Siemens' SX66
Siemens' SX66 runs on the Windows Mobile platform and has a slide-down keyboard for easy messaging.
By Columnist
updated 8/15/2005 8:00:58 PM ET 2005-08-16T00:00:58

It seems that the world is instant messaging like crazy all of a sudden. Glad everyone is catching up. Companies I’ve worked for over the past 25 years have all had some sort of instant messaging. They understood, early on, the importance of being able to dash off a note in real time and get an instantaneous response. It was used as a kind of 2-way paging system before there were actually 2-way paging systems.

Now, instant messaging is everywhere -- computers, PDAs, cell phones and even some high-tech watches. And these days, IM makes a lot of sense for everyone -– from grade school students and busy parents to high-level executives.

There are many ways to send and receive IMs, but some are better than others depending on your needs.

Of course, you can IM with a computer. Just add an Internet connection and the software for your favorite IM service. You probably already have a connection to the Internet if you’re reading this. As for your IM service, ask your friends and/or business associates what they use and choose accordingly. AOL, MSN and Yahoo are all very similar in what they provide. If you need to be multilingual, pick one of the services such as Trillian or Jabber that let you communicate with several IM protocols.

But, like using a pager, IM is sometimes most useful when you’re on the run, even if you’re just running from room to room. Hardware manufacturers have come to the rescue with a whole bunch of standalone wireless IM devices.

Motorola's IMfree device
Motorola's IMfree wireless device lets you IM while roaming through your home.

Motorola’s IMfree is designed for neophytes and kids. Handheld and wireless, it lets kids roam almost anywhere around the house — up to 150 feet from an Internet-connected PC and base station. They can chat with up to six friends at a a time — and all without tying up a computer or piling up cell phone charges. The best part of the IMfree for adults is that it comes with settings so that parents can decided when the device can be used and which chat invitations can be accepted.

IMfree works with the AOL Instant Messenger service on Windows PCs and is quite reasonable — you can find the starter kit selling for $20 to $25 on the Web. The device seems pretty durable, which is good, given the constant, heavy use it's likely to get.

If you want to IM on your cell phone you have many choices, though I personally would never want to use IM on a phone without a QWERTY keyboard.

On the other hand, there are legendary stories of school kids who’ve memorized what letters are on what phone keys and are able to IM each other to their hearts’ content — under their school desk — without anyone (namely teachers) knowing what they’re doing.

Many IMers have figured out a much easier way — it's called the Sidekick II. That’s the name that T-Mobile uses for Danger’s clever Hiptop 2 device, which is shaped like a bar of soap when closed and swings opens to reveal a very usable keyboard.

Sidekick II
The Sidekick II is a favorite with IMers.
The Sidekick II combines a GSM cell phone with built-in camera, a terrific Web browser, calendar and contacts synchronization and, of course AOL and IM software. Deservedly, it has become one of the most popular cell phone/IM devices ever.

T-Mobile sells the Sidekick II for $249 after a $50 mail-in rebate. To make it work, you also have to pay for wireless service. T-Mobile offers 600 minutes per month plus unlimited data for $59.99. If you just want to use it for IMing, unlimited data goes for $29.99 per month.

There are many other cell phones with keyboards that would be great for IMs on the run. Check out the Motorola A630 (T-Mobile), the Siemens SX66 and LG F9100 (Cingular) or the Samsung SCH-i730 (Verizon Wireless).  But the two best are also the best known top-of-the-line smart phones:  the Blackberry and the Palm Treo.

Blackberry 7100t
Software on the Blackberry 7100t helps form words from the phone keypad. It really works.
Whether you’re talking about the blue 6000 and 7000 series devices or the sleek, silver 7100 handsets, Blackberry users are fanatically loyal. Never try to get in their way when their thumbs are flying over the keys. Best for e-mail, Blackberries also do IM and SMS, too.

Blackberry models are sold by nearly all the major wireless providers and sell anywhere from $199 (T-Mobile, Cingular, Nextel) to $349 (T-Mobile). Don’t forget you’ll need to purchase monthly data services in addition to your voice minutes.

Palm Treo users are just as loyal. Everyone I know who has one loves it (although some aren’t happy with their service provider’s coverage — or lack thereof.) 

Palm's Treo 650.
Palm's Treo 650.
The latest Treo is the 650. It does everything you can ask (in this case messaging, e-mail and Web browsing), plus a lot more. For IMing, you need to download and install third-party software for the service you like. I’ve done it and it’s easy.

The Treo is solidly built and feels like a precision instrument when you hold it.  The 650 sells for prices from $399 to $449 depending on the provider and whether you agree to a one or two year contract.

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