Hands on: instant messaging goes mobile

Competing new wireless services from America Online Inc. and Yahoo Inc. may finally deliver the long-standing promise of pocket-sized devices that keep you hooked to their networks anytime and anywhere.

AOL Instant Communicator and eLink Fortified by Yahoo are service-based gadgets that let you easily swap short missives through their respective instant messaging services. We tested shipping models that both run on the souped-up alphanumeric pager from Research in Motion.

Both work well, but overall, prices are high, and wireless coverage is sometimes spotty. The AOL Mobile Communicator will set you back US$330, with a monthly service fee of $20 on top of a required AOL membership ($22). The $335 Yahoo device costs $35 monthly for unlimited wireless access. ELink offers a monthly $15 option for 100KB of data.

If you're an AOL subscriber, you may want to consider a free option announced this week. AOL has launched its Mail Alerts service, free to its members. You can choose to have e-mail message alerts sent to your text-enabled digital cell phone or alphanumeric pager.

Same Look, Different Features The basic hardware of the two devices is identical, but their services differ. The limited functions of the AOL Mobile Communicator provide a link to its massive instant messaging universe of 61 million users. It lets you send and receive e-mail. ELink's Yahoo device throws in the functionality of a personal digital assistant along with support for Yahoo e-mail and instant messaging with its community of 10 million Yahoo messaging customers.

The eLink Fortified with Yahoo device also can synchronize with a desktop PC and any Web-based My Yahoo account. The device comes with a cradle for PC syncing and a rechargeable AA battery. AOL's Mobile Communicator doesn't ship with a cradle or a rechargeable battery. The Yahoo unit includes a mobile Web browser that links to headline news and connects to a selection of wireless-friendly Web sites.

Taking the Reality Test

In tests conducted in the Boston area, we obtained consistently trouble-free connections using the AOL Mobile Communicator service indoors, outdoors, and in the car. Not so with eLink: Coverage was spotty even though we were within defined coverage areas. The Mobile Communicator uses the Bell South wireless data network (available in 492 U.S. cities). ELink Fortified with Yahoo uses its parent company's Motient wireless data network (available in 500 U.S. cities).

With both AOL and eLink, the devices display the same buddy lists that appear when you're running the full-blown software on your PC. Both let you conduct simultaneous chats and store e-mail and e-mail address.

We found that the Yahoo device handles multiple accounts better, letting you sign on as any Yahoo Messenger subscriber. With Mobile Communicator, we were limited to only one AOL screen name (although AOL says this policy will change).

Because both devices are pagers at heart, they beep or vibrate when new e-mail arrives or buddies sign on or off. The RIM devices use the tiny QWERTY keyboard that works well for short messages (you type with your thumbs).

At their crux, both devices are tied securely to their parent services. Die-hard Yahoo fans who frequent their My Yahoo calendar and Yahoo Messenger service should consider getting eLink Fortified with Yahoo. If you've got a huge AOL buddy list, Mobile Communicator will be your choice.

For more PC news, visit PC World Online. Story copyright PC World Communications.

This story, "Hands on: instant messaging goes mobile" was originally published by PCWorld.

ITWorld DealPost: The best in tech deals and discounts.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon