REVIEW: Motorola IMFree Wireless IM

What: A wireless IM device for AOL Instant Messenger
Where: Many vendors (see below)
How Much: $10-$129 (see below)

IMFreeThe tech world is littered with products that may (or may not) have been good ideas. One of the most famous (infamous?) was DIVX – not the popular MPEG4 video format, but the “DVD rental replacement” player. The premise behind DIVX players was that you could go to Circuit City and buy a DIVX movie disc for around $6. Once you put the disc into a special DVD\DIVX hybrid player, a chip inside the player would record the discs’ title and only allow you to play the disc for 48 hours. After that time, you could play the disc again by paying a “continuation fee” of around $3.25 or you could even upgrade the disc to “Silver status” allowing for unlimited playing. This was all done via a modem built-in to the DIVX player that would connect to a central server and charge your credit card accordingly. Although it seems silly now, there was great fear at the time that certain movies would come out in DIVX format only and thus turn the entire home movie market into one huge pay-per-view moneygrab by the movie studios. (For what it’s worth, the DivX MPEG4 video format was named after the failed DVD substitute as a last “Ha-ha” to the content industry.)

And then there was 3Com’s Audrey device. Audrey was an “Internet appliance” – a small device much like a computer that was designed to pretty much surf the Internet and get email only. Aside from being far too expensive for what it was, Audrey was hobbled by the fact that people use the Internet for many things. “Surfing the Internet” sounds pretty generic until you realize that includes downloading mp3s, getting Word and Excel email attachments from coworkers or using Flash\Java\Windows Media\Real Player plug-ins – none of which Audrey could do, and for a price that was only slightly less than a low-end PC of the time that could do all those things and more. In short, Audrey was sold as something “a less than a PC” when in reality it was simply a full-size PDA. And it flopped.

And then there’s Motorola’s IMFree Wireless AIM Device. Originally priced at $129.99, it too failed miserably, although it actually works as advertised (unlike Audrey) and isn’t evil (unlike DIVX). IMFree kits are showing up at liquidators and discounters of all stripes, with prices ranging from $12.99 to $40 (with a $40 rebate – although shipping and tax make the true cost a little over $10). I heard about TigerDirect’s “IMFree for Free” (they’re the ones with the $40 rebate) via the great folks at Engadget. However, due to a tragic comedy of errors on TigerDirect’s part, I had to close two orders on two different credit cards because they attempted to charge both cards 5 times for a single purchase! To make a long story short, I just bought the thing from geeks.com, where my total came out to just under twenty bucks (including shipping and no rebates to deal with). Don’t EVER buy something based on the rebate price, even if affordability isn’t an issue. Companies that reply on rebates just seem to suck – TigerDirect… Best Buy… CompUSA… need I say more?

Setup

OK, now that my medication’s kicked in, I can get back to the review!

To use the IMFree Wireless AIM device you need Windows 98SE or higher, a spare USB port, a CD-ROM drive, a 266mHz processor or faster, 64MB of RAM and 20MB of free disk space. As you can see, the requirements aren’t very taxing. I should hope that just about anyone reading this site should meet those requirements. Right? Right? Oh, and you’ll also need an free AIM account if you don’t have one… but I hope you’d figured that already.

The IMFree kit comes with the actual handheld device (as seen in the picture above), an AC adapter and rechargeable battery for the same, a USB base station, an installation CD, user’s guide and a Quick Start pamphlet. I haven’t specifically said this yet, but the IMFree *does not* require any kind of local 802.11x wireless network. As we shall see, the USB base station handles the wireless end of it, so even folks with a single computer on dial-up can enjoy the IMFree.

So – the actual setup part… well, it’s pretty easy. Step 1 is to install the battery, which requires only a fingernail and not one of those jeweler’s screwdriver thingies so many gadgets seem to require these days. Once the battery has charged “for 16 hours before initial use”, you install the software on your PC – which is one of those “click Next > Next > Next > Finish” installs that we all know and love. Once that’s done, you plug the USB base station to an available USB port. My XP box immediately recognized the IMFree box and installed drivers for it in just a few seconds. Next on the agenda is opening the software and making sure that the proper Internet connections (modem\LAN) are checked (for you dial-up users, IMFree be configured to automatically connect to the Internet – or not, if you prefer). The next step is to power on the handheld unit and enter the “base ID” from the bottom of the base station. The handheld unit will then attempt to connect to your PC; if successful, the PC software will display a message asking if you want to accept a connection from the handheld unit. You click “Yes” (duh!). Lastly, you then follow the handheld unit’s easy on-screen instructions for entering your AIM nickname and password. It might sound like a lot of work, but it really isn’t, I swear!

