New Gadget Sends and Receives E-Mail. That’s It.

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.

That old cliché is more true than ever. Red state/blue state. Pro-choice/pro-life. Mac/Windows.

And, in consumer technology: feature-listers/elegance-appreciators.

Feature-listers judge a product by one criterion: how many features it has, no matter how clunky the design. A music player with FM radio must be better than one without. A phone that downloads music is superior to one that doesn’t. More megapixels — well, you get the idea.


Elegance-appreciators, on the other hand, prefer something that does less, but does it better. Fortunately, this group has been on the rise lately. The iPod has achieved world domination despite having no built-in radio or Wi-Fi. The Flip camcorder, with only three buttons and no zoom, now commands 13 percent of the camcorder market.

Make way for another elegant one-trick pony: a pocket-size doodad called the Peek, which sends and receives e-mail. It arrives in Target stores (and next week, whereupon it will follow the usual cycle of simple, elegant tech products: 1) universal scorn by feature-listers online; 2) quiet, gradual popular acceptance by normal people; 3) bafflement on the part of the feature-listers, who still don’t get that there are two kinds of people in the world.

At first, you might not see how the Peek is any different from the BlackBerry, whose design it shamelessly rips off. It’s a plastic slab (4 by 2.7 by 0.4 inches), in dark gray, aqua or dark red, with a screen and thumb keyboard on the face. On the right edge is a thumbwheel, which scrolls through lists and menus (you click inward on that wheel to select a menu command). Below the wheel is a Back/Cancel button. On top is the power button.

So far, so BlackBerry.

Peek Pocket Email
Peek Pocket Email   

In its mission, however, the Peek is totally different. It has no ambitions to appeal to corporate America or to the kind of person who already carries a smartphone. Instead, it’s aimed at the world’s nontechnical population.

The entire concept is to eliminate cost and complexity by stripping away everything but e-mail. For example, since the Peek is not a phone, it can afford to shed a microphone, speaker and several buttons — not to mention a credit check, a contract and a bunch of taxes and fees.

It costs $100, and $20 a month for unlimited e-mail service that, behind the scenes, is delivered by T-Mobile’s cellular network. That’s nothing like the $60 or $70 you’d pay for a smartphone each month, but it still feels about $5 too high.

Since the Peek is not a Web browser, it sheds all the complexity of plug-ins, bookmarks, downloads and so on.

And since the Peek is not a business tool, it does without things like a calendar, alarm clock, games, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and anything else that would make it complicated. There are essentially only three screens: the list of messages, the open message itself and a Preferences page.

If you get lost on this machine, heaven help your encounters with an A.T.M.

The first time you turn on the Peek, you’re asked for your e-mail address and password. If it’s a Web-based account like Hotmail, Gmail or AOL, that’s all there is to it. The Peek automatically checks for new messages every 5 to 15 minutes, and notifies you with a little chime, a little vibrating buzz and a blinking blue light in the corner. (You can also check on demand.)

If you have a traditional e-mail account — one provided by your Internet company, for example (a so-called POP or IMAP account), the setup usually involves a call to Peek technical support; you can’t input server settings yourself. The Peek handles three e-mail accounts, max.

The color screen (240 x 320 pixels) is bright and clear, even in sunlight. The thumb keyboard feels satisfyingly clicky, and the keys are brightly illuminated. Nor will your jeans list to one side; the Peek weighs only 3.8 ounces.

Each charge of the removable battery lasts two to five days, depending on how much e-mail you get. The power cord ends in a micro U.S.B. connector, alas, you can’t recharge the Peek from a computer, as you can with a BlackBerry or an iPod. We’re not yet in the era of universal power-cord compatibility, where we won’t need a different black power brick for every single gadget.

In other words, the company saw to it that the hardware, which can’t easily be changed after the sale, was done right. But the software has room for improvement.

Nontechies rejoice!

For example, the Peek displays no formatting whatsoever — no embedded graphics, no stationery, not even bold or italic. Paragraphs sometimes break in funny places. All file attachments except JPEG photo files are stripped away, and even those take several clicks to open.

There’s no spelling checker, no ingenious BlackBerryish shortcuts (like R for Reply, or hitting Space twice at the end of a sentence to make a period, space and a capitalized next word). You can’t even get from one open message to the next without returning to the Inbox, which gets old fast.

Those over 40 should note, too, that the standard Peek typeface appears to be 2-point Helvetica. It’s darned tiny.

You can’t create folders for filing your mail; Inbox, Saved, Drafts and Trash folders are all you get. There’s no synchronizing — if you send a reply from the Peek, you won’t find it in your Sent Mail folder on your PC — but at least downloading mail on the Peek doesn’t prevent your computer from downloading the same messages later. (There’s nothing worse than the “two-mailbox” problem, where you can’t figure out which machine contains a certain message.)

Oh, and the Peek works only in the United States at the moment.

Are you getting the idea, perhaps, that the Peek truly is an extremely simple, single-purpose machine?

Now, it’s one thing to eliminate superfluous features. But lots of these limitations would be easy to address without adding complexity or cost.

Fortunately, the company intends to address the Peek’s rough edges with free software updates; in particular, it says that it’s considering adding a larger font-size option, some navigation keystrokes, Next Message and Previous Message commands, an auto-BCC option that sends your computer a copy of each outgoing message, international roaming, compatibility with Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes, and perhaps the ability to view Word and PDF attachments.

But now I’m starting to sound like a feature-lister. Truth is, the Peek, even in its current condition, elicits “oh, I want that!” from many a nontechie.

Not everyone wants or needs a smartphone; plenty of people would rather talk on a comfortably compact cellphone instead of holding what looks like a JuicyJuice box up to their heads. For them, having a sweet, thin Peek in the purse or the pocket, just for e-mail, makes a lot of sense.

All the usual benefits of carrying separate, nonconverged gadgets apply here, too: losing or breaking one doesn’t mean that you’re completely up the creek. The screen and keyboard for each device is ideal for its purpose. (Sure, many regular cellphones can download e-mail, but carrying on correspondence using a keyhole of a screen and a number keypad is an exercise in futility.)

So go ahead and scoff, feature-listers; a wonderful world waits for you at,, and It shouldn’t affect you one whit that there’s now an easy, cheap way for the other kind of people to keep in e-mail contact wherever they go.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: