Review: Portable Wi-Fi Messengers Get Better

Perhaps it was wishful thinking, but I thought by now I'd be able to sit at any city cafe, park bench or airport bar across the country and jump on the Internet via a free Wi-Fi connection.

Such ubiquitous Wi-Fi is still years away.

But several companies are betting enough people have wireless routers at home or use public hotspots to support a handheld Wi-Fi device that doesn't double as a cell phone.

• Click here for's Personal Technology Center.

The Sony Mylo COM-2, the Nokia N810 Internet Tablet and the Zipit Wireless Messenger 2 all let you save on cellular data service fees while leaving your laptop computer in its case. And each is directed at a different segment of the market.

Like the first-generation Mylo, the COM-2 ($299) lets users surf the Web, send instant messages and play MP3 music files.

With an 800-by-480-pixel touch screen, it looks and feels a lot like Sony's PSP handheld gaming system and is significantly better than the original model I tested back in 2006.

The COM-2 doubles as a 1.3 megapixel camera, and the slide-out QWERTY keyboard is now backlit, allowing users to chat or surf in the dark (though the shortcut buttons on the touch screen's sides don't illuminate).

It supports the 802.11b and 802.11g wireless protocols and uses 1 gigabyte of internal memory, upgradeable to 8 gigabytes through a Memory Stick Duo/PRO Duo expansion slot.

The device adds AOL's messaging software and still supports Yahoo Inc.'s Yahoo Messenger, Google Inc.'s Google Talk and Skype, eBay Inc.'s Voice-over-Internet-Protocol service.

And users can watch YouTube videos with Adobe Flash Lite 3 and employ desktop widgets to run Google searches and track who's online.

They'll eventually be able to customize their own widgets and share them with other users.

The unit I tested shipped with prerelease software, and I ran into some memory issues while multitasking and surfing Flash-based Web sites. If those issues are ironed out, the Mylo COM-2 may be worth a closer look.

Nokia's N810 Internet Tablet is pricier at $479, but it's the first Wi-Fi handheld I've tried that would make me think of leaving the laptop behind.

The N810 has a 400-megahertz processor with 128 megabytes of RAM and runs on a version of the Linux operating system, which is great for open-source fans who like to tinker behind the scenes.

It includes 2 gigabytes of internal storage, which is expandable to 8 gigabytes or more through a miniSD port.

With a 4.13-inch widescreen LCD and 800-by-480-pixel resolution, the N810 beautifully displays pictures and videos and improves on its predecessor, the Nokia N800, with a slide-out backlit QWERTY keyboard that's a bit cramped.

The device is Bluetooth capable so a wireless keyboard could be an option, though my attempts to use several different Bluetooth-enabled cell phones to connect the N810 to the Internet failed.

The N810 uses Google Talk, Jabber, SIP and Skype for instant messaging, but there's no out-of-the-box support for AOL Instant Messenger or Yahoo Messenger.

Linux's flexibility allows advanced users to download and install the Pidgin instant messaging program to give access to those accounts, but that task that might be a bit complex for novices.

The device also includes a built-in VGA camera for video conferencing, a miniSD slot to hold an MP3 music collection and customizable widgets for access to Google searches and streaming Internet radio.

It also has a built-in global positioning receiver, but turn-by-turn directions through WayFinder cost $120 for a three-year contract.

Those solely interested in texting their friends might want to look at the Zipit Wireless Messenger 2 ($149), which provides a great way to get text-message-addicted kids using Yahoo's, AOL's or Microsoft's services off the main home computer.

The flip-up device, about the size of a thick wallet with a small screen and backlit QWERTY keyboard, allows users to connect to a Wi-Fi router or hotspot.

Once users enter information about their accounts, they can message buddies who appear on the MyFriendz list and switch between chat windows if they're overly popular.

What really sets the device apart is that after users update their Zipit's software through a download, they can sign up for a text-messaging plan to also send messages to cell-phone users.

The plan — free until the program formally launches in February — will cost $4.99 a month for up to 1,500 incoming and 1,500 outgoing messages.

The Zipit has miniSD card which lets it double as an MP3 player, and users can also go to Zipit's Web site to set up a list of up to eight streaming Internet radio stations.

The U.S. might not yet be one giant Wi-Fi hotspot, but enough wireless-friendly locations are popping up to at least make us think about owning a handheld Wi-Fi device. And if you have a wireless router at home, these gadgets can further release you from the grip of your desk.

Isn't working from the couch while you watch a football game or sip on a latte at a local coffee shop always better than sitting in front of a monitor?