Katherine Boehret

Getting Mobile Novices to Check Email

Are you a member of the “I-check-my-email-constantly-even-when-I-know-no-one-has-emailed-me” club? If so, your mobile email device is never far and you’ve found yourself wondering how other people can leave unread emails sitting in their inboxes all day. On the other hand, those seemingly unplugged people are likely puzzled by BlackBerry addicts, wondering what could possibly be so urgent that they need to know about it the second it happens.

This week, I tested Peek, a device that might bridge the gap between these two camps. It’s made for those who don’t intend to become consumed with mobile email, and don’t need a combination phone, Internet, digital camera and email gadget. Yet from time to time, these people wish they had a better way to check emails without going home and turning on their computers.

Peek Gets Mobile Novices to Check Email
The $100 Peek (GetPeek.com) sends and receives emails for $20 a month.

Since I fit the constantly-checking-email description, I enlisted the help of someone who falls squarely into the category that Peek is targeting: my mother. Mom is constantly on the go, working on one project or another, and she doesn’t have time to consistently check her email. On more than one occasion, I’ve had to call her to talk about emails I sent that she didn’t yet read.

Stylish and Simple

Peek is a stylishly thin device that, to a mobile email novice, could pass for a BlackBerry. It receives and sends email, period. Peek doesn’t have a Web browser, phone or built-in digital camera. It’s sold for $100 at Target and GetPeek.com, and costs $20 monthly for contract-free service. Most email accounts work with this gadget, including Hotmail, Yahoo, Gmail and AOL, and up to three accounts can be set to work on each device.

Peek Inc., a New York company that was started by former Virgin Mobile USA (VM) employees, mailed a Peek to my mom in Pennsylvania, and she has been using it for about a week with positive results.

I, too, tested a Peek, but I was more interested in my mom’s feedback since, prior to this test, she hadn’t used a mobile email device and I use two different ones — regularly. Overall, I’d suggest waiting until November to buy a Peek due to a handful of improvements that the company plans to add by then.

Winning Over a Novice

My mom got the hang of Peek almost instantly and found it both helpful and relatively easy to use. She liked its full keyboard and the way most of its keys lit up and were familiarly placed like those on a computer keyboard — a feature I take for granted on my BlackBerry. Its price and stylish, thin look appealed to her, too. She tested an Aqua Blue Peek — though the device also comes in Black Cherry and Charcoal Gray. I knew Mom was catching on when she casually sent a message from her Peek late one night using the subject line, “What’s Up?”

My mom suggested a few improvements, and I agreed with all of them. The Peek can vibrate, chime and glow blue when new emails are received, but none of these indicators are particularly noticeable. For example, the chime sounds only once and neither my mom nor I could always hear it — even at its loudest setting — especially if it was in a purse. A blue indicator light on the Peek glows once every 10 seconds for 10 minutes after an email is received, but goes idle after that.

The font used on the Peek’s screen could stand to be a little bigger. My mom found words typed in all capital letters were easier and faster to read than the regular font, but she thought most people wouldn’t have too much trouble while using their glasses.

Peek Inc. says that by November, it will have added a louder chime, a constantly blinking indicator light and a larger font to the device. Also in November, people who purchase 12 months of service at once will get an extra month free.

Compared with my BlackBerry Curve, the Peek was thinner but I found its buttons and side scroll wheel a bit stiff. And Mom and I both found that the oft-used Space bar key was too tough to press down.

One Inbox, Three Accounts

The Peek’s straightforward system uses one inbox view (in which up to three email accounts are combined), one menu and a side scroll wheel for selecting commands. And though my mom didn’t seem to mind, the device’s overall navigation system came off as a bit clumsy to me. For example, rather than selecting an email to read it, I had to select an email, and then choose “Open Email” from a menu list. On most other devices, this can be done with one step.

But some BlackBerry tricks are built into the Peek, such as touching “T” to automatically go to the top of an email or inbox; “B” to go to the bottom; or “N” to move to the next email without navigating back to the inbox list. Likewise, the space bar serves as a built-in Page Down button. And holding a letter down will capitalize it.

Photo attachments can be easily opened on the Peek, though attached documents from programs like Word and Excel won’t open up.

Synching Contacts

A simple step lets users synchronize their email account’s contact list with the Peek. My mom did this with an AOL account, and I did it with Hotmail, Gmail and .Mac accounts. Peek devices automatically check for email every two to five minutes, or if users can’t wait two minutes, they can initiate a Send/Receive manually and see an up-to-date queue of emails.

Peeks each have eight megabytes of usable memory, which can hold about 5,000 emails. Once a device reaches capacity, an on-screen prompt asks permission to delete the 500 oldest emails. Peek Inc. says a full battery charge will last about five days if a device handles around 10 to 15 emails a day; power users who send and receive 200 to 300 emails a day will get about two days of use from a full charge.

When asked, my mom concluded that she would probably buy a Peek, but said she still wasn’t sure that she had an urgent need to see email all that often. She also noted that Peek could become a Pandora’s box of sorts for people who, as they use it more often, might want to get more out of it — such as Google searches or other Web browsing.

Peek serves a purpose: It gives those who don’t belong to the “I-check-my-email-constantly” club a way to “peek” in on their emails and not feel so unplugged from friends and family. That alone, is reason enough to buy my mom one of these devices.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg

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