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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Things We Carry

E-Mail to Go!
Making Connections Under Way

By Tamia Nelson

March 6, 2007

Getting away from it all is one of the many pleasures of paddling. Once we're on the water we can switch off the cell phone and relax, secure in the knowledge that we're now officially out of touch. At least that's the idea. But fewer and fewer of us can afford to leave the workaday world behind at the put-in, at least for very long. And even if we can, there's always family. The folks back home will start worrying if they don't hear from us now and then. Does this sound familiar? I'll bet it does, and I'm certainly no exception. I'm a hack, and hacks don't really get days off. Just about everything I see or hear is grist for my mill. Note-taking, writing, answering reader mail, seeing to it that each week's copy makes it to the publisher on time, every time — all these things require that I stay connected. Cell phones are portable, of course, but cell phone coverage is still pretty hit-or-miss outside the commuter belt, and texting 2,000-word articles isn't exactly a practical proposition. What about laptops and PDAs? Well, few rural backwaters boast wireless networks, and not too many Canoe Country hamlets have Internet cafés. Then there's the problem of keeping the batteries charged. I've yet to find a current bush growing by the water's edge.

You get the picture, I'm sure. I need a way to type and store thousands of words a day, and I have to send and receive e-mail at least a couple of times a week. But neither cell phone nor laptop nor wireless PDA will do the job. I'm not alone in my predicament, either. So…what's the solution? To be honest, if you'd asked me that question a year ago, you'd have gotten a shrug of the shoulders in reply. I simply didn't have an answer. Then I started getting ready for a cross-country bus trip, and the problem became acute. My aging laptop wasn't up to the rough and tumble of life on the road. Moreover, I wanted something lighter and smaller. Something not much bigger than a pocket calculator. Something sturdy, versatile, and cheap. But I couldn't find anything that fit the bill. As luck would have it, however, Farwell was wrestling with the same problem. And he'd just struck gold. It happened like this: Farwell had been scouting paddling destinations on his bike for some time. Each trip took him a little further from home base, and now he was starting to think big — dreaming about a really ambitious amphibious trip, a trip on the scale of Göran Kropp's self-supported Everest-on-a-bike expedition. Yet staying in touch was also part of Farwell's plan, despite an itinerary that combined paddling and biking, much of it very far from 21st-century amenities. At first this seemed like Mission Impossible. But then…

PocketMail® Came to the Rescue

And what worked for him worked for me, too. Here's what Farwell had discovered: A minimalist computer with a full QWERTY keyboard that's still small enough to slip into a big pocket, and that also makes sending e-mail as easy as picking up any phone and dialing a toll-free number. All for a modest up-front cost and a reasonable monthly service charge. Now if that isn't a compelling idea, I don't know what is!

The PocketMail® Composer™

E-Mail to Go!

You see before you the Composer™, the heart of the Pocketmail® system. I suppose you could call it a "Model T" PDA. Like the venerable Model T (which, as Henry Ford once famously quipped, was available in any color the customer wanted, so long as it was black), choice isn't part of the sales package. The Composer's applications are pre-loaded firmware. What you see is what you get. Period. But Composer is like the Model T in another way, too. It works, and it works well. You get a basic word processor, an address book and appointment calendar, an e-mail client, and an electronic journal. And while these functions are shared by any number of PDAs, you get one more thing that no other PDA can match — the ability to send and receive e-mail from almost any kind of telephone, just about anywhere in the world, courtesy of a built-in acoustic coupler. Nor do you have to be a computer engineer to make it perform. Anyone who can figure out how to program a VCR will find Composer a piece of cake to work with. It's not without fault, of course. Folks with big hands or clumsy fingers will find the diminutive keyboard awkward, and touch typists will have to learn a few non-standard keystroke combinations to generate special characters. But I'm betting that most users will soon find typing on Composer almost as easy as working on their office computer. Sending and receiving e-mail couldn't be much simpler, either. You type your message and save it to the Outbox. The next time you dial the Pocketmail access number — there are toll-free numbers for the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as local numbers for most western European nations and the Bahamas, plus a direct-dial "international" number for everywhere else — all the messages in your Outbox will be sent on their way. (Not finished writing? No problem. You can hold messages in the queue for later editing and subsequent delivery.) At the same time, you'll also be able to pick up any incoming messages. Here's how you make connections:

Dialing Up

'Allo 'Allo! Pocketmail Calling!

Dialing up PocketMail central is simple. Go to a phone. (Given the ubiquity of cell phones today, locating a public telephone can be a bit of a challenge, though in most places I still find it pretty easy. Almost all convenience stores have one, for instance. And the Composer works with many cell phones, too.) Call the access number. A synthesized voice will then prompt you to place the Composer's acoustic coupler against the telephone handset. Now just push a button. In seconds you'll hear a torrent of squawks that tell you Composer is talking to base, while flashing LEDs let you know what's happening. Once the electronic exchange is finished, a cheery trill confirms that all is well, after which you can hang up the phone, lift the Composer's backlit LCD screen, and read your mail. That's all there is to it.


OK. Sounds good so far, doesn't it? But let's take a closer look at the…

Pros and Cons

We'll begin by enumerating…

The Good

  • At about US$100, Composer's pretty cheap. The Pocketmail E-Mail Service costs you another US$15 a month, if you opt for a 12-month contract. That's not much more than basic cable. (And it's a lot better value for money, in my view.)

  • You can use the mail service anywhere in the world you can find a phone — though outside the toll-free service areas, each connection will cost you something.

  • Composer's powered by inexpensive, readily available AA cells. They last a long time. By minimizing my use of the backlight, I got nearly a month's service from a single pair of cells on my cross-country trip, despite using my Composer every day.

  • Composer is small and lightweight: it's not much bigger than my old HP42S calculator. Despite this, the little PDA is robust. Mine has survived many miles (and many days) bouncing around in my anorak pocket, rucksack, and bicycle bar bag, in wind, cold, heat, and fog.

  • The Composer and the PocketMail e-mail service are easy to use — and the documentation is excellent, both on the Pocketmail website and in the print User Guide. E-mail or telephone help is available, too, and if you happen to find yourself near a computer at some point in your trip, you can also read your mail online after logging into your account. But be warned: If you do elect to read a message online, don't expect it to show up in Composer's Inbox when you next download your mail. It won't. It's been marked as "read," and that's that. There may be a workaround, but I haven't discovered it.


Where do we stand so far? Is Pocketmail good? Yes. But is it perfect? No. And it's time to take a walk on the downside.

The Bad

  • First things first: Composer isn't waterproof. It doesn't even claim to be "water-resistant." So beware! If it isn't packed in a waterproof bag or box whenever you're on the water, you'll soon find yourself owning an expensive, high-tech coaster. Even a rain shower can be hazardous to Composer's health. The upshot? Keep it dry. Or else. 'Nuff said?

  • You get only one e-mail address, and you have to keep your PocketMail service active to use it.

  • Message size, both outgoing and incoming, is limited to 6,000 characters. (That's about 1,000 words, or half the length of this column, including the HTML tags.) And while you can send longer messages by breaking them up into 6,000-character segments, this is a confounded nuisance. Receiving long messages is easier — if you remember to enable "Split Messages," that is. Then you'll be able to receive documents as long as 60,000 characters, in 6,000-character installments. Be prepared to be on the phone a while, however.

  • Speaking of spending time on the phone, don't expect DSL speeds. The Composer's acoustic coupler makes even the Stone Age modem on my ancient laptop look lightning fast. So plan ahead if you expect heavy message traffic.

  • If you're hoping to use Composer with your cell phone, test it at home first. Composer simply can't get together with some smaller phones. And even when it does, not all cell phones will connect with base.

  • You navigate Composer's screen with keystrokes. This won't dishearten paddlers who cut their teeth on DOS, but it will come as an unpleasant surprise to folks who've never seen a computer without a mouse.

  • Composer's word processor lacks a spell-checker. (Or should that be "spellchecker"? Composer won't tell me.)

  • The Composer's monochrome display might be good for battery life, but it's as drab as a winter day. There's no graphics application in the firmware package, either, and there's no way to attach photos (or illustrations) to your e-mail. You'll still want your sketchbook.

  • Battery life plummets if you often use the backlight. Moreover, there's no illumination for the keyboard. You'll need an independent light source if you expect to do much writing in the dark. A hint: Don't try to grip a metal flashlight with your teeth on a bouncing bus. Use a headlamp, instead.

  • Need help with PocketMail or Composer right now? Hoping to talk to a real, live human being? Good luck. Customer service is slow to pick up the phone, keeping you on hold for a very long time and giving the impression that the call center is located in someone's garden shed.


There you have it, the good news about PocketMail, along with the bad. Only one question remains: what's…

The Bottom Line?

Do paddlers need PocketMail? And the answer is.…Maybe. Let's face it, most paddlers don't write for a living, and even writers sometimes need to get away from it all. Moreover, public phones will be few and far between on many wilderness routes. What with one thing and another, many folks will find that a journal and a phone card do everything they need. I can sympathize. Besides, there's a lot to be said for any trip whose participants can proudly proclaim, "Batteries not included!"

Still, for some of us — professionals who don't want to leave their clients in the lurch, folks who love gadgets, inveterate note-takers, canoeists and kayakers who'd rather grip a paddle shaft than a pen, and grandparents whose kids are prone to worry when more than a day passes without word — PocketMail fills a need, particularly on trips that will touch an outpost of civilization every few days, even if that outpost is no more than a bait shop or a rural Ser-Sta-Gro. That's why Composer is now one of the things we carry.

Keeping in touch while getting away from it all seems like a contradiction in terms. Let's face it, though — as much as we'd like to leave our workaday lives behind at the put-in, many of us also need to maintain ties with colleagues and family members, at least now and then. Is this Mission Impossible? Nope. The folks at PocketMail have given us the closest thing yet to e-mail to go. And it's the best way I've found to make connections under way.

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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