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THE CUTTING EDGE: Focus on Personal Technology | E-REVIEW:
A Weekly Look at a Technology Product or Service

Pumped-Up Appliance or No-Frills Computer? i-opener a Shortcut to Net

March 09, 2000|ASHLEY DUNN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the world of consumer appliances, love means never having to open an owner's manual.

Toasters are lovely, so are electric toothbrushes, blow-dryers, rice cookers and even automatic lawn sprinkler systems.

Computers? Please. . . . The Bible is shorter than most Windows instruction manuals.

So, I was a bit surprised when I received a computer a few weeks ago with a manual about the size of a Pokemon comic book. It was a promising sign.

Inside the box was a compact little computer called the i-opener from Austin, Texas-based Netpliance, and there was a good reason its manual was so thin.

The i-opener is the first of what probably will be a wave of stripped-down, plain-Jane, no-frills computers built for just one purpose--in this case, connecting to the Internet. It has no disk drives, no CD-ROM, no computer box, no Microsoft Office and no Microsoft Windows software.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 10, 2000 Home Edition Business Part C Page 3 Financial Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
i-opener--The review of the i-opener computer in Thursday's Cutting Edge section left out contact information. The i-opener can be obtained by calling (800) 467-3637 or on the Internet at http://www.netpliance.com.

It's also cheap. The i-opener's introductory price is $99, at least until June. After that the device will cost $199. Actually, don't even think of this device as a watered-down computer, but rather, as a pumped-up appliance.

The i-opener is one of the first computing devices I have used that actually comes close to plug-and-play.

Wimpy Little Box Has Surprising Versatility

Hard-core computer users will scoff at this machine as a wimpy, do-nothing box that is just a cut above a coffee maker. In a lot of ways, they are correct.

But despite all the missing doodads, the i-opener packs a surprising punch.

I have been using the i-opener for basic Web surfing and e-mail, but also for listening to the BBC radio broadcast each morning over the Internet, checking stock prices on Yahoo and even trading stocks on ESchwab.

The fact is, you don't need much of a computer to do some of the most fun and useful activities in computing.

The device is made up of a 10-inch liquid crystal display screen and slightly shrunken keyboard. That's it. Speakers are built into the LCD screen and a little pointing device, which can be used instead of a mouse, is fitted onto a corner of the keyboard. The actual computing guts are built into the 2-inch-thick monitor.

My first thought was to put the computer in my office. But I realized that the i-opener is so small--a bit smaller than a notebook computer--I didn't have to set it up in any of the traditional spots.

It could fit on a bedroom night stand or under a kitchen cabinet. I even had it sitting on the breakfast table for a while before I finally settled on putting the i-opener next to my bed so I could wake up to the Web.

Installation in 7 Easy Steps

My first step in installing the i-opener was to toss away the manual. I reached for the i-opener's quick-start poster, which covered installation in seven easy steps.

Steps 1 through 4 were on how to unpack the computer, so those didn't count. Step 5 was on how to plug a telephone line into the computer. Step 6 was how to plug the computer into an electrical wall outlet. Step 7 was just there to inform you that the installation process was over.

You get the idea. Even the cables connecting the keyboard and the optional mouse already were connected at the factory.

Then, I turned on the i-opener. The device automatically dialed out to a preset local telephone number and connected itself to the Internet--all before I even realized that it was ready.

Experienced computer users will faint when they see the i-opener's blue opening menu with just eight circular icons leading to general news, weather, shopping, sports, finance, e-mail, Web browsing and entertainment.

The news items are short articles from Reuters that are automatically downloaded four times a day so the computer always has fairly fresh items waiting for you. There is an online shopping mall where you can buy the usual online products, like books from Amazon.com and clothes from Brooks Bros.

The i-opener makes visiting the channels even easier with a set of buttons on the keyboard preset to jump to shopping, e-mail, weather, news, chat and other sites. Next to the space is a pizza button that sends you to the Papa John's Pizza Web site so you can order a pizza delivery.

For first-time Web users, these preset channels are convenient, but eventually all users will want to spread their wings and surf the Web on their own terms.

The i-opener's browser is stripped down, with only a few buttons, including stop, forward, backward, search and favorite sites. But really, those buttons are enough to do just about anything on the Web, even for the most fanatic users.

E-mail is a bit more problematic. You can write and read e-mail, but you can't view Microsoft Word documents because there is no Word program loaded on the i-opener and you can't send digital pictures to friends since there is no way to get the picture into the computer.

The lack of a hard drive and CD-ROM also means you can't play computer games. And for now, you can't view Internet video clips or use certain types of programs that are designed to be used on the Web.

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