By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, October 16, 2005
Lots of people who have never sent or received an e-mail message have probably thought, "I'd like to get on the Internet." But it's safe to bet that few of them also said, "I want to pay extra for capabilities I don't want, then spend all my time tinkering with that stupid box."
Unfortunately for the great unwired, electronics manufacturers have done a lousy job of recognizing that some people don't want the complexity of a full computer and would just like a simple device to take them online. While the market has steadily chipped away at the price of computing-- you can now buy a Windows desktop for less than $350, while one running a version of Linux can cost just $200 and change -- those cut-rate machines are no easier to use than their pricier counterparts.
For a few years, manufacturers experimented with table-top, Web-only devices such as 3Com's Audrey and Sony's eVilla. But they often went too far in weeding out features -- they were more simple-minded than simple -- while costing more than conventional PCs. Microsoft's WebTV and MSN TV set-top boxes remain on the market, but they suffer from having to display Web pages on low-resolution TV screens.
Now Advanced Micro Devices Inc., the processor manufacturer that competes with Intel, is making a new attempt at simplifying Web access, in the form of a compact device called the Personal Internet Communicator ( http://www.amd.com/pic ). Introduced by AMD last year and initially resold only by some Internet providers overseas, it went on sale at Radio Shack's Web site and stores this month.
At $300 (before a $50 mail-in rebate), the Communicator is not the cheapest machine to get you on the Web. But it may be the plainest.
Inside a plastic case that looks like a cybernetic lunchbox, this device comes with only a handful of bundled programs that cover basics such as browsing the Web, word processing, spreadsheet work, playing music, and viewing photos and presentations. You can't add other software. And although you can run more than one program at once, the way most of its applications run in full-screen mode often makes this a single-tasking machine in practice.
The Communicator offers less storage and memory than many handheld organizers, just over 8.7 gigabytes of hard drive (not counting a system-recovery partition) and 72 megabytes of memory. It can't read CDs or DVDs, much less write to them, and it includes only four USB ports, two of which are occupied by the included keyboard and mouse. It has a modem and a video connection for a monitor, not included. That's it.
Setting this system up takes only a minute (one of the few confusing moments with the test system came when I realized that its USB ports were all upside-down), and it boots up in about half that time.
The Communicator runs Windows Mobile 5.0, the same software inside some new handhelds and smartphones, but it looks much more like a traditional Windows system, complete with a desktop, taskbar and Start Menu. But in almost every corner, unnecessary options and features have been sliced away. The title bars of windows, for example, provide only "close" and "minimize" buttons. Control-panel and options windows usually offer only a handful of choices, many of them yes/no questions, not multiple-choice quizzes.
This system is also set up to keep you out of trouble at all times. All system and program files are hidden from view; if you try to explore the hard drive, you see only your My Documents folder. You can't install any extra software (a Windows virus received in e-mail crashed the instant I tried to run it). Not only are updates to the bundled applications delivered automatically, no interface is offered to control those updates. You simply wait, until one day revised software descends from the ether.
If things do somehow go awry, you can restore the Communicator to its original configuration by pressing a paper clip into a hole on the back end of its case.
The Communicator's modem and dialer software should work with any standard Internet provider. AMD says Radio Shack is working on a deal with an unspecified major provider to offer service for the Communicator, but the test unit had zero problems using a regular EarthLink account. With a special adapter, it can also plug into a broadband modem or local area network -- not that many Communicator users are likely to do such a thing.
As a Web appliance, the Communicator's most important program is its version of Internet Explorer. Unlike the browsers on many other Internet terminals, this one generally does a decent job of displaying the Web as it's supposed to look. Any problems were generally confined to sites that use more advanced forms of Web coding (for instance, Google Maps or the Kayak travel shopping engine) and those that require plug-ins not installed on the Communicator (for example, the online video feeds offered by many news sites).
It's not hard to find individual pages that won't display or that look slightly off, but it is difficult to find any one Web task that this device can't perform.
AMD says it will add a basic e-mail program via a software update, but for now only Web-mail accounts work. (Yahoo, Hotmail, Gmail and EarthLink accounts functioned correctly). Instant-messaging support consists of a copy of Windows Messenger, which can't connect to AOL's more popular IM network.
AMD also equips the Communicator with TextMaker and PlanMaker, basic word-processing and spreadsheet programs, and viewer applications for photos, Portable Document Format files and PowerPoint presentations -- thereby covering just about every attached file a home user is likely to have to deal with.
The weakest program onboard must be the photo viewer, which can't display a set of pictures in sequence, slideshow-style -- and which crashed every time I tried to rotate and magnify photos taken with a digital camera.
A copy of Windows Media Player, almost unrecognizably simplified from its desktop ancestor, played back MP3 and Windows Media files, as well as Windows Media audio streams from WAMU's Web site. A handful of simple games, including renditions of blackjack, chess and Missile Command, round out the Communicator's bundle.
Using this bare-bones box can feel oddly relaxing to a multitasking user accustomed to keeping 10 different Web pages open at any one time. You run only one program at a time --which happens to be how many people employ far more powerful PCs -- and almost never have to adjust any settings, since there are so few available in the first place.
The Communicator neither gets hot nor makes any noise, since it doesn't need any cooling fans. The price for that quiet, however, can be visibly sluggish performance. My camera's photos took about six seconds apiece to view or rotate, and Internet Explorer often stalled while loading complex pages. The entire system locked up more than once, and at those times all I could do was wait for it to recover from its swoon.
Plugging in lots of peripherals is not the point of the Communicator, but it did recognize different keyboards and mice, as well as a couple of USB memory keys and an SD Card reader. Its manual says it supports a few dozen Canon, Epson and HP printer models, but the test unit couldn't talk to an HP LaserJet model that seemed to be on that list.
Few people who already use a Windows PC or a Mac will see much to like in the Communicator, but that's not the idea. AMD made this thing to appeal to the rest of the world, and in large part it has succeeded.
But as priced in the United States, without any bundling deals from Internet providers, the Communicator may be its own worst enemy: With a monitor, it costs as much as a complete Windows desktop system -- or more. Now that the computing industry has spent the past two decades hammering a "more is better" message into consumers' heads, the Communicator's simplicity alone may be too subtle to sell.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro firstname.lastname@example.org.