Since first writing about Celio's REDFLY back in March in Celio REDFLY: A Traveling Companion for Windows Mobile Users, I've been able to spend some time with the device over the past several weeks and would like to discuss the experience further. If you're not familiar, the Celio REDFLY is promoted as mobile companion for Windows Mobile smart phones, and it works with several recent models, including the AT&T-based HTC Tilt that came with the pre-production REDFLY I've been evaluating.

The REDFLY works in tandem with a Windows Mobile device, either while tethered with a standard USB cable or wirelessly via Bluetooth. Designed as a clamshell, laptop-like device, the REDFLY includes a full keyboard, a trackpad, and an 8-inch 800 x 480 screen. The idea is that mobile professionals will use their smart phone as their primary computing device while on the go, and then access their data with the REDFLY when they need to do some editing or simply want a larger screen for email, Web browsing, or the various Mobile Office applications. It sounded like a great idea when I first heard of the device.

Real-world REDFLY

My positive prognosis has been borne out in real-world use. The REDFLY is about the size, shape, and weight of a typical hardcover book, comfortable and light enough for virtually any bag. Compared to a typical mid-sized notebook, of course, the REDFLY is quite a bit smaller and lighter. For example, the keyboard is a mere 8.25 inches left to right, compared to 10.5 or 11 inches for a typical notebook keyboard. This shouldn't be problematic for most people, though it did stretch the limits of my own oversized hands. My wife, however, immediately fell for the form factor. But compared to a typical smartphone keyboard, physical or virtual, the REDFLY is, of course, voluminous.

Connecting to the smart phone is fast and seamless, regardless of which connection type is used. (The first time you link the devices, however, you must use the USB cable.) Performance, too, doesn't seem to be affected by the connection type, which surprised me. That said, the first time I used the REDFLY, I found the performance acceptable but a bit leisurely. What I eventually discovered was that this was due to the smartphone itself and not to the REDFLY: Even when using the HTC directly, the performance was on the slow side. Certainly, the REDFLY doesn't appear to be slowing it further.

From a user experience standpoint, things work as expected for the most part. The three Mobile Office applications, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint take advantage of the REDFLY's larger screen and work nicely, though we're quickly reaching the point where these applications need to be updated to accommodate more modern usage scenarios: They're not even at Office 95 functional levels yet. Some applications don't work (yet?) with the REDLY, like Windows Media Player, while others simply assume a certain screen size and occupy just part of the REDFLY's larger screen. The background image for the home screen, for example, is repeated three times across the background when displayed on the REDFLY. This kind of display can be awkward looking for those experiences that were originally designed to look right only at 240 x 320.

Market opportunity

I'm excited about the REDFLY and think it will find a home with many a mobile professional. As we switch to more mobile computing experience via such devices, there are plenty of pragmatic reasons to consider the REDFLY. Chief among these are TCO (total cost of ownership): Because there's no drive to image or manage, the REDFLY is low impact, and if it gets lost, there's no storage or data involved, so you're only out the cost of the device. (And let's not forget that modern Windows Mobile devices support Remote Wipe functionality, making this solution far more secure, in many ways, than true portable PCs.)

I think that Celio is hitting the market at a good time: Not only are smart phones getting ever more powerful, but the slowing economy will cause many to seek more cost-effective solutions than management-heavy and expensive mobile PCs. Combine this solution with the pervasive broadband access provided by the whole and a host of cloud-based data storage services and PC remote control solutions, and there's almost nothing it can't do.

Nothing is perfect

The weak link here, of course, is Windows Mobile, especially the bundled productivity applications. Pocket IE is a lousy Web browser, for example, though Opera makes a capable mobile browser that's worth investigating if you're stuck with a Windows Mobile solution. And those Mobile Office applications, as noted, are in desperate need of a makeover. Things are improving--in Windows Mobile 6.1 you can edit PowerPoint presentations on the device, for example--but they can't happen fast enough in my opinion. Hopefully Windows Mobile 7 fixes these issues and provides a more seamless experience for those who choose to experience Windows Mobile on a larger screen.

Another issue is that the REDFLY is not broadly compatible with all Windows Mobile 6.x smartphones on the market. At the time of this writing, the REDFLY is compatible with just 7 Windows Mobile 5.x and 6.x smartphones, and CELIO says another 13 or so will be added by mid-year. There are some heavy hitters in there like the Palm Treo 700w/x and HTC Tilt, but if a hot new device ships in the future, you'll have to wait until Celio explicitly supports it.

Final thoughts

Overall, Celio's REDFLY is an excellent solution for those mobile professionals who use a compatible Windows Mobile smartphone and would like to travel light while needing a bit more capability than is offered just by that one device. Certainly, the size and weight is excellent, and the REDFLY, unexpectedly, does not appear to cause a performance hit, even over a Bluetooth connection. If you were excited by Palm's Folio announcement last year and then disappointed when they discontinued that project just months later, take heart: The REDFLY delivers nicely on the Folio vision and it does so with none of the complexity issues that would have dogged that platform. (Unlike the REDLY, the Folio was envisioned as a Linux-based device with its own storage and operating environment.)

The Celio REDFLY is currently available for pre-order only, from the Web site. It is expected to cost about $500. Celio hopes to make the devices broadly available in the coming quarter.