If all you require is no-frills e-mail, this bug's for you

If all you require is no-frills e-mail, this bug's for you

By John Breeden II

GCN Staff

Around computers, a bug is a bad thing except in the case of the MailBug.

It's one of those often-hyped but seldom-seen e-mail appliances. At $140, the hardware costs far less than any PC. The service is $10 per month.

An unobtrusive MailBug takes up no more room than a small keyboard and a small LCD. It has two plugs, one that goes into the power outlet and another that connects to the phone line.

A line-out jack permits daisychaining the MailBug with other communications devices.

The MailBug works silently, which can be good, except that when I first set it up, I couldn't tell whether it was working. A red light did flash momentarily when new e-mail arrived, but there were no audible cues.

The MailBug e-mail appliance is easy to use but imposes messaging limits on computerless users.

As an appliance and not a computer, the MailBug is limited in what it can do. It can access only the MailBug mail server, and your account must bear the @mailbug.com extension. The MailBug will not operate for any other user name or password.

It can dial into one of several hundred local access numbers to connect to the mail server. Outside the range of dial-up numbers, a toll-free number is available. The manual warns that a user might incur extra charges for it.

Left on its own, the MailBug dials the server a couple of times a day. That might not be enough for a busy employee, though some users will find it adequate. You can force a mail check by holding down the Ctrl key, which brings up the option to connect immediately.

Road outlet

Because the MailBug automatically calls every day, it is not cost-effective if, say, you're on travel and staying in hotels that charge by the call. Nor can the unit operate on battery power. A battery prevents message loss while the unit is unplugged, but you must have a power outlet for use on the road.

The unit is a bit large compared with other mail appliances. An alphanumeric pager can do almost as much, wirelessly and on battery power. Typing on a pager is difficult, even if it has a tiny keyboard, but a pager is much more portable than the 11- by 7-inch MailBug, which is almost as big as a folded subnotebook.

Box Score '''''''''''''''


E-mail appliance

Landel Telecom Inc.; San Jose, Calif.;

tel. 408-360-0490


Price: $140 for unit; $10 per month for service

+ Inexpensive e-mail access

+ Nearly full-size keyboard

' Mangles file attachments and has few user options

A more serious weakness is how the MailBug deals with attached files. I sent my MailBug account a Microsoft Word document and a photo as attachments. The straight text part of both messages arrived, but the device tried to display the attachments as text, resulting in hundreds of lines of garbled code. When I forwarded them to my computer, all I got back was the garbage. The MailBug had truncated and decoded the files into ASCII.

The six-line screen is small for e-mail, and users cannot upsize the text manually. Given those limitations, the MailBug works well. A recipient sees no difference from ordinary e-mail and can reply normally.

The GCN Lab's test account will keep running for a few weeks, so give it a try at gcnlab@mailbug.com. I'll reply if I can.

That brings up one final restriction. When the mailbox gets too full, it stops accepting mail, so you must remember to delete messages. I loaded the box with about 30 long messages before it got too full to continue.

For the price, the MailBug delivers an e-mail client that some agencies will find attractive for employees who don't need a computer but do need basic, easy e-mail communication.

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