Portable e-mail device Peek refreshingly simple yet effective

— -- Tech gadgets fall into two categories: "Because-we-can" gizmos loaded with a battalion of features, or dirt-simple ones that do just one or two things well.

The Peek e-mail device I've been testing marches in the latter camp. It's refreshingly uncomplicated.

Peek is aimed at consumers who want to read e-mail or write new ones using a tiny Qwerty-style keyboard from anywhere, but who have stayed away from smartphones because they're too complicated or costly.

It works with AOL, Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail and other e-mail services. You can access up to three accounts. Peek sort of looks like a smartphone but isn't one. If you're a techie expecting much beyond e-mail, it is not for you. It doesn't make or receive calls, snap pictures, display a calendar, include a browser, play games, download music or run office applications.

Setup is fast and simple. Enter the user name and password for your account and you're good to go. The battery lasts several days. I like the device, though Peek needs to speed up mail delivery and address time-stamp issues on incoming messages.

Under a temporary deal, Peek is available at Target, Amazon and the company's own getpeek.com website for $80, plus a monthly fee of $19.95 There are no contracts. Unfortunately, the hardware reverts to its regular $100 price in December. I wish the monthly fee were $5 to $10 cheaper.

One thing Peek will start letting users do — as of Thursday — is to send and receive unlimited text messages, for no extra fee. I had to add an e-mail appendage to a cellphone number to test the new capability, but that step won't be necessary when texting is fully operational.

A closer peek at Peek:

•The basics. At just under 4 ounces, Peek is thinner than an iPhone and all the BlackBerrys I've seen. Of course, the lack of a microphone, speaker, etc. helps keep the size modest. On the side is a handy back button and BlackBerry-like scroll wheel you push to summon a menu of options (e.g., Reply, Forward, Save sender, etc.). There are also keyboard shortcuts.

There's a decent-size 2.5-inch display, but the characters are small and not particularly crisp. I couldn't detect a typo in one address — I had typed an extra "l" in the word "cell" — which prevented messages from reaching a friend.

The keys on the keyboard light up, but are also small and a tad stiff. Still it compares favorably to other miniature keyboards I've tried. When you start to enter an e-mail address, Peek suggests recipients you've previously sent mail to based on the letters you pressed. You can also download contacts from existing accounts.

Peek doesn't work with Microsoft Exchange or other corporate e-mail. A nice touch: Should you buy it for an elderly parent who doesn't own a computer, much less an e-mail account, the company can create an e-mail address on their behalf.

•Performance. The device is supposed to work nationwide. Peek's underlying partner, Qualcomm, gives it access to T-Mobile's and sometimes other GSM wireless networks. But I experienced some spotty coverage testing in the New York City area and South Florida.

Delivered messages appear on screen in a unified inbox; you cannot segregate incoming missives by e-mail account; I'd have liked the option. Nor can you create customizable e-mail folders, though sent, drafts, saved and trash folders have been premade. You can delete messages in your inbox, but doing so doesn't remove them from the server.

The bigger issue is that several messages were slow to arrive — and older messages were tagged with the date and time they landed on the device, not when they were sent. A couple of times, perhaps because of so-so coverage, I received a "retrieving more" notification, followed by a "Sorry, we're having trouble retrieving e-mail body. Please try later."

You can view JPEG-style images attached to incoming messages, but Peek is not compatible with other types of attachments, such as those with Microsoft Office documents. Such attachments are preserved when you forward e-mail from the device, however.

•Texting. Adding text messaging ought not compromise Peek's simplicity, though I wouldn't know it based on my testing: I had to type in the 10-digit phone number of the person I was texting followed by the @cell.getpeek.net extension. Over the next few days, if not sooner, you'll be able to send a text just by typing the 10-digit phone number.

I welcome Peek's philosophy of trying to keep things simple. Still, I'd like to see a Peek that might also do instant messaging. The company hinted it's possible down the road.

Peek hasn't fully scaled the peaks. But it is on the right track. Simple is almost always better.

E-mail: ebaig@usatoday.com