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Peek: Mobile E-Mail On A Budget

By Conrad J. Jacoby, Published on September 24, 2009

For the past nine months or so, I've been using a Peek mobile e-mail device (www.getpeek.com) to see how its gushing reviews (e.g., Time Magazine's 2008 Gadget of the Year) compare to real-life use. Do I need yet another gadget in my gear bag? Somewhat surprisingly, in spite of some gripes and occasional moments of frustration, I've found the Peek genuinely useful—and an excellent value for its cost.

I. What's A Peek, Anyway?

At first glance, a Peek looks like the slimmed-down child of Blackberry and Motorola Q parents, with a full QWERTY keyboard and a relatively large 2.5" (measured diagonally) screen. However, though the Peek has a larger screen than many portable media players, the device is optimized to perform one specific task: sending and receiving e-mail messages. Put in slightly more technical terms, the Peek is a proprietary POP3/IMAP client that can send and receive e-mail messages from a broad range of web and server-based mail systems, such as Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo! mail, as well as just about any privately run mail sever that provides POP or IMAP access. The Peek is a cellular device (the Peek company uses subcontracted T-Mobile bandwidth to provide connectivity), but it's centralized Peek servers, not the devices themselves; that connect to your host mail servers and transmit messages to and from them; all T-Mobile traffic is between Peeks and the Peek servers. In practical terms, this means that when a Peek is turned off or loses connectivity, messages will be queued on the Peek servers until the Peek is re-registered on the network.

A device limited to sending and receiving e-mail messages doesn't sound particularly interesting, given the broad functionality found on many smartphones—and even some "dumbphones"—today. However, members of the Peek management team are strong evangelists of "maillets" to extend the reach of this e-mail only device. After a bit of experimentation, I was truly surprised how much you can do with them and how much they expand the Peek's functionality.

Maillets are essentially applets that are accessed by e-mail. Sending an e-mail message with your zip code in the subject line to weather@askpeek.com, for example, sends you back an e-mail message with current weather conditions, a weather forecast, and several radar and precipitation maps in .JPEG format that can be viewed on the Peek. Other maillets let you track FedEx packages (track@fedex.com with a blank subject line and the package number in the message body), UPS packages (totaltrack@ups.com – same instructions), get word definitions (wsmith@wsmith.org), look up information in Wikipedia (ent@retroforth.org, with lookup [entry] in the subject line), and do a surprising number of other tasks that I had thought could only be done through a traditional web interface. The Ping maillet (sign up at ping.fm—no "www" prefix) even lets you update blogs and multiple social networking web sites. The complete list of maillets continues to grow on a daily basis, and best of all, almost all maillets are completely free and can be used with any e-mail client, not just the Peek.

In addition to maillets, Peek has just released additional functionality through what the company calls "Peek Apps." While still operating through the same Peek e-mail interface, these applications offer an alternative—and simpler—way to directly send and receive content from several key services. For example, the "Peek Social" app lets users both update their Facebook status and receive content streams of their friends' activities. Similarly, "Peek Feed" permits Peek users to receive Twitter and RSS feeds. And the new "Peek Maps" app permits Peek users to share their approximate location with friends. 24/7 geolocation doesn't particularly appeal to me, but I can certainly see its potential value if, for example, I needed to track down co-workers (or children).

Peek advertising also stresses that Peek service includes unlimited SMS texting, though the ads somewhat oversimplify the texting implementation. Peeks do not include a separate text messaging interface; text messages arrive as e-mail messages in the Peek in-box. In addition, Peek's texting function works through e-mail SMS gateways rather than a dedicated texting function—meaning that outgoing Peek e-mail messages must be converted into phone-friendly text messages and vice versa. From the Peek user perspective, though, texting is still fairly simple: one types a short e-mail message and uses the phone's ten-digit phone number as the recipient's e-mail address. If a message doesn't get through using that convention, most phone carriers also have a more precise e-mail domain suffix for SMS messages (e.g., 1234567890@vtext.com for Verizon phones). People who want to send a fresh text message to a Peek user must send the message to one of the user's e-mail addresses (e.g., myaccount@gmail.com), which in turn will get picked up by the Peek servers. Either way, once a message arrives, both cell phone and Peek users can simply use the "reply" function to respond. It's a bit clunky, and it's too easy to overshoot the 160-character SMS limit because the Peek does not limit the characters in an outgoing message, but it works.

Finally, though it's not as robust as found on much more expensive phones like Blackberries and iPhones, the Peek also has limited support for viewing e-mail message attachments. JPEG, .BMP, and non-animated .GIF images can be viewed directly on all Peeks. The text of Microsoft Word and Excel documents can also be viewed on Peek Pronto (but not Peek Classic) models, as can the extracted text of PDF files. The text of these files is stripped of formatting and can be difficult to read without familiar line and paragraph breaks, but it's there if you really need it.

II. Why Would I Consider Using A Peek?

Given how more and more "budget line" cell phones are including applications and utilities that were once the exclusive domain of expensive "business grade" cell phones, why would any one consider carrying a second device in addition to a cell phone? The most obvious answer is cost. The list price of the newest Peek Pronto is $60, but the device is available at a varying discounts (a recent limited-time online promotion code dropped that cost to $1) through the somewhat eccentric combination of Target, Radio Shack, Costco, Amazon.com, and Peek's own web site, www.getpeek.com. Older versions of the Peek, which can be upgraded for free by sending them to Peek headquarters to have their ROMs re-flashed, are currently available for $15-20 from Target and Amazon.com, both of which have old stock that must be cleared out. And, of course, Peeks both new and used can be found on eBay, often starting as low as $5 plus shipping.

More important than the initial purchase cost, though, is the ongoing monthly charge for Peek service—and here is one area where the Peek really shines. Many carriers offer "free" cell phones whose purchase price is paid several times over by the charges in the one or two year service contracts that come with the phone. Peeks, however, require no long-term contracts; after an initial $30 activation fee (waived if the device is purchased directly from Peek), service can be purchased on a month-to-month basis or purchased in advance for three or twelve month periods. Purchased by the month, unlimited e-mail and text messaging costs a flat $19.95 per month, but that price drops if users are willing to commit for a bit longer. Purchased three months at a time, service costs $16.67/month (i.e., $50); purchased a year at a time, unlimited Peek service costs $15/month (i.e., $180)—noticeably less than just about any smartphone data plan.

A second reason for considering a Peek is the fact that the device is optimized for text entry and text-based communications. Unlike most cell phones, the Peek has a full QWERTY keyboard, and the Peek design team's decision to create a wide but very thin device means that the keyboard is both large and relatively ergonomic (from a thumb-typist's perspective). An increasing amount of business and personal communication now takes place through text and instant—not to mention e-mail—messaging rather than over the phone, and more than a few Peek users have reported that they now carry a Peek more often than they carry their cell phone. I continue to rely heavily on the "phone" part of my smartphone, but I'll readily admit that the Peek's light weight—a full ounce less than an iPhone 3Gs—makes it easy to tuck the device into a jacket or pants pocket. That makes it easy to carry the device, even in situations where I might leave my comparatively clunky Palm Centro behind.

III. How Well Does The Peek Actually Work?

Using the Peek is extremely simple. All message and menu navigation is performed via a scroll wheel at the top right of the device, though a number of helpful keyboard shortcuts are both faster and easier, once you learn them. Although the Peek Pronto can send and receive e-mail from up to five separate e-mail accounts (the Peek Classic supports only two e-mail accounts), all incoming e-mail is displayed in a single inbox, and the Peek does not currently support color-coding to differentiate between mail from different accounts. When responding, Peeks use the same account to which the incoming message was sent as the responding account, though users also have the option of responding via any other account programmed into their Peek.

Operating on the KISS principle, the Peek has relatively few user-accessible settings. Peeks can be set to display one of several screen color schemes and use up to five different midi tones to announce incoming messages. Officially, it is not possible to download or add additional MIDI alert tones, though some bleeding edge users have reported success substituting a tone of their choice while re-flashing the Peek. Personally, I've been content with the colors and sounds supplied by the Peek.

Setting up the Peek was a snap. Upon turning on a Peek for the first time, the device asked me to enter an e-mail address and its password. The Peek then transmitted this information to the Peek servers to enable mail service. Peek's servers are pre-configured to recognize many common service providers, particularly web-based services like Gmail and AOL, but the servers will occasionally return an error message if you're adding a proprietary POP3 server, like "mail.mybusiness.com." That happened to me when adding an account from my business domain, but, after checking that I hadn't made a mistake entering my account password, a quick call to Peek Customer Care had the Peek servers updated within an hour. As a one-time configuration issue (any future accounts using my domain will now be automatically recognized by the Peek servers), I didn't see this as a significant shortcoming.

After Peeks have been configured to pull content from one or more e-mail accounts, it can take a few hours for the device to begin receiving messages—even though it's possible to start sending outgoing messages as soon as the first account has been validated in the setup process. During my test of the Peek, I periodically performed a hard reset of the device that wiped the Peek back to factory fresh condition and required me to re-enter my e-mail account information. As an inadvertent benefit, I was also able to repeatedly observe how long it took for the Peek to come fully up to speed. In the worst case scenario after one of these full device resets, it took about half a day for the first incoming messages to begin flowing again. In the best case, I had full bi-directional mail service within an hour.

Once Peek service was set up, most messages showed up quickly on my Peek, often within one or two minutes of their arrival on the host mail server. Peeks are particularly well integrated with Gmail, and I found that my Peek Pronto often received messages from my Gmail account before they showed in a web session. At irregular intervals, though, due to gremlins in the chain of technology used to pull and transmit e-mail messages to Peeks, I encountered delays in receiving both e-mail and text messages. Usually, these delays were transient and resolved themselves after a short time, but when the company experienced some growing pains over the summer due to subscriber growth, Peek servers were unable to keep up with the message load and crashed, causing several day-long outages and loud howls of protest from the Peek community. Since that time, I have experienced several mysterious episodes of delayed messages, but based on comments in the user support discussion boards, these delays appear to occur on a regional, not national, basis—possibly suggesting that delivery problems are occurring on the T-Mobile rather than the Peek side of the transmission chain.

For me, one significant initial concern was Peek's network coverage. T-Mobile is not known for the scope of its U.S. coverage, especially in rural areas, and I had low expectations for using my Peek outside major urban centers (Peeks are currently limited to U.S. coverage—the company is still in the process of negotiating international T-Mobile roaming). For the most part, though, I have been pleasantly surprised. I have had connectivity driving through remote parts of West Virginia, even outside of interstate highway corridors. I've had good service in locations up and down the Northeast Corridor and in several Midwestern states. Perhaps even more reassuring, I have also sent and received large numbers of e-mail messages in areas where T-Mobile's voice service was erratic and subject to frequent drop-outs. Apparently, Peek's compressed data format requires relatively little bandwidth to keep the device functional.

Thanks to the large, bright screen and relatively large font, reading messages on the Peek has been easy on the eyes, especially when using the "bold" font setting. However, to reduce bandwidth and maximize device storage, Peek devices only download the first 2k of incoming messages. In practical terms, that translates into several paragraphs of text. Scrolling through the message past that point causes the Peek to pause for 5-10 seconds while it retrieves another 2k block and again each time a new text block must be downloaded. While the delays in retrieving text can get irritating, a larger issue is that the Peek will download only a maximum of 12k of text per message (attachments don't count). In practice, I found that almost all my listserv digests—and even some e-mail messages where the prior message had been quoted—were longer than the 12k limit and could not be read in their entirety on the Peek. In the official Peek support discussion board, where this issue has been raised by a number of users, Peek management has responded that they are considering ways to either expand the size of downloaded text blocks or otherwise permit users to read longer messages on their device. However, as of this moment, long messages still truncate on the Peek. I, for one, would welcome this seemingly-modest enhancement.

Final Thoughts

In an age of smartphones, mobile internet devices (MIDs), and netbooks, the Peek is a somewhat unique—and somewhat retrograde—device with its single-minded focus on e-mail and text based services. However, given its light weight and reasonable battery life (I receive 100+ e-mail messages each day on my Peek, and the battery lasts 2-3 days between charges), there are plenty of reasons why this device may fill a useful niche. As odd as it sounds, I've used my Peek as an e-mail alert device when I need to concentrate on a project on my computer and don't want to have an e-mail client open on my computer. Peek's unlimited service plan has made it guilt-free to text friends and colleagues, and the device's offline "airplane" mode has helped me catch up on at least the start of my e-mail messages, even when I'm outside a service area. When I'm traveling, I constantly use a weather maillet to get the latest forecasts because it's faster and easier than firing up the web browser in my phone. All in all, the Peek is a genuinely handy device.

That's not to say, of course, that using the Peek has been a perfect experience. The newest production release of the Peek firmware provided some helpful enhancements, but apparently at the cost of some OS stability. Lately, I've had to reboot my Peek at least once every 10 days by removing its battery—something I might do every 60 days or even less frequently with my venerable Palm Centro, which sees much heavier use as both a phone and mobile web surfing and e-mail device. I've also experienced unexplained moments when the Peek, without generating any error messages or other indications, simply stops receiving new e-mail messages. While turning the Peek off and back on again corrects these hiccups in the system, these "stealth outages" have caused me some concern, because I can't necessarily trust that a silent Peek means that no one is trying to reach me via e-mail or text.

In a time when so many people have worked with Blackberry devices, the Peek's lack of full IMAP support is also somewhat of a limitation. Other than my Gmail account, outgoing messages on my Peek do not automatically synchronize with the "sent items" stored on the mail server of the account I'm using. I would ordinarily get around this limitation by adding a rule that automatically blind copies my e-mail account, but the Peek requires that cc: and bcc: recipients be added manually for each message. That's so clunky a solution that I'm more likely to use my Gmail account for on-the-go e-mail responses than take the time to add that information. For business users who need to retain a full record of all electronic communications, this could be a deal-breaker, at least until Peek adds this functionality.

All in all, though, I've been pleased with the performance contained in this inexpensive device. Like netbook computers, the Peek's design is a conscious compromise that omits some features (such as a full web browser, a real-time instant messaging client, and full phone functionality) to minimize the cost of the device and its service. User expectations need to be matched to what the device can do, not what we might wish the device could do. And, looking ahead, it's clear that Peeks are likely to continue gaining new features. A recent Peek-sponsored contest to port Linux to the Peek hardware platform is only one hint that this device could have much greater functionality in the future. I intend to keep using my Peek, and I look forward to seeing this little device continue to develop its full potential.