November 1, 2007

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Tiny browsing
Mobile devices let you surf anywhere
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

With more and more cafés, downtowns and even grocery stores getting equipped with Wi-Fi — that magical networking technology allowing Internet connections without wires — it’s becoming easier to find a place to plunk down with a laptop and surf to your favorite Web sites no matter where you are.

Assuming, of course, you’ve lugged your laptop along. Affordable ones tend to be the size of briefcases once you include AC adapters and travel mice, and small ones sacrifice performance for size, not to mention your wallet.

Cell phones and Pocket PCs are increasingly coming equipped with Wi-Fi and/or Web browsers as well, but their implementations are often clumsy and have trouble with rich content like video and online games. If only there were a class of product made specifically for people who wanted to browse the Web on the go...

...you mean, “Mobile Internet Devices”? Why sure there are some of those. And while the fancy-dancy prototypes can cost upwards of a thousand clams, there are several options for the less financially endowed.

• Nokia Internet Tablets: There’s a new model, the N810, but there are also older models that are now discounted. Introduced at last January’s Consumer Electronics Show, the N800 is less than a year old but has come down to less than $250 at online retailers. That gets you the aforementioned Wi-Fi along with an integrated Webcam, Opera Web browser, dual memory card slots and stereo speakers. It supports Internet phone functionality through Skype, music and video playback, PDF viewing, drawing and a dozen other things. The new one is a little faster, has a hardware keyboard (instead of an on-screen one) and is twice the price.

• Asus Eee PC: Remember Shrinky Dinks? You put them in the oven and they came out all tiny? Well, you don’t need to do that with the Eee PC! In fact, you probably shouldn’t. It’s already a tiny laptop, weighing about two pounds with just a seven-inch screen. It has no hard drive, relying instead on flash memory, and it runs a specialized Linux operating system. That makes startup time virtually nonexistent. The cheapest model is $200 and includes 2GB of storage space, a memory card reader, speakers, a microphone and a productivity software suite; the 8GB model is twice the price and also adds a Webcam.

• Apple iPhone & iPod Touch: Really, only the 8GB iPod Touch makes it into the “cheap” category, at $300 and no cumbersome cell phone contracts; the 16GB version is $100 more. But the Web browsing capabilities are truly elegant. You’ve probably already heard about its multi-touch display, letting you use two fingers to expand and shrink images or text to just the right size. More useful, honestly, is just double-tapping a given section of a Web page, which automatically fits it to the screen width. That cuts out navigation or ad bars on the sides, letting you focus on content. Oh, and I think these things play music or something.