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iCatching Ways to Easily Surf the Net

February 01, 2001|PAUL ZIEKE |

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.

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