Peek (Image property of OhGizmo!)
By Andrew Liszewski

Being ‘international’ guests at CES meant that David and I couldn’t really use our iPhones for checking email or the web while in Vegas, lest we return home to massive roaming data charges on our phone bills. So Peek was kind enough to supply both of us with one of their ‘Simply Email’ devices during our stay so we could stay on top of email when our laptops were buried in our bags. The Peek is definitely a unique device as it seems to go against the current trend of convergence when it comes to mobile devices. It does email, a little bit of text messaging, and that’s basically it. Overall the devices performed as advertised, and it was definitely nice having access to email no matter where we were during the show, but if you’re thinking about picking one up for yourself, it’s important to be aware of the Peek’s limitations beforehand. More after the jump.

Hands down, the best part of the Peek is how easy it is to use. Both David and I used the devices to access our Gmail accounts, and setting them up was literally as easy as logging into Gmail via a web browser. However, since the Peek can only access your email via POP3, you might want to tell Gmail to only provide access to messages that have arrived after you enable POP3 access. Otherwise I assume the Peek will attempt to download your entire inbox, which could take a while for some people. And while your contact list isn’t automatically retrieved, downloading it to your Peek is a simple menu option away. If you haven’t memorized the email addresses of every single one of your friends or co-workers, this is something you’ll probably want to go ahead and do once the device is up and running.

In terms of hardware, the Peek is a solid little device with a minimal number of buttons, save for the full QWERTY keyboard. Most of the navigation is done via a scroll wheel on the side that can also be used for making selections, but just below it you’ll also find a dedicated back button which makes getting to your inbox or escaping the menu system very easy. While David wasn’t a fan of the Peek’s keyboard, I didn’t mind it, though it did take me a few hours to get used to the position of some of the buttons. (i.e. The delete/backspace key.) The keyboard has a good ‘clicky’ tactile feel to it and the individual keys are backlit which made it easier to hunt and peck while killing time at a handful of poorly-lit CES parties. The screen and GUI, while rather basic, are also more than adequate for the task of reading or composing email. The company obviously had to cut a few corners to make a $100 non-carrier-subsidized device, and at times the UI can be a bit sluggish, but I think they’ve found a great balance between performance, features, build quality and most importantly, price.

The biggest complaint we have regarding the Peek though was the speed in which emails were sent or received. We had hoped to use the Peeks as a quick and alternate means of communication while at the show, but sending a “I’m near the front of the line for the Samsung press conference” message to David didn’t actually arrive at his Peek until the event was halfway over. Now I’m sure part of it was related to the spotty cellular coverage in the halls and ballrooms of the Sands and the LVCC, but after a week of using it all over Vegas, I have to conclude that speed is not the Peek’s strong point. But as long as your emails aren’t time-sensitive, I’m sure most users won’t even notice it.

The other major complaint we had with the Peek was the POP3-only access. I can understand why the device doesn’t have proper 2-way IMAP support, but it would have made things a lot easier for me while at the show. My Gmail prefs are set to keep a copy of all messages that have been accessed via POP3, and each night I had to go in to my Gmail inbox and clean out all of the messages that I’d already read and responded to via the Peek.

The majority of the reviews I’ve read about the Peek, whether the reviewer liked it or not, question what the target market is for the device. Obviously the $20/month, no-contract fee is perfect for those who want email on the go without being locked down to a particular cellular provider, but the ease-of-use of the device should also appeal to those who aren’t exactly tech savvy. But I think it’s also a useful solution for international business travelers like myself, who frequent the U.S. and don’t necessarily want to maintain a second mobile phone or accumulate atrocious data roaming charges. Because there’s no contract, the device can be activated or de-activated on a month-by-month basis, so you really only have to pay the monthly fee for the months when you intend to use it. Just remember that once you leave the U.S., the Peek will stop retrieving messages.

I can understand why Time named the Peek the ‘Gadget of the year’, and while I hate to use the term “thinking outside the box”, I think it’s a good way to describe the device. Just make sure you’re not actually looking for something ‘inside the box’ and you won’t be disappointed.

[ Peek ]