Test drive: Gateway Touch Pad, Sony PictureBook

Admittedly, my family is atypical.

My three teen-agers and I all have our own PCs, all with a shared high-speed Internet connection. Our house is wired, with the kind of cable typically used in corporate offices.

But there's an orphan on the network: my wife. She wants her own computer and she wants nothing fancy. Give her e-mail, Internet, instant-messaging, maybe some music, and she'll be happy.

And give it to her in the kitchen, without tying up the phone line.

Every bit the computer novice, my wife is a typical candidate for an Internet appliance.

So why didn't she take to Gateway's AOL Connected Touch Pad ($499)? Simple. Because she knows enough to know what she wants.

First, she wants to use HER e-mail account.

Unlike others in the family, she's not particularly miffed that the Gateway machine restricts her to America Online as her Internet access ramp. She could handle that, but through the closed world of AOL and the Touch Pad's proprietary ''instant AOL'' operating environment, she can't download and manage her e-mail.

Our family certainly has no intention of abandoning its Internet service provider, especially as we are fortunate to have a working Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) connection.

The Touch Pad we tested was only enabled for connecting via a built-in 56K modem. Gateway now ships software that allows you to reach AOL over a broadband home network like ours - but you need to install that software on a different PC.

There's no installing anything on the Touch Pad, which is presumably the industry's idea of what an Internet appliance should be.

With its small footprint, stylish chrome frame and wireless infrared keyboard, the Touch Pad is an eye pleaser. It runs on the Linux operating system, its memory chores divided between 128 megabytes of memory with no hard drive.

The stylus works well on the 10-inch LCD screen, much better than than the keyboard-based joystick contraption that serves as a mouse. The appliance is cleverly designed to affix under a cabinet, and the speakers sound nice.

But ours is a household that pipes music through its computers, and the demands on a kitchen Internet appliance are not set by the woman of the house alone.

There are the teen-agers, who had these requirements:

-Must be able to store and play MP3 music files (the variety swapped on the Internet using Napster but that can also be copied from a store-bought CD) and feature quality speakers.

-Must have word processing software that the kids can use to do homework while keeping their mother company as she cooks dinner. A notepad application for leaving messages would be okay; the Touch Pad has it. But we have a whiteboard and a chalkboard on the wall. They're better for that.

So here's what happened: Some time between Christmas and New Year's, about two weeks after it arrived, the Gateway Touch Pad was banished from the kitchen.

A Sony Vaio C1 PictureBook replaced it.

The PictureBook is one the first laptops offered on the U.S. market powered by Transmeta's much-hyped Crusoe processor (600 Mhz), which is advertised as substantially improving battery life over Intel processors.

The PictureBook settled in on the end of the kitchen counter. We plugged it into the home network and got instant Internet.

This Vaio is a fun, feature-packed little machine:

It's got a built-in digital camera and a 9-inch screen with excellent 1024 X 480 pixel resolution. It comes loaded with software that grabs still images and short videos - and edits them - and has a slot for Sony's proprietary memory sticks.

All this in a 1-inch thin, 2.2-pound durable shell with a 12-gibabyte hard drive, Microsoft's Windows Me operating system and a USB port as well as a i.Link (IEEE 1394) for digital video transfer.

The Picturebook also features a built-in 56K modem and 128 MB of memory. But in my untethered use of the unit, it did not live up to the maximum 5.5 hours of battery life promised. With power-saving settings and ''Smart Capture'' running, the battery ran out in 150 minutes.

Other drawbacks: No floppy, CD or DVD drive (the price you pay for such a light machine) and no built-in network interface.

So on top of the $2,300 price tag, to connect the PictureBook to a network you'd have to purchase a PC Card network adapter. Luckily, we had one handy.

On the network, the PictureBook verily hummed.

My wife could do e-mail, through the family's ISP, and with our always-on Internet connection the Vaio became a convenient, oft-used tool for Web information acquisition.

The Sony also met the teen-agers' basic requirements:

It was bundled with a word processor - Microsoft Word 2000 - and loaded with a music player from RealNetworks. Unfortunately, the built-in speakers produced annoyingly tinny tones (though there is an audio jack for attaching external speakers or headphones).

Bottom line: The Gateway Touch Pad did not meet the family's basic criteria. Nor for that matter do any of the competitors we've looked at: 3Com's Audrey, eMachines' MSN Companion and Compaq's iPAQ.

The first generation of Internet appliances are still a gawky lot - that don't meet the expectations to which our PCs have made us accustomed.

The only workable alternatives currently available - if it's e-mail, instant messaging, Internet and a digital jukebox that you want - are compact notebooks like the PictureBook.

And they're far too expensive for a kitchen counter.