Zipit Z2

The benefits of instant messaging capabilities on a cell phone are undeniable: wherever you go, all of your IM buddies are just a keystroke away. Can’t hold an extended conversation because you’re working? IM. Have a quick question that’s not worth a phone call? IM. Too loud in the bar to hear anything? IM.

But for all the convenience it offers, the technology also carries a hefty price tag. Adding instant messaging to an existing service plan will add anywhere from $10 to $20 to a monthly bill with popular carriers such as Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile. Multiply that by many months, or in the case of families, many phones, and it really starts to add up.

What’s a cash-strapped teenager to do when Mom and Dad say no to paying for an IM plan? Find an alternative. The South-Carolina-based company Zipit has developed a portable IM platform dubbed the Z2, which uses Wi-Fi and, quite unlike a cell phone, won’t ring up a penny in service fees.

Zipit Z2
Image Courtesy of Zipit

It’s a very simple concept. A full QWERTY keyboard and 2.8-inch LCD screen are packed inside a folding clamshell design somewhat reminiscent of the Gameboy Advance SP. The unit automatically searches for an 802.11b or 802.11g Wi-Fi signal when it’s fired up and attempts to connect to the strongest signal. After it establishes a connection, users are free to log into AOL, Yahoo! and MSN instant messaging networks and chat until heart’s content, with no fees to speak of.

Of course, there are limitations to acknowledge. First, although it can be seen as a replacement for the texting capability of a cell phone, users will never truly be free to roam and chat, since the limited strength of Wi-Fi will keep them forever tethered to hotspots. Second, compared to a cell phone, the Z2 gets a much bulkier 3 x 3.74 inch form factor and weighs 354 grams, about three times as much as most cell phones. Both of these limitations are more easily overlooked if the device is seen more as a single-purpose laptop substitute, in which case neither attribute really counts against it.

The Z2 has a few more tricks up its sleeve, as well. A miniSD slot provides up to 4GB of storage for music and pictures, which can be accessed through the built-in MyTunez and MyPhotoz applications, respectively. The Z2 interface can also be customized with different skins and backgrounds to give it a personal feel.

You won’t find BlackBerry or iPhone users lining up to ditch their phones for the Z2, but that’s not quite the crowd Zipit is shooting for. Kids and teens may be more than happy to get a device of their own to message on instead of sharing the family desktop, and less put off by its limited abilities. At $149, it’s far cheaper than a laptop, and less than a year’s worth of IM charges on a cell phone bill, too. Parents whose kids have been after them for IM service on their cell phones might find the Zipit Z2 to be a happy compromise.

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