Saturday, August 06, 2005

Zipit Messenger Review

My Zipit Messenger arrived via a Target Store in Eugene Oregon (where my brother lives). It was well packed in a cardboard box with a bit of bubble pack, and there was no shipping damage. The unit itself was contained in a blister pack which was heat-sealed. Zipit Messenger in blister pack

The ZM power button was easy enough to find and operate. The battery compartment is sealed with a screw, but the rechargeable battery is already installed and pre-charged. The unit has a status light to show that power is being switched on. After a few seconds the ZM logo appears on the screen and the word "Zipit" is spoken from a tiny speaker at the back of the unit.

I tested the unit in my office, which has a Wifi network. To say that ZM works right out of the box is almost an understatement. The unit immediately found two networks, mine and another nearby, and prompted me to log onto my own network. I did and was prompted to configure my IM accounts. I have an MSN and Yahoo account and configured both. The unit reported that the MSN account worked but failed for some reason to connect to the Yahoo account. Since most of my contacts are on MSN, and I don't use AOL, I left it at that.

The last step in this 'setup' was to customize my emoticons - I just left the default settings. But I did note that the emoticons are linked to six special and easily identified 'function' keys at the top of the keypad. This could be useful to create macro keys for multiple choice questions in a quiz application.

Then I was presented with my MSN buddy list and selected a colleague for my first chat using Zipit. It worked flawlessly and I was typing away just minutes after removing the ZM from its blister pack. The screen is a graphical grayscale display which is very legible. It is not backlit, but it's brightness is adjustable, and it would be fine in an office or classroom.

My complaints are that the keys are a bit klunky and to edit mistakes you need to backspace over earlier typing - there is no cursor. This of course is just a function of the software, not a hardware limitation. The keyboard might be a bit easier for big thumbs if the left and right portions were separated by a middle gap. But the display is very legible, the prompts are clearly stated, and the QWERTY keyboard layout is familiar enough for instant use. I can type at about the same speed as on my Treo 650, which has a marvelous keypad.

The keypad also includes a big ZM key in the center, which is used to bring up the buddy list while communicating. There are some other special keys, including a menu key (for configuration changes) and a pair of 'next' and 'previous' keys, which can be used to toggle two or more chat sessions. There is a directional cursor key (one single key which functions like a joystick), which is used to scroll messages in a chat session. Numeric keys, punctuation and closing a chat session required prefixing my key press with an 'Alt' keystroke - which may be conceptually challenging for small children, but is natural enough for anyone who's used a mobile phone or computer.

The clamshell cover nicely latches closed, and the unit goes into a low-power sleep mode. In this state the device is rugged enough to toss around and small enough to fit in your pocket, backpack or even a small purse. The ZM is lighter than my phone, and I eventually carried it around the whole first day without noticing the weight. While the battery appears to last for hours, I didn't test that. The unit is powered down by depressing the power button and holding it for a second or two.

The physical form factor is excellent in several respects. The unit sits firmly on a tabletop while you peck at the keys. You can easily type single-handed while doing other tasks, such as talking on the phone, or perhaps while taking written notes in a meeting or in a classroom session. The power button is nicely recessed so that the unit cannot accidentally be turned on or off. The clamshell lid latches securely closed.

I was particularly pleased with the power setup. The ZM comes with a miniature charger that supports both 120 and 240 volts - it's fully internationalized. There is a headphone jack on the back of the ZM, but there were no headphones supplied with my unit. Other than the chirpy "Zipit" welcome message, I did not really encounter any audio features.

The internal Wifi antenna seems to be very powerful. I was able to sync to more than a dozen networks while driving around in a taxi - sometimes getting 3 signals at one time. Of course, I could not log into most networks.

In summary, Zipit Messenger is rugged, contains a powerful Wifi antenna, has a well-designed and internationalized power supply, a very legible graphical screen display, and a workable keyboard including user-definable macro keys.