OmniSky Wireless modem Review
By: Ryan Kairer
January 24, 2000
A PalmInfocenter.com exclusive
When Palm Computing announced the Palm VII many believed that Palm would put together a good integrated wireless package. Almost a year after it's initial launch the VII has failed to deliver a total wireless solution, and only offers a pay-per-byte wireless rate. OmniSky, a start-up funded by 3Com, delivers where Palm.net falls short and gives you unlimited access to your email, the full web, hundreds of PQA's and more.
If you haven't heard about OmniSky yet here's a little background info. OmniSky offers wireless Internet access for the Palm V and Vx with the Minstrel V modem though various wireless IP based providers including AT&T. The first 5,000 subscribers before January 31st are enrolled in their "beta program" and get the 19.2k CDPD modem for $299, and free unlimited service through April 31st. OmniSky also promises beta testers a 15% discount on monthly charges which will not exceed $49.95 according to their website.
The OmniSky service ships with documentation and a manual that will guide you through the installation process. Before you dive into the process it's recommended that you take some precautions and BACK UP YOUR DATA. Wherever you installed the Palm desktop software you will find a folder that is named after your Palm user name, copy it and paste it somewhere safe. You should also delete AvantGo if you have it, the OmniSky software installs a modified version in your flash rom. Installation can take up to 45 minutes, depending upon how much memory you have on your V. If you want to speed up the process delete any large games or apps that you can easily reinstall after you get up and running. Also as a precaution I would recommend you go into security and enable show all your private data, I had a few private memos that I believe were lost during the installation because they were hidden. The only other problem I had with installation was more likely a windows configuration problem rather than OS's. The standard palm install app on my Windows98 box refused to install or recognize PQA's. After an OmniSky reinstall didn't work and some tweaking, I had to go into the windows registry and add a line to the Palm key in order for the Palm installer to be able to install pqa's.
Now load the OmniSky CD and run the installer. Your first job is to enter in all the email accounts that you want to access (have your pop server names, and account names and passwords handy). Next you are treated to a long hot-sync that backs up all your apps and data ala Backup Buddy. Then the installer uploads the OmniSky rom image and places a few apps into flash. When all is said and done your left with only 35k of empty flash space, so forget about using FlashPro or Jack Flash. Finally you configure your AvantGo settings and you're ready to go wireless.
The Minstrel V modem…
The modem itself is quite solid and small. Combined with a V, the modem/Palm combo weighs in at 8.5 ounces, 1.8 ounces more than the 6.7 Palm VII. The Palm with the OmniSky is about 1/4" shorter than the Palm VII, and 1/8" thicker. I had become accustomed to my Vx feeling like nothing in my pants pocket, the combo does add noticeable weight, it feels like my old Palm III with the slim leather case stacked full with business cards. The front is made of a black plastic and it overlaps the bottom of the V. The back has a silver finish, though not the same as the anodized aluminum of the V. The modem supports the CDPD specification v1.1, and 19.2Kbps full duplex transmission. It has an opening on the top right for the power chord or optional car AC/cigarette adapter. The batter is a rechargeable Lithium-Ion unit and will last about 12 hours on a 3-hour charge. Another good feature of the modem is the 3 status lights on the bottom. From right to left you have connection status (on-connected, off, and blinking for connection/bad reception), modem activity/new email indicator, and battery status (flashing whilst charging, solid green for fully charged, and red indicating low power). If you leave the modem connected on stand-by mode you can have the OSemail program to check for new mail during specified intervals. This is an excellent time saving feature, you can just glance at it rather than firing up the email program to check for new mail.
To connect to the net you simply go into the Minstrel app and it logs on in about 5 seconds. Then it attempts to establish the best connection it can find. The Palm displays a blinking cursor in the top right part of the screen to indicate a network connection. By default when you turn your Palm off the modem goes into sleep mode, which it can stay in for 24 hours on a full charge. It's good to leave in sleep mode if you want to use the email indicator but your battery won't last as long. To save batteries you can go into config from the advanced menu in the Minstrel app and enable auto power off. You will also notice that your Palm may take a little longer to power off when connected. This is due the network connection being closed. I've found in areas that have strong coverage you can get away with leaving the antenna retracted, but in most cases if you want the best connection possible you should keep it extended.
At this time, all of this is subject to change keep in mind this is still in beta, OmniSky installs a modified version of AvantGo, OSemail, OS white and yellow pages, Scout Sync, the Minstrel apps and support for Web Clipping applications with the default Palm VII pqa's. What's nice about the "modified" version of AvantGo is that it shows your signal strength on the top next to the page title, you can also browse your subscribed channels in real time. I've found myself not using it as much anymore because I find ProxiWeb to be a faster and better browser. ProxiWeb has bookmarks, whereas AvantGo does not, and does a nice job of formatting regular web pages for the small screen. Also, allot of people have had a hard time connecting to the AvantGo MAL server at times, including myself, as noted in our OmniSky message Board, and I haven't had a single problem using ProxiWeb. A good page to bookmark is Plink!, which has a large collection of Palm friendly links. The OSemail program is a feature packed email client based on JPSystems OneTouchMail. You can retrieve up to 6 POP3 email accounts and you don't need to enter a SMTP server since all your outgoing email goes through an OmniSky server. Each email you send through OmniSky contains the tagline: << Sent wirelessly using OmniSky >> kind of a way to rub it in the face of 'land-liners'. This will be a selectable option in the next software update according to the sources close to OmniSky. The program itself is a little buggy; even if you don't have new mail it says "getting mail headers" after a connection to each account, and almost every time I try to paste from the clipboard I get a fatal exception and have to do a soft reset. Another bug is that an underline will appear under text in Osmail, memo pad and various other text input lines. According to Ron Woodson in the OSMB, the underlines are due to an incorrectly set parameter in the compiler. OmniSky is aware of the problem and is working on a fix. Other than the few bugs that should be corrected soon the OSemail program is a good email app. OS also built in extensions to the address book and memo pad that will let you email a contact or memo on the fly. It has powerful filters, an easy method of filing messages into folders, a nice email lookup feature and it will even let you print messages with the PalmPrint program. The OS white and yellow pages apps are a nice addition that will look up names and phone numbers. David Carkhuff also noted in the OSMB that Scout Sync was included as a way for OmniSky to update the software on your unit wirelessly.
