Review: Peek puts email in your pocket and removes voices from your head

Peek is a cellular handset that looks like a smartphone, but does one thing only: mail. A basic contact manager and image viewer serve that end, and the color scheme and audio alerts can be tweaked, but that's it. It doesn't do voice calls or the web. It's just you, the world, and an email client. Minimalist and effective, Peek is the perfect simplifier, but only if you're a Peek kind of person. Be warned: it's rather too easy to think you might be. The whole vibe of the device is unspeakably seductive–it's the active ingredient of CrackBerries at a knockdown price–but it has its flaws. We'll get to those in a minute. First, the fundamentals. Peek's full QWERTY keyboard is a delight. There's nothing magical about it–it's just a well-pitched layout with no faffing around on the design front, a lesson that smartphone makers should learn from. The screen is large and bright. Peek's user interface is simple. Scroll a clickwheel to browse your inbox (it's the only "home screen" you get) then click it to bring up the menu and read the selected item, delete it, reply to it, and so on. Next to the wheel is an all-purpose cancel/back button. You can delete spam and chaff from the inbox using the backspace key. Technologically, it's closer to a basic cellphone than a smartphone, with a 100MHz CPU and 8MB of memory. That's enough for a few photos, but the Peek is not storage. This low-end hardware, however, keeps the price under $100. Unlimited data is $20 a month, and there are no contracts or credit checks. It comes in black, pale blue, or burgundy. You can set up three email accounts with it, but it doesn't support Microsoft Exchange.
It's easy to review the idea of the Peek, rather than the Peek itself. That some have done just that is understandable. It offers smartphone-style email at a fraction of the price, but if you already have such a device, the proposition is intrinsically pointless unless you're prepared to make a philosophical decision about how you stay in touch with people. Peek is aimed at those who like small, modest phones and don't want to upgrade them, but still want decent mobile email. The makers imagine a vast potential market of people who will never buy a fancy brick of a cellphone, because they can't or won't pay $50 and up every month for the privilege, but who would love email perpetually at their fingertips. About 10m Americans are hearing-impaired and 1m functionally deaf. And it's for the phone-haters, too: how many of us loathe the ubiquity and pervasive noise of the damned things? So, there's the idea, and the question of whether Peek lives up to it. Don't worry about the hardware: it's good enough to bring us immediately to the client.
For email users with straightforward needs, Peek nails it. The mechanics of downloading, reading, writing and sending mail are intuitive and effective. It's efficient, limited in scope, and executes every task it's capable of without mucking it up.
Asides • The original BlackBerry was a two-way pager, and could nearly have ended up much the same as the Peek. RIM, however, added calling to its products, and then ever-more expensive and high end features, taking its messaging handheld the "other" direction. • I can't wait until it does instant messaging and other cool stuff, but don't ever want them to put a phone or an MP3 player in it. OK, maybe MP3. Wouldn't mass storage be neat, too -- an SD card slot, perhaps? • Also check out the PocketSurfer2, which is a similar idea, but it only does the web. • "I welcome hacking attempts," Peek CEO Amol Sarva says. The limitations, I think, could be liberating: the ultimate ASCII/Interactive Fiction handheld, anyone?
Those who use email as an organizational tool, however, may find themselves limited by that simplicity, especially the lack of custom folders or IMAP. There is a "saved mail" directory, but without the ability to make more, the Peek remains true to its essential promise: its a peek into your email, not a fully-featured equivalent to desktop clients. It's also occasionally slow responding to commands, which is annoying when you have a lot of mail to delete. Other minor flaws include incoming mail being stamped with time it is downloaded instead of sent, and the inbox font being so large that subject lines are cut off after the first couple of words. More keyboard shortcuts wouldn't go amiss. It would also be nice if it could delete email from the server. The Peek is a perfect pocket emailer, then, so long as you don't get too much email. Given its limitations, $100 is fine for the buy-in, but $20 might be pushing it month-to-month. At $10, I think it would be a no-brainer for anyone without a smartphone. As it is, Peek is a category creator that gets the basics right, and the possibility of more advanced features in future updates means no-one will ignore it. It's a strange little miracle that could change the way countless people communicate with one another. Read More: • Peek Email Theory

About Rob Beschizza

Rob Beschizza is the Managing Editor of Boing Boing. He's @beschizza on Twitter and can be found on Facebook too. Try your luck at  
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13 Responses to Review: Peek puts email in your pocket and removes voices from your head

  1. morcheeba says:

    I wonder what Amol means when he says “I welcome hacking attempts.” It’s cool that he says that, but, given the wide range of possible hacks, I wonder what his limits are.
    – There are simple hacks that keep the basic email functionality (new theme, new server support, etc.).
    – Then there are hacks that repurpose the hardware without using the cell phone – like turning this in to a nice calculator (call me a geek, but I’ve often wanted my calculator to have a backlit display & keys).
    – Next, there are hacks that subtly subvert his business model – a ssh client, or a remote weather station, for example. It’s not the email traffic he’s anticipating, but probably about the same volume of data.
    – Finally, there are hacks that totally subvert his business model. For example, turning this in to a cellular modem for your laptop – unlimited data @ $20/mo., when t-mobile usually charges $40-$50/mo for this service.

  2. jwb says:

    A few questions: is it as good as a BlackBerry 957? That device had the best keyboard ever. Also, what kind of data network does it use? Does it work on airplanes (the old Mobitex pager network worked perfectly well on airplanes).

  3. Rob Beschizza says:

    I have no idea if it’s as good as a BlackBerry 957.

    It uses T-Mobile, with free roaming on other GSM networks.

  4. Anonymous says:

    To me, the Peek looks like a great replacement for old-school pagers.

    Yes, there are still people out there who use a pager. Mostly for IT support and outage monitoring. The Peek is priced perfectly for a business that wants its staff to have some two way communication available for acknowledging the receipt of pages or sending messages to specially configured accounts to kick off scripts.

  5. Anonymous says:

    For people who who have pay-as-you-go voice plans only (and can’t afford $30/$40 mandatory voice plans on top of $30/$40 data plans)… this thing is going to be a godsend, and will be more affordable than your typical Blackberry voice/data setup. (and it doesn’t cost an arm and leg like the T Mobile Sidekick)

    For people who are queasy about phone contracts and bills, this will appeal to them also.

    And since when did “component connectivity” become such a bad idea? When I was growing up, my parents warned me not to buy a TV/VCR combo – because if the VCR broke, you’d have to bring the TV in for repair too. Well, they were right. So when did it become “smart” to give over ALL of your connectivity to one phone company or one device?

  6. Rob Beschizza says:

    It sounded like an open invitation. Which suggests to me that he’s confident that too few people will do it to cause any troubles, or that Peekux is such an arcane thing that no-one has any serious chance of hacking it to begin with.

  7. strider_mt2k says:

    I’m interested to see if enough people fall into that fairly slim demographic to support this thing.

    It doesn’t make sense to me, but I’m sure it will to someone.

  8. StCredZero says:

    Wifi is a cheap way to get by without international service. (iPhone with Truphone is another example of this strategy!)

  9. coherentnoise says:

    well, i just got one. i’ve been looking for something just like this for a while. i wanted to get a smartphone, but there’s too long to go before my contract will let me. so i got this, mainly to use twitter at work (through twittermail). i wonder if there is any sort of list of all the email based applications out there. for example, to address the aside above, i’m sure it wouldn’t be all that much work to create “the ultimate ASCII/Interactive Fiction handheld” simply through email. or are there scripts sitting on servers somewhere that can send me back directions by email given to and from addresses? there are undoubtedly zillions of ideas, though most are probably not worth pursuing considering the limited audience of this device. but if i implement any or save up a collection of links, maybe i’ll set up a wiki or something. i’ll keep looking. maybe one exists already.

  10. picklefactory says:

    No IMAP?


    A beautiful device, though. I will watch its future career with great interest.

  11. Anonymous says:

    WiFi would seal the deal, make the device an instant hit, and help them achieve critical mass in the market quickly. If I could pay an un-subsidized $100 for this device and it would “just work” with WiFi access, my employer would probably buy one for everyone in out IT group, as our entire facility is WiFi accessible and our current smartphones are more than we need.

    But, I don’t know if they could make money without the royalties from the data service.

    A comparison with the ZipIt device would have been interesting, as there would probably be a bit of overlap in the markets each addresses.

    One last thought – are there any holsters for this device? That would help drive the market as well (looks a bit big for dropping in a pants pocket).

  12. Anonymous says:

    >It uses T-Mobile, with free roaming
    >on other GSM networks.

    How about Intl. roaming?

  13. Rob Beschizza says:

    No international service, sorry.

    Why would you want WiFi? So you don’t have to pay for cellular?

    It comes with a free “case,” but the review model didn’t have it, so I’m not sure if it has a belt clip.

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