I love the idea of Internet appliances: simple devices designed to get you onto the Web without the complexities and hassles of a PC. But like many great technological ideas, the reality has fallen short of the potential. All of the gadgets I tested have been too crippled for me to recommend enthusiastically.
The new Compaq Computer iPAQ Home Internet Appliance is a breakthrough, offering a usable, if pricey, alternative to a PC for people who just want to surf the Web and use e-mail. But it, too, is frustrating, because it could easily have been so much better.
The first of a new breed of appliances that Microsoft calls MSN Companions, the iPAQ boasts an attractive design with a 10-inch flat-panel display and a small but adequate keyboard. It will easily fit on a kitchen counter or nestle in the corner of a desk. MSN Companions run on the Windows CE operating system, originally developed for handheld computers. Companions use the Internet Explorer browser as their only application, and work only with Microsoft's MSN Internet service. Compaq's sells for $599 outright, or as little as $199 with a three-year commitment to the $21.95 monthly MSN service.
The iPAQ has some very nice features. Press a button on the keyboard, and it wakes up instantly and dials MSN. Although small, the screen can crisply show a page 800 pixels wide. A lower-resolution display, common on competing appliances, forces the viewer to scroll horizontally to read most pages--a painful experience.
The hardware has one serious flaw: a little rubber button that you push around in lieu of a mouse. Located just below the keyboard, it's clumsy and slow, and there's no way to adjust its sensitivity. Worse, at least on my test unit, the cursor would erratically freeze up for a few seconds at a time, which made navigation exasperating. Neither Microsoft nor Compaq tells you this, but a standard mouse plugged into one of the unit's four USB ports cures the problem.
BRAND CONSCIOUS. The software falls short, however, largely because of Microsoft's reluctance to support rival products. The iPAQ's browser can handle Windows Media streaming audio and video, but not the much more common RealMedia format. Nor can it run the Java programs needed, for example, to select airline seats on many travel sites. For e-mail, the iPAQ uses a version of Microsoft's Web-based Hotmail. Unlike many bare-bones mail programs, you can view (though not edit or save) Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and even PowerPoint presentations sent as attachments. But the browser cannot handle the popular Adobe Acrobat format.
Microsoft will soon face plenty of appliance competition, including a model that Gateway is developing with America Online. Intel will offer its Dot.Station through service providers, starting with SAGEport, an ISP catering to older Americans. MyTurn.com is selling the GlobalPC, a sort of stripped-down computer with Internet access. And Compaq itself is readying a second, non-Microsoft version of its appliance, based on software from Be Inc. The unit will be sold through ISPs.
The iPAQ Home Internet Appliance contains hints of future expansion. It has an Ethernet port for connection to a home network, cable, or DSL modem, and a Compact Flash slot that could be used to hold a memory card or an IBM Microdrive hard disk. But there's no software in the current version to allow their use. There are those four USB ports for accessories, but the only thing you can attach, other than a mouse, is one model of Epson printer, again because of a lack of software support.
Except for that miserable pointing device, Compaq has done a nice job on the hardware. But Microsoft's software, which a company spokesman describes as "a first-generation product," leaves the iPAQ appliance far short of what it might be. Let's hope that competition improves the breed quickly.
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