Web Informant #224, 14 November 2000:
Thinking about grandma's computer


It is getting closer to the holidays, and perhaps you are thinking about getting your parents a computer. Or being that you are known in the 'hood as the computer guy or gal, people have begun asking you for your recommendations. It is a good time to buy: prices have plunged, and now there are several non-PCs on the market that are targeted at beginners. I reviewed the NIC here (WI #218), not favorably. For the last few weeks, I have tried two other machines: the 3Com Audrey and Compaq's iPAQ 1A-1.

These two units range in price from $200 to $500 and that doesn't include your monthly Internet access bills, either from MSN for the Compaq (it doesn't work with any other service provider) or a variety of ISPs for Audrey. Both units come with USB ports to connect to a printer. Audrey can also connect to a standard Ethernet cable if you buy the extra $50 3Com (and only 3Com's will work) USB Ethernet adapter.

Compaq also sells a second iPAQ IA-2, which is free with various rebates, although you still have to pick up the monthly connection charges, but I didn't get to test that unit.

Both units have too small a screen for anyone to use, young or old (Audrey's is 7.5 inch diagonal compared to the ten incher on the iPAQ). Both come with wireless keyboards, and for odd reasons all of Audrey's keys are labeled in lower case -- that threw me and anyone else that has learned to type in the last 75 years. The iPAQ has a poor excuse for mouse-like navigation: the first thing I did was put a USB mouse on it to get around. Audrey has a touch screen with a nifty clear stylus that sits on top of the unit like an antenna, which immediately won my daughter's praise.

The IPAQ is designed