PQA's and Internet apps…
What has to be the best feature of the OmniSky service and main selling point over the Palm VII, is the unlimited bandwidth and access to the whole internet. You can also use the more than hundreds of Web Clipping apps previously exclusive to the Palm VII. For finding quick info, looking up traffic or sports scores the PQA's are very efficient and fast. They are optimized for the small screen and store graphics and static pages within the pqa, minimizing the airtime and processing that needs to be done. The only shortcoming is that the Minstrel V modem does not recognize the Palm VII extensions of %ZIPCODE and %DEVICEID so you will have to manually enter your zip code into Movie Phone or the weather channel pqa or any other app that uses a “my location” function, really not a big deal but it would be nice if OmniSky found a way to support it, but it might be a network compatibility issue so I'm not sure if they will be able to. Other than that most pqa's work great and are extremely useful inclding, please excuse the shameless promotion, two I wrote: Palm News and the OmniSky Message Board. Some of my favorites have been: Movie Phone, Ticketmaster, E-trade, Amazon, Slashdot, PalmGear, and Map Quest. Head to Palm.net to download these and other pqa’s. There is also a ton of other palm internet apps that you can use including Palm telnet, ICQ, Yahoo instant messenger, News group readers and even Palm IRC. One amazing app is Palm VNC. It is, in essence, a remote display system which allows you to view a computing 'desktop' environment not only on the machine where it is running, but from anywhere on the Internet and from a wide variety of machine architectures including the Palm OS. It is very similar to Symantec’s PCAnywhere. If you’re on a LAN or have a DSL or cable connection with a static IP you can setup VNC server on your desktop and use and view your computer with your palm from anywhere (see the screenshot). People are absolutely amazed when I show this app in action. Its only shortfall is that it runs pretty slow but it’s still somewhat usable. Both the server and the Palm client are available with source under the GPL, hopefully an ambitious palm developer could work some speed/usability improvements into the app someday. There has also been allot of talk about wireless hot syncing. Many users have been able to do a wireless sync, even though OmniSky is not officially supporting it at this time; check the message board for details and instructions.
With the Omnisky service I feel that the Pro's greatly outweigh the cons but regardless there are still a few, albeit small cons. The obvious cons are the small bugs and software glitches, but they should be worked out in time, and the added bulk and weight of the unit. The standard Palm V leather cover will not fold behind the modem and it can get in the way. I have found myself removing it when I use the modem for a long period of time. I learned that OmniSky is working on both a slim and a hard case for the combo. You can't charge the modem with your Palm or vice versa. You also can't use a GoType or Stowaway keyboard because the modem uses the Palm V serial port, sometimes you'll wish you could for writing long emails. The final con is that the wireless coverage is somewhat limited check the coverage map at OmniSky for the latest info as more carriers may be added.
Even with the bugs and few glitches here and there you have to keep in mind that it is still in beta testing and improvements are on the way. Overall I have been extremely satisfied with the service and modem. It's twice the speed of the Palm VII, you get full access to the internet, 6 mailboxes, pqa's and internet applications with unlimited bandwidth at your disposal. I have found myself using my desktop computer less and less. Even after only one week of use I'm already addicted to wireless. As OmniSky says on the box, you make your Palm V a wireless communications powerhouse, you're connected to your email, and the net virtually anywhere you are. If you have a Palm V and are worried about memory you still can get allot out of it, but you are better of with a Vx with 8 megs or getting an upgrade via Tony Rudenko or EFIG. You'll also want to make sure there is descent coverage in your area before you invest in one. And if you're on the road often or have a long commute I recommend that you invest in the car charger for convenience.
I have to agree with the results of our recent wireless poll, the OmniSky service is the best wireless solution available today. If you can afford it get on the beta program while you still can, the offer ends January 31st. As one of my readers Michael Pinney wrote to me in a email "Great product if you can tolerate "BETA". When we get to a polished, finished product, this will change mobile computing forever."
Other opinions and links...
Ivan Fuller's review
The Gadgeteer's review
Mike Terranova's review on PalmGuru
A Slashdot thread on OmniSky
The Minstrel V modem
Yahoo in ProxiWeb
OS yellow pages
A MapBlast map
The Minstrel App screen
Ahh! My Palm has been taken over by M$! Actually, this is me controlling my PC desktop about 20 miles away using PalmVNC
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