The computer marketplace is no less a slave to fashion than the car marketplace. This holiday season, that's exemplified by the recent spate of "legacy-free" PCs--computers that are being marketed as free of complexity, clutter, outdated technologies and anything else that might get in the way of surfing the Web.
Apple pioneered this product category over a year ago with the iMac; the WebPC is the first such offering from Dell Computer Corp. The WebPC, released at the end of November, is a compact tower with the silhouette of a European coffee maker, stylishly done up in charcoal gray with one of five color accents. Inside the short case, Dell offers a choice of 433- or 466-megahertz Intel Celeron processors or a 500-MHz Pentium III. We looked at the middle offering, the "WebPC.wild," which will cost you $1,099 for a 466-MHz machine, a 15-inch monitor, a Hewlett-Packard DeskJet 610 color inkjet printer, a one-year warranty, and 150 hours a month of Dell's Internet access for one year. Sign up for three years of Dellnet, at $21.95 a month, and you'll get a $400 rebate on the computer.
There isn't much to report about the computer's performance--it's a decent PC that'll do most things you want. Graphics performance is adequate; the 64 megabytes of memory and 128 kilobytes of L2 cache hold back this machine's ability to run multiple programs at once.
It's what the computer doesn't have that's the marketing hook and ought to be the basis of your decision. There's no floppy disk drive, though for $149 you can add an Imation SuperDisk drive that doubles as a floppy drive and high-capacity removable storage. There are no serial or parallel ports, only five USB ports, two of them taken by the keyboard and mouse. For first-time buyers, this all-USB approach is unquestionably a good idea: You can hot swap and daisy-chain components to your heart's content. But buyers with "older" peripherals (we're talking months here, not years) may need to pick up an adapter cable, and some printer-scanner-fax combo units work poorly this way.
The cut-down keyboard has decent key spacing but lacks a separate set of text-navigation keys--page up, page down, home, end, insert and delete--so you'll have to use the NumLock button a lot. (It does, however, leave in the useless Scroll Lock key.)
And there are no PCI expansion slots inside the WebPC. It is what you buy and can't easily be adapted to new developments. That won't be an issue for many people, and for them the WebPC is an option worth considering. It aspires to the Macintosh model of simplicity and comes closer than most beige boxes. Unfortunately, it still runs Windows 98.
And what makes this computer a WebPC, as opposed to a plain old PC? We're not sure. It does have the now-standard keyboard buttons to connect to the Internet and get your e-mail. But it lacks the Ethernet jack needed for any high-speed connections, whether via cable modem or digital subscriber line--you'd need to buy a USB-to-Ethernet adapter for that, a clunky workaround.
The more useful shortcut key on this machine is an illuminated button on its front: Press it and Dell's "e-Support" offers to diagnose your problem, suggest solutions, teach you about the computer or connect you to Dell support for more help. It's a nice system that should reassure nervous PC novices.
The WebPC is no great bargain, but it's no rip-off either. Choosing it has more to do with style and attitude than with computing power and features. Dell would like us to believe this is the future of home computing. Based on the WebPC, we're not convinced.
WebPC, Dell; $999 to $1,499 in various configurations. 1-800-433-9029 or http://www.webpc.com.