Before you ask, lemme just tell you that one of the reasons that you have to enter the base station ID on the handheld unit is because you can have up to seven handheld units run off a single base station. I can’t imagine needing that many handheld units, but I guess Motorola figured that larger families might have three or four kids wanting to use AIM at once. It’s a nice touch, but it’s overkill for my needs. Also, let me tell you now that running the IMFree software is nearly transparent on the host PC; except for the IMFree system tray icon, someone working at the PC would have no idea that AIM is even running. This was also one of the selling points for the IMFree – if Daddy needed to use the computer to look up stock quotes for tomorrow’s big meeting, little Johnny could continue to chat with his AIM buddies… so everyone’s happy! The IMFree software uses little of my system’s resources – around 11MB of RAM and less than 1% of my CPU when actually using the handheld unit – although I certainly can’t make a blanket promise that it’ll run great on an older PC. The IMFree software is actually pretty neat, too. Parents can define which hours the handheld units may be used, and anyone with access to the PC software can remotely change any of the sounds the handheld device makes for AIM events.

Using the IMFree

Well, as I said earlier, the IMFree pretty much does what it says it will, unlike so many other devices that have come and gone. I used it for around 6 hours today and have few complaints about the kit. In fact, my complaints are pretty much petty ones.

For example, the 9-line LCD screen produces text that looks like a pager from 1998. It would be great to have a full-color VGA screen on this puppy, but that’s just kind of silly. I’d prefer to be able to use the IMFree for several hours at a time while looking at an ugly screen than having a beautiful screen that drains the battery in an hour.

Much more serious is the lack of a backlight. The other day I was using the IMFree to talk to my friend Holly whilst sitting on the sofa with Lisa. She was sitting on the end next to the lamp and I found myself constantly tilting the IMFree to be able to read what was going on. Having said that, I’m sure not including a backlight was a conscious decision on the part of Motorola’s engineers. It’s all about saving the battery life. But I’m sure one could have been added for little cost – remember, this is a basic “pager-style” LCD screen we’re talking about here – but alas, there isn’t one.

Another complaint concerns the QWERTY keyboard on the unit; there’s nothing wrong with it really, it just takes a bit of getting used to. Early on I was TAP… TAP… TAPPING the keys; a few hours later I was typing at a much faster rate.

A more serious complaint concerns the build quality of the handheld units. There is a very noticeable speck of cardboard trapped in my LCD – not big enough to RMA the thing though – and the unit feels really mushy in the corner that houses the up and down scroll arrows. To Moto’s credit, the rest of the unit feels pretty solid, though.

I haven’t done any specific tests to gauge the battery life, but I was able to talk to Lisa for several hours one day, leave the box for a few days and then leave the box on for several hours while Holly and I had intermittent conversations.

There are reports that this unit interferes with cordless phones. I have a Uniden 2.4gHz phone and I tried my best to get the phone to screw up the IMFree (and vice versa), but nothing unusual happened. Perhaps the sneers at other sites are unfounded?

The Verdict

All in all, I like this little box. It does what it says it’ll do and does it well. Would I have paid $129 for it back when it was first released? Absolutely not. But for less than $20 it’s a fun little gadget – but not without its shortcomings.

What I Like

– Low Price
– Easy setup
– Works as advertised
– Allows you to use AIM anywhere in the house.

What I Don’t Like

– Suspect build quality
– No backlight
– Only works with AIM (possibly not Motorola’s fault)

UPDATE:

Here are a couple of follow-up notes to my review of the IMFree box:

1) The IMFree operates at 900mHz. If you have a 900mHz cordless phone, you might find that the IMFree interferes with your phone. Since my old cordless phone was 2.4GHz, this is why I couldn’t detect any interference.

2) The MX240a software that comes with the IMFree also installs some drivers that don’t play well with DirectX (specifically, DirectInput). If you do buy this box and find some of your PC games crashing (especially if the errors relate to dinput8.dll), unplug the IMFree USB hub before you load the game. See this post in Google Groups for more information on this issue.

MY (UPDATED) RATING: C+

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