I recently was able to spend some time with the Redfly Mobile Companion, a laptop-shaped device that greatly extends the capabilities of some smartphones.
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Of course, representatives of Celio Corp were there to answer my questions.
Making Something Good Even Better
Today’s high-end smartphones aren’t toys. My current mobile device has all the processing power of a laptop made just a few years ago. But they have a limitation: because phones have to be small enough to easily fit in your pocket, their displays and keyboards must be tiny when compared to those in a laptop.
The typical solution for this is for people to carry both a smartphone and a laptop. But in many cases this is an inefficient solution. For some people, the smartphone would be able to do everything they need if it just had a larger keyboard and screen.
That’s where the Redfly Mobile Companion comes in. It’s a device that — rather than seeking to replace the smartphone — enhances it by adding a larger display, a full-size keyboard, and USB ports.
Here’s how it works. You’re using your smartphone to, for example, check your email. A message comes in with a large Excel spreadsheet attached, and you quickly find that scrolling around all the columns and rows is frustrating on a 2.8-inch, QVGA display. So you open up the Redfly Mobile Companion and plug your smartphone in. In a couple of seconds, the spreadsheet is displayed on the larger device’s 8-inch, WVGA (800 by 480 pixel) screen. There’s no synchronizing or re-downloading the message; you are exactly where you were on the smartphone.
To continue with the example, suppose you make a change to the spreadsheet and want to email it back, with a response. You can use the Redfly device’s QWERTY keyboard to quickly type this out. But what if you’re interrupted and it’s time to go? You can disconnect the Mobile Companion, close it up, and head out. As soon as you’re on the move again, you open up your smartphone and you’re half written email is right there on the screen, ready for you to finish it up and send it.
At launch, Celio’s product will only support Windows Mobile devices, probably because this operating system handles different screen resolutions so easily. This means that applications don’t have to be re-written to run on the Redfly Mobile Companion. I only saw the standard apps demonstrated, though.
Checking Out the Hardware
The Mobile Companion is not intended to be pocket-sized, but it’s still very portable at 9 inches wide, 6 inches deep, 1 inch thick, and about 2 pounds.
I’ve already talked about the screen, so it’s time to talk a bit about the keyboard. This is 8.3 inches wide — a bit smaller than one you’d find on a desktop, but this wasn’t really noticeable in my, admittedly, very limited tests. It has 80 keys, including a row dedicated to numbers and another to functions.
Beneath the keyboard is a trackpad that’s 2.9 inches wide and 1.0 inch high, or you can plug in a USB mouse if you’d prefer.
It has a pair of USB 2.0 ports, allowing you to hook up a limited selection of peripherals: keydrives, mice, and keyboards.
The Mobile Companion also has a video-out port. This allows you to hook up a projector or external monitor if you’d like to give presentations.
Wired or Wireless
You have the option of connecting your smartphone to this device via a USB cable or Bluetooth. Frankly, though, the Bluetooth connection seems like more of a parlor trick than anything else.
The wireless hook up is, of course, noticeably slower. It’s still usable, but because you have to have the Redfly Mobile Companion and your smartphone near each other for them to work, I don’t see much reason to pass up the advantages of running a wire between them.
In addition to a faster connection, a physical hookup allows the Celio’s device’s relatively large internal battery to charge your smartphone.
Without charging the phone, the Mobile companion can go for 8 hours on a single charge. That’s Celio’s estimate, anyway. How much this will be reduced by the smartphone depends on the smaller device’s battery life when the two are connected. In this situation, the phone’s screen will be off, but it will likely have some kind of wireless networking constantly active, either Wi-Fi or 3G. Still, I’d say 6 hours for the combo is probably a conservative guess, and it could easily be longer.
A Significant Limitation
Unfortunately, there’s a fairly big hole in the Mobile Companion’s feature set: multimedia.
The Redfly device isn’t able to increase the resolution of video for the larger screen, so if you play a movie from your QVGA smartphone, it will appear on the Mobile Companion at that same resolution.
This device also doesn’t include speakers, so you’ll have connect your headphone or headset to your smartphone.
When I asked the people from Celio about this, they pointed out that their product is intended for business users. I responded by saying that even business users like to watch movies on the plane, and they said perhaps greater support for multimedia might be included in a later version.
A Limitation Not Celio’s Fault
There’s actually a second limitation to this device, but it’s one that Celio can do little about. This product would be a much better laptop alternative if Internet Explorer Mobile was a better web browser.
These days I often find myself turning to devices other than my smartphone accessing the Web, not because of the small screen or keyboard, but because the default Windows Mobile browser is so weak; no support for Flash and barely adequate rendering of pages makes it my browser of last resort.
I’m happy to be able to report that Celio is in talks with Opera. Exactly what will come of this is not yet known, but at the very least I’d suggest every Celio customer give Opera Mobile a try.
Thinking Out of the Box
There’s a class of applications I’m eager to try on the Mobile Companion: remote desktop software. Something like LogMeIn could overcome virtually all the limitations in Celio’s product.
If you’re not familiar with these applications/services, they let one device act as if it was the keyboard and monitor for a second. All the portable unit needs to be able to do is run a single remote-control application to have full access to all the software and files that are on the host PC.
There’s a version of LogMeIn for Windows Mobile that works fine, but its usefulness is limited by the small screen and display of a smartphone. If the Redfly device can successfully enlarge the display then you could do virtually anything on it you could on your desktop back at the office or home.
The Elephant in the Room
Celio has announced that the first Redfly Mobile Companion will cost $500. Not surprisingly, this has caused many people to point out that you can get a Windows laptop for about that price.
While this is a compelling argument for individuals, it is less so for companies that are considering giving computers to a sizable group of employees, and these are Celio’s target market.
In most situations, individuals handle their own technical support so they don’t factor this into the Total Cost of Ownership. They also generally don’t factor in the cost of software, time spent learning to use the device, and so on.
Big companies have to take all this into account, and when calculating TCO, the cost of support (training, software, upgrades, repairs, etc.) dwarfs the purchase price of the device. According to analysts, the average TCO of a laptop is $3,900 every single year for each and every user.
But for a company that is already paying the costs of equipping its employees with smartphones, the additional cost of the Redfly Mobile Companion would be considerably lower. There’s really only the cost of the device plus some training time. Because this isn’t a stand-alone computer, little or no support is required. No software needs to be installed or upgraded on it, no virus protection is necessary beyond what’s already on the smartphone, and there’s no spinning hard drive to break.
This, of course, assumes that the company employees’ needs can be met by a smartphone. For those who need features beyond email, working with Microsoft Office files, web browsing, and functions not offered by third-party applications, then these companies will have little choice besides paying the considerably higher costs to equip its employees with laptops.
The Celio people tell me they are open to the idea of making a less expensive, consumer-oriented device, but this will likely offer fewer features than the original one. The company supposedly has a full-range of models on the drawing board, but they aren’t ready to talk about these yet.
Coming in March
I am well familiar with companies that announce products and promise to release them soon, only to have the launch date pushed back over and over. I hope that’s not going to be the situation here. The Celio reps assured me that the Redfly Mobile Companion is on target to launch in March. They certainly had numerous working prototypes to show off, which is a good sign.
As the release gets closer, I’ll be able to do a full review of this product.