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Analysis: Are PCs toast? Internet appliances arrive

PC World

(IDG) -- Repeat after me: They are not computers. They are not computers. They are appliances, and they are no harder to use than a toaster.

These days it's a rare Internet device that hasn't been christened an appliance by its manufacturer. To the computer-savvy, this label may sound silly. Computers aren't appliances. VCRs, washing machines, and toasters are appliances. But the decision to apply the familiar language of the kitchen and laundry room to e-mail and Web browsing is a well-considered one: Toasters hold few mysteries; computers hold many.

To lure the unconnected (and presumably technologically impaired) masses, manufacturers have pared these machines down to the online essentials: a screen, a keyboard, a modem, and a browser (no hard disk or floppy drive). Plug the unit in, turn it on, and--ba-da-bing--you're on the Internet with a minimum of fuss and bafflement.

As a class of products, these devices remain practically new. But the ripple that started last year, when Netpliance released its I-opener, has become a wave. Compaq, Emachines, Philips, Thomson, and Vestel have all announced plans for--or shipped--Microsoft Network Companions. Intel and the New Internet Computer Company--backed by Oracle mogul Larry Ellison--have unveiled Linux-based systems. 3Com and NadaPC are working on units of their own, as is AOL in cooperation with Gateway. Especially for beginners, the cheapest of the new machines may make sense.

Simple to Set Up, Easy to Use

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We tried out three of these devices: Microsoft Network Companions from Compaq and Vestel, and the New Internet Computer. With all three, getting online was only a bit more complicated than making toast, vacuuming the floor, or drying clothes. It's easy to imagine any of these units appealing to a non-PC user hankering to check out "this Internet thing."

The two MSN units have fairly simple designs. Both are small in comparison to typical desktop PCs. The Compaq IPaq I-A1 is a cute little beige number with a wireless keyboard and a tiltable color LCD screen about the size of a makeup mirror. Vestel's MSN Companion also has a 10-inch LCD, but it stands taller than Compaq's because you can't tilt it. Still, this silvery, futuristic unit would look at home on a bedside table in a sci-fi film. It's due to ship by early next year.

Setup in each case was quite painless. Using an embedded mouse--the Compaq's resembles the joypads on game controllers, while the Vestel's looks like a notebook touchpad--I was soon operating in a custom version of Internet Explorer 4.01. Shortcut buttons put common functions like e-mail, search, and news within easy reach. The modems seemed a bit poky, and these machines don't have sufficient memory for much online gaming. But the 56-kbps hookup should satisfy first-time surfers charmed by access to the vast library of the Web and by letters that arrive in a matter of minutes instead of days.

When I botched telephone number selection during setup, however, I had to call Companion tech support for a code to access the dialing screen and the correct numbers. If this were a computer, I could have tackled that research all by myself. (Later, when I needed to change the numbers, I couldn't reach Companion tech support at all.)

Then there's the cost. Pricing for the Vestel hadn't been set at press time. The initial outlay for the Compaq, meanwhile, is $599. You can recoup $400 of that price by committing to MSN as your ISP for 36 months at $22 a month (shorter commitments earn smaller rebates). Granted, the monthly amount is roughly what you'd pay for unlimited dial-up access from a major ISP anyway. But that kicks the total three-year investment up to almost $1000, and it's MSN or nothing: The device won't work without the service. A Web newcomer may find both the figure and the commitment daunting: If you decide 15 months into the deal that you want to switch to a free ISP, or pay more for DSL, you're out of luck. Not only must you get a different device, but you'll owe Microsoft an early termination fee that will still bring your total outlay to 70 percent of your service commitment.

Still, these two units do offer uncomplicated access to the Web without the vagaries of computers. If you're interested in visiting the Internet without setting up housekeeping, look into these options.

The Un-Companion

The new Internet Computer (NIC) is the antithesis of the two MSN machines. Its OS is Linux, running invisibly in the background. Netscape 4.73 is its browser. Both load from a CD-ROM. The NIC is the most computerlike of the three appliances, with a small vertical case, two stand-alone speakers, a tabletop mouse (with mouse pad), and a full-size computer keyboard that lacks the shortcut buttons included on the MSN Companions.

The NIC has the most to offer to the frugal-minded and to technology renegades who scorn the Microsoft OS (the MSN machines run a Windows CE variant). For all its computer components, it carries a modest price tag: $200, plus $130 for the 15-inch monitor, unless you can scrounge one up on your own (any SVGA monitor will do). And if you sign up with NetZero--one of the unit's default ISP options--you'll spend nothing for Internet access. This was an easy process--though a tad slow, owing to "Net congestion." The trade-off: As you browse, banner ads flit by at the bottom of the screen. (The unit also works with any ISP that supports a dial-up connection, however.)

One hitch: I began to get reports of "modem not ready." I wondered if this problem was a by-product of heat (the unit had been on for an hour or so), but NIC tech support suggested the messages meant that the provider was busy. When I checked in again, the unit logged in without a hitch.

At that moment, the device really did seem as simple and convenient as a toaster.

Analysis: Net appliances still a hard sell
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Engineering task force could propel Internet telephony
October 3, 2000
Product test: Internet Telephone Wizard
June 20, 2000
Telephone meets touch-screen Internet appliance
November 2, 1998
Apple's AirPort offers wireless network solutions
August 4, 2000

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Compaq announces new Net devices
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