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Novatel Wireless Minstrel S review:

Novatel Wireless Minstrel S

MSRP: $369.00
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The Good Simple setup; improved interface; compact modem solution.

The Bad Somewhat expensive; modem is only compatible with newest Handspring Visors (Platinum and Prism).

The Bottom Line Finally, a wireless Palm OS-based handheld solution that impresses.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

CNET Editors' Rating

8.0 Overall

Since we haven't been terribly impressed with earlier Palm OS-based wireless handheld packages, we didn't expect all that much from the first wireless Handspring Visor rig. But after connecting the Novatel Minstrel S2 modem to the Visor Platinum and putting OmniSky's 2.0 service through its paces, we came away pleasantly surprised. The 4-ounce modem is compact, setting up the service is incredibly simple, and OmniSky's improved graphical interface makes for a more user-friendly wireless Web experience.Since we haven't been terribly impressed with earlier Palm OS-based wireless handheld packages, we didn't expect all that much from the first wireless Handspring Visor rig. But after connecting the Novatel Minstrel S2 modem to the Visor Platinum and putting OmniSky's 2.0 service through its paces, we came away pleasantly surprised. The 4-ounce modem is compact, setting up the service is incredibly simple, and OmniSky's improved graphical interface makes for a more user-friendly wireless Web experience.

In the Blink of an Eye
Designed by the same team that created the original Palm, the Visor brings a great feature to the Palm OS platform: a Springboard slot that permits expansion options by means of add-on modules. Inserted, the lightweight Minstrel S2 modem adds around 3/8-inch to the back of the unit and 3/4-inch to the top (not counting the antenna).

The modem has 2MB of built-in memory, and when sold with the OmniSky 2.0 service, the included programs and installation software are already onboard, so you won't need to sync with your computer to get started. Just charge the modem (it has an internal lithium-ion battery), plug it into the Springboard slot, watch a few screens flash by, and hit Reset--your account information is automatically loaded and you're good to go. Compared to the laborious setup process of older wireless Palm packages, such as that of the Palm V, this 15-second process is an eye-opener. Although the modem has its own memory, many applications are installed on your handheld and consume more than 1MB of the Visor Platinum's 8MB of memory.

Smooth Surfing
Fortunately, the combined package is one slick, compelling window to the Web. The improved OmniSky interface provides an at-a-glance link to all functions, including email, a variety of well-chosen Web-clipped content sites (mini Web sites with minimal or no graphics), and access to standard Web sites that appear on your screen stripped of their images and fancy fonts.

Though it's nice to be able to surf standard HTML Web sites, the Minstrel S2's maximum data-transfer rate is only 19.2 kbps. We found ourselves gravitating toward OmniSky 2.0's preinstalled Web-clipped sites, which load faster because they're designed specifically for low-bandwidth wireless devices. Dozens of shortcuts to these sites are automatically installed on your device during the setup process, including links to Web-clipped versions of E*Trade, Moviefone, mySimon, Yahoo, and ESPN.com. Additional Web-clipping applications can also be downloaded from the Web with your PC or Mac.

A couple of quibbles: The modem lacks a power switch (a software app shuts it off), though there is a Sleep mode that helps conserve the 12-hour battery life, as rated. Also, some may find the package a tad pricey. For starters, you'll need either a Visor Platinum or a Visor Prism color unit, which cost $299 and $449, respectively. The modem lists for $299, although OmniSky is currently offering it for $99 with a six-month service commitment. There's only one service plan option: $39.95 per month for nationwide, all-you-can-eat service, which is pretty standard for an unlimited wireless data plan.

Aside from a few minor issues, the OmniSky/Visor Platinum combo results in a surprisingly usable wireless handheld. It is simple to compose and check email or to look up stock quotes and sports scores, as well as to stay on top of current events. And though you're not going to get the kind of high-speed 128-kbps Internet connection that the upcoming iPaq Pocket PC/Ricochet combo offers, this solution is less expensive and offers widespread coverage.

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