Test drive: iCatching ways to easily surf the 'Net

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I wish the Angels could play in the World Series. I wish Southern California could have a white Christmas. And I wish a computer could be as easy to use as a toaster.

I may not live long enough to see the first two, but several companies are working to make my third wish come true. They are selling stripped-down Internet appliances that are as at home on a kitchen counter as on a computer desk.

The best devices have no software to install, no hard disk to crash and no wait for the system to boot up. They are no match for the versatility of a standard PC, but they aren't designed to replace one.

These Internet devices are aimed at getting newcomers on the Web with a minimum of hassle or providing greater convenience for savvy users who want to surf from their easy chairs.

The battle among Internet appliances is one of the most intense in the technology world, with numerous companies trying to come up with just the right combination of simplicity, convenience, functionality and cost.

None of them has hit the must-buy bull's-eye, but a few of them, such as the Compaq iPaq, are close to becoming breakthrough products for the home.

Compaq iPaq

What would the ideal Internet device for newcomers look like? Probably a lot like the iPaq, the brainchild of Microsoft and Compaq.

The iPaq is about a third the size of a standard PC, with a laptop-size screen hinged to a base unit with built-in speakers. A wireless keyboard with full-size keys makes up the rest of the unit.

The iPaq ($99 with a commitment for three years of MSN Internet service at $21.95 a month) makes it easy to get online in minutes. You plug it into a wall outlet and a phone line and that's it for the setup. The iPaq requires you to use Microsoft Network; it won't work with other service providers.

Its interface is based on a simplified version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer called MSN Companion. It's an integrated program that ties together Web browsing, e-mail and instant messaging in one package. That's a big advantage because many Internet providers require you to master separate programs for each of those functions.

The wireless keyboard is one of the iPaq's best features. The keys have a nice, solid feel. They've added lots of "one-touch" buttons that you can use to adjust the speaker volume, activate the optional printer or surf to key sites.

Want to know what's going on in the news? One button takes you to MSNBC's news site. Want to go shopping? Another button takes you to an MSN shopping area.

If you've never been online before, the iPaq makes it a snap. But that same simple interface is the iPaq's biggest drawback: You can't customize it much. The one-touch keys can't be reassigned. If you don't like the shopping page assigned to that key, you can't change it. You also can't choose a different home page.

Despite these shortcomings, the iPaq is a well-thought-out package that is a good choice for first-time Internet users.

Gateway Touch Pad

There's an old marketing joke that goes something like this: What if you raised the price of a newspaper from 25 cents to $1 million? Customers would be upset, but on the other hand you'd have to sell only one to make a profit.

To a lesser degree, that's the story behind the Touch Pad. It's a nifty product, but at $499 it costs too much. It's almost as much as a full-blown computer. (Indeed, the Touch Pad's maker, Gateway, offers its Essential 700 PC for $699 with a free year of AOL. The Touch Pad plus a year of AOL costs more than $760.)

The Touch Pad is a handsome unit, every bit as good as Compaq's iPaq. As the name implies, it has a touch-screen monitor. Its plastic shell looks like brushed stainless steel. The full-size wireless keyboard features a joystick-style pointer and lots of one-touch navigation keys. But, like the iPaq, you can't reassign them.

The Touch Pad is a product of a joint venture between Gateway and America Online and works only with AOL. It is easy to set up and use. AOL provides an excellent integrated interface; it's one reason AOL is so popular. But on the Touch Pad, screen space quickly gets eaten up by the mandatory AOL menus.

On the plus side, the Touch Pad has a couple of unique advantages. It comes with hardware to mount it on a counter or under a cabinet. And it's the only device reviewed here that has parental control options, a valuable feature in such a kid-friendly device.

The Touch Pad's high price won't lure many to try out AOL, but if you're already an AOL subscriber, it might make a welcome addition to your computer family.

3Com Audrey

Ever get yelled at for forgetting to write down something on the family calendar? One company thinks it has a solution (not to the yelling but to consolidating a household's schedules in one spot).

With its Jetsons-inspired styling, 3Com Corp.'s $499 Audrey aspires to be the home information center of the future. In addition to handling e-mail and Web surfing, it can display phone numbers and appointments imported from two hand-held devices that run on the Palm operating system. Audrey has a touch screen, just like its smaller Palm siblings.

Audrey got me online quickly and easily. After I told it I already had an Internet account with Prodigy, Audrey was able to retrieve settings automatically.

One of the first things you notice about Audrey is what looks like a TV-tuner knob at the bottom of its screen. Twisting the knob causes a selection of preset channels to appear in a strip across the bottom of the screen. Each channel is a Web page. Settle on one and a page appears right away, with all the data downloaded from the last time Audrey connected to the Internet. Channels include ones for news, shopping and entertainment, with more promised in the future.

Updating the channels takes several minutes, but Audrey is set to do that chore automatically so you can wake up in the morning and see up-to-date information from ABC News, check on your stock portfolio via CBS Marketwatch or view local weather reports from AccuWeather.

Audrey isn't yet able to do everything a Palm can. You can't beam appointments to Audrey, and there is no memo pad or to-do list program.

When it comes to Internet service providers, or ISPs, Audrey is both a blessing and a curse. It doesn't tie you down to one service, but it also doesn't work with some of the biggest ones, such as America Online, MSN and CompuServe.

If you're a Palm fan, Audrey is your girl. If hand-held devices aren't your type, you might be better off making a date with a different device.

NIC

What's the cheapest way to get on the Net? If you already have an old monitor, it might be the New Internet Computer.

For $200, the NIC can get you up and surfing in no time, though the ride might be a bit bumpy.

The NIC began life five years ago as Oracle Corp. Chairman Larry Ellison's network computer. His idea was to produce a cheaper, faster computer with only enough power to be a node on a network, leaving the heavy lifting to a central computer or Web server.

Today, the NIC is among the least expensive Internet devices, but it lags behind the rest in most other ways. New Internet Computer Co., largely owned by Ellison, has had success with sales to large institutional users such as schools that might have a large stock of monitors from outdated computers. The NIC, which allows you to use any ISP, is available to consumers at the company's Web site, http://www.nic.com.

The NIC suffers from its computer roots. It has more things to connect (though designers have done a good job of color-coding cables) and it needs to boot up each time, just like a regular computer. To be fair, those drawbacks might not matter much to a big institution that has a staff to set up systems and leave them on all day.

The NIC is big. The main unit is the size of a VCR tilted on end, but the monitor and keyboard are full-size. Separate speakers add to the demand for desk space.

The NIC's browser is an older version of Netscape, so limited bookmarks aren't a problem as they are with some other Internet devices. There is no separate e-mail application, though you can use Web-based e-mail services such as Yahoo or Microsoft's Hotmail. Playing some common video and audio formats also is a problem because Linux versions haven't been produced.

If cost is your biggest concern, the NIC might be for you. Like a lot of things in life, however, you get what you pay for.

NadaPC SurfBoard

Compared with the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," the year has been somewhat of a technological disappointment. The folks at NadaPC, however, have made one device from the Stanley Kubrick film come to life: the wireless computer tablet.

On their long voyage to Jupiter, "2001" astronauts Poole and Bowman read magazines on portable screens. Now the SurfBoard allows you to lie in bed and surf the Web with nary a wire in sight.

Think of Time magazine turned horizontal. That's the size and shape of the SurfBoard. It has a touch screen and no keyboard, but not to panic; Web addresses can easily be tapped in using an on-screen keyboard.

A SurfBoard with a standard phone cord is free as long as you commit to three years with NadaPC's Internet provider at $21.95 a month. I tested a pre-production unit and was impressed. The wireless base costs $300 and would seem to be a worthy addition.

The only disadvantage to the SurfBoard is its browser. The SurfBoard uses Windows CE as its operating system, the version of Windows developed for use in hand-held devices. The CE version of Internet Explorer lacks some of the niceties of the full-blown product, including bookmarks.

And, like the NIC, the SurfBoard lacks a separate e-mail program, so you have to use Web-based e-mail.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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