder, and some peanut butter. What to cook? Unpack the Novatel Wireless Contact ($999), raise its antenna, and aim straight for the Web to search for that recipe. The Contact may not be able to solve all your crises, but once you're up and running online, its built-in wireless modem will have you browsing faster than any other wireless option we tested. (Data plans cost from $15 to $60 per month.) The 22-ounce Contact is a skosh bigger than the 2010C ù a fair trade-off for those with big paws, since the keyboard is larger. The Contact's LCD screen is also larger, but it's monochrome. Though you won't want to use it any more than you have to, it also has a slow, built-in 14.4Kbps modem for landline connection.

Satellite Solutions

Cellular-based devices are fine as long as you don't stray too far from the beaten path. The alternatives, satellite communication devices, don't come cheap, and neither do the service charges. But when you want to reach out and touch someone, and you happen to be on top of Annapurna or deep in the Amazon, then there's only one way to go ù straight up.

If all you need is a good position fix, most global positioning system units are significantly smaller and cheaper than the brick-size, 30-ounce Magellan GSC 100 ($999). But this unit can also send and receive E-mail anywhere on Earth. You get a bright LCD, an easy-to-use alpha-numeric keyboard, and a three-foot telescoping antenna that compensates for its two-channel (rather than more consistent 12-channel) satellite tracking. The rechargeable battery is good for about five messages per day over a two-week period or for six hours of continuous GPS usage. The Orbcomm E-mail service costs $50 to activate, plus $30 per month for 10 messages and 30 message checks. (Sending additional messages will run you a tidy one cent per character.) It's pricey ù but then, it's the only product of its kind.

Stymied outside a broken phone booth with no way to use that fistful of rupees? Next time, pack an Iridium Satellite Phone from Motorola (you'll need dollars for this option ù 3,395 of them). The one-pound w’nderphone lets you place calls from anywhere to anywhere, for between $2 and $7 per minute. And if you're not in such a remote area, the Iridium converts to a standard cell phone, thus lowering your fees. Otherwise, coverage is worldwide (with the exception of Libya and a few other politically off-limits countries), and unlike older satellite phones, there's no need to pull out a compass to point the Iridium's antenna toward the equator. You might detect a slight lag in the conversation, but because this phone uses a constellation of low-orbiting satellites, you won't get an awkward, halting delay. Put it this way: It sounds better than the typical landline call to Asia.

Where To Find It
AT&T Wireless, 888-328-2288; 3Com, 800-881-7526; Compaq, 800-345-1518; DeLorme, 800-452-5931; GoAmerica,888-462-4600; Magellan, 800-611-7955; Motorola, 800-232-6274; Nokia, 888-665-4228; Novatel, 888-888-9231; Orbocomm, 800-672-2666

Brent Hurtig wrote about digital camcorders in Outside's February issue.

Photographs by Hakob Khodaverdian and Clay Ellis

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