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...
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 masses, 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 (AMD), 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 (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 last month.
Bundle of basics
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.
AMD Personal Internet Communicator
Processor AMD Geode GX
Hard drive 10 gigabytes
Size 5.5 x 8.5 x 2.5 inches
Weight 3 lbs.
Ports VGA port, 4 USB ports
What it includes System unit, keyboard, mouse, AC/DC adapter
Software and applications Windows Mobile 5.0, Internet Explorer 6.0, e-mail, Macromedia Flash Player, Windows Media Player, Presentation Viewer for Microsoft PowerPoint, PDF Viewer, Windows Messenger, word processor and spreadsheet applications compatible with Microsoft Word and Excel, image viewer.
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.
Setting this system up takes only a minute (with the test system, one of the few confusing moments 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.
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).
The Communicator’s modem and dialer software should work with any standard Internet provider.
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).
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.)
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.
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.