NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, June 2005
Would You Like An Internet Can Opener?
by Gabe Goldberg
APCUG Advisor and Columnist, AARP Computers and Technology Website

Wouldn't it be nice to access the Internet with devices as easy to use as toasters or pencil sharpeners? I'd even settle for a microwave oven's complexity. But we're far from that simplicity, since it's *hard* to make things easy to use.

Internet appliances have come and gone. Searching Google for

"internet appliance" simple

turns up thousands of references, mostly to products that never gained many customers. Well-known manufacturers like Gateway and Compaq appear, as do obscure devices like "Audrey". People who used such devices have complained when they were abandoned, orphaning them. While mainstream consumer products such as automobiles sometimes suffer similar market volatility, mutation and extinction are more common with electronics and especially PC hardware/software.

But evolution eventually settles down: products are emerging which may be useful. Longevity and market success are aided by sophistication (BlackBerry for mobile e-mail, initially for corporate users but now available to consumers), technology simplification and market leader support (MSN TV 2 and AOL Optimized PC), and competitive pricing.

While there's no real definition of "Internet appliance", it usually means something simple designed for specific functions. Microsoft's MSN TV 2 is indeed much more like a toaster than a PC, providing ultra-simple connectivity and avoiding normal PC nuisance issues of hardware, operating system, and software. It includes a small system unit, wireless keyboard and remote control, and good phone connectivity. Cables and jacks are color coded; documentation nicely illustrates the device, connections, and indicator lights. It works easily via dial access and wired/wireless broadband, and the friendly cordless keyboard needn't be precisely aimed. Supported printers connect via USB port. But there's no hard drive for storage or installing applications.

It's worth reading supplied manuals; on-screen tutorials and click-invitations introduce capabilities. Real beginners may wish for more details, though exploration is easy and safe and often the best way to learn. In addition to Web browsing, MSN TV 2 provides Internet e-mail, instant messaging (Microsoft's, not AOL's AIM), chat, video, and radio. Topics like news, money, and weather can be customized to individual interests and preferences. Not surprisingly, you'll need broadband access for effective video and radio, though even without it the device can serve as a media hub, delivering pictures, video, and audio from in-home networked PCs. But even on broadband I grew tired of the "Please wait..." message before each screen refresh.

It supports Windows Media Player but not popular RealPlayer or QuickTime. Encarta Premium for TV accesses encyclopedic reference though loses screen space to advertising. Some Web sites were hard to read and PDF documents were sometimes illegible; I found searching chat room topics tedious and many chat rooms occupied by teenage banter. Overall, it provides a "starter" Internet for people wanting access without using a PC. But its limitations -- perhaps comfortable at first -- will hinder real Internet exploration and exploitation.

The AOL Optimized PC takes a different approach, smoothing and hiding many normal PC chores and irritations. The "out of box" experience (unpacking, assembling, initializing, configuring, connecting) is excellent, aided by a giant easy-to-follow instruction sheet. That's supplemented by a short video, worth watching before setup. (Documentation and the PC support English and Spanish speakers.) The multiple instruction sheets supplied, though, are a little confusing. The AOL Desktop is well designed, as is the process of setting AOL and Windows XP Home Edition options. Alternate Desktops are AOL Black Voices and AOL Latino; kids can use Safe & Secure, Kid's Destination, and "RED (This is not your old AOL)".

The PC's hardware also shows good decisions: it includes USB and audio ports front and back, a floppy disk drive, an internal modem (though I miss external modem indicator lights) and network interface card, a wheel mouse, a printer and nice keyboard, 17" monitor, etc. I was pleased and surprised that it included Windows XP Service Pack 2 and Adobe Acrobat Reader 7.0, only recently released. It's accompanied by multiple CDs for installing additional software and refreshing the initial installation; none are needed for initial use.

It's not glitch free. I encountered PC-characteristic errors when printing a test page and when installing McAfee virus protection via free download. And support is quirky: a robot service number voice said that all operators were busy and that I should call back later, and then disconnected. Later, built-in Live Chat hadn't heard of software a manual mentioned and suggested I call the PC's manufacturer. While screen display speed was tolerable even on dial access, it suffers AOL's usual habits of updating software when signing off, popping up ads, and blurring ad/content. And it pushes billable features like AOL Privacy Wall and AOL Passkey.

Standard Microsoft Office application formats are supported by AOL Office Powered by Sun (Sun's Open Office by another name), allowing exchanging files with PCs running the real applications. AOL content and features are available, including Radio@AOL, You've Got Pictures, People Connection, etc. E-mail is friendly; multiple attachments in a note easily unzipped and opened.

It balances creating a friendly AOL-only environment for novice users against allowing them to customize the PC to act more like Windows XP. As you become comfortable, you can access more Windows capabilities, set options to your liking, and install software to meet individual needs. A nice touch is a suggested preventive maintenance checklist. I'd call it a "PC with training wheels", but that sounds negative: it's simply a PC with many irritations removed or hidden, a good entry- to mid-range system with built-in AOL.

    Company: AOL
    Product: Optimized PC
    Price: $300 + tax; one year service required ($24/month)
    URL: http://www.aoloptimizedpc.com
    Telephone: (888) 444-3200

This article appeared originally on AARP's Computers and Technology Web site, [http://www.aarp.org/computers]. (c) AARP 2004/2005. Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution by non-profit organizations with text reproduced unchanged and this paragraph included. Please e-mail the author, Gabe Goldberg, at [gabe@gabegold.com] when you print or post it.

There is no restriction against any non-profit group using this article as long as it is kept in context with proper credit given the author. The Editorial Committee of the Association of Personal Computer User Groups (APCUG), an international organization of which this group is a member, brings this article to you.

Click here to return to top