A Windows Mobile phone's small screen and keyboard make many of its more powerful applications at best inconvenient to use: ask anyone who has ever tried editing an Excel spreadsheet on a mobile phone, even if the software lets users do it.
Celio's Redfly mobile companions offer an alternative: they look like netbooks, but are basically terminals for Windows Mobile smartphones. A Redfly has no hard disk, internet connectivity, or software of its own. But connected (via either USB or Bluetooth) to a Windows Mobile device, it optimizes the platform for display on its much larger screen and for input from its much larger keyboard.
We tested a shipping version of the top-of-the-line Celio Redfly C8N, and found that it generally delivered on its promise.
Setup takes a little time. After charging both the Celio Redfly C8N and your handset, you have to download both the Redfly driver for your specific Windows Mobile handset and the latest firmware for the Redfly itself from Celio's website to your PC, and then you need to transfer the files to the devices. Afterward you must run the two files, making sure to connect the Redfly to the handset with the phone's USB cable.
Once you're done, the Celio Redfly C8N will display a reformatted version of the Windows Mobile screen; part of the device's charm is the excellent job Celio has done to optimise the typical low-resolution portrait-mode interface of a cell phone for a landscape-mode, laptop-style screen.
In our tests with a Sprint Treo 800w, however, the USB connection proved flaky. The display kept switching from the Celio Redfly C8N to the phone and back again. Celio says this problem is specific to the Treo 800w, but we had no other Windows Mobile handset to verify that claim.
The problem went away after we set up a Bluetooth connection between the Celio Redfly C8N and the Treo, which took merely a couple of minutes (as with everything else, you do this through the Windows Mobile settings). That connection was much more stable, and we could easily renew it on startup by pressing the Bluetooth function key on the Redfly. You have to use the USB connection to set up Bluetooth initially, though.
The Celio Redfly C8N has a bright, 8in, 800-by-480-resolution display; looking at mobile applications such as Google Maps or Excel on the big screen was a joy. Again, the apps took full advantage of the extra real estate, showing many more blocks on a map of San Francisco, for instance, and many more spreadsheet cells.
Using the included adaptor cable with an optional video-out cable for an iPhone or an iPod Touch, you can even use the Redfly to watch iTunes videos; an episode of Mad Men looked terrific on the Redfly, although having to listen to the audio through a headset attached to the phone (the Celio Redfly C8N has no speakers) was a little weird.
Unfortunately, Internet Explorer for Windows Mobile does not benefit from the larger display. IE Mobile has no way of disguising its identity to sites that deliver stripped-down versions to requests from mobile browsers. mobile.pcadvisor.co.uk is great in a small mobile phone handset, but with the Celio Redfly C8N you want to see the full-fat site. Using the Opera browser installed on the Treo 800w, we could choose to retrieve desktop-formatted pages, which looked great on the Redfly.
Even Opera Mobile, however, can't handle all the technologies a desktop browser can, so the Celio Redfly C8N ultimately can't deliver a full-blown desktop-browser experience. And even though it looks like a netbook, it will never be able to run the full range of Windows apps; again, it can run only what Windows Mobile can.
People who want full Windows functionality in a small device will be better off spending a little more to obtain a netbook, especially if they can tether it with an existing handset, or if they have plentiful Wi-Fi options.
For anyone who doesn't need to run Windows apps and simply wants a bigger display and keyboard to deal with routine email and simple editing chores, the Celio Redfly C8N could prove useful. Its battery life is far superior to that of most netbooks; Redfly rates it at 8 hours. (The Redfly can actually recharge a phone connected with a USB cable.) And with no hard drive or memory of its own, the Celio Redfly C8N isn't prone to many of the problems that can plague Windows laptops - a crashed hard drive, for example. If your phone is running, chances are your Redfly will run too.
The Celio Redfly C8N represents a major advance on the original, which we reviewed about a year ago, if only because its price is much more in line with today's market for small-format laptops. When you can buy a pretty full-featured Windows XP netbook for £250 or less, the price tag of the first Redfly doesn't look very attractive. If £175 for the C8N still seems like too much, you can opt for the Redfly C7, which has a 7in screen and half the battery life of the C8N but costs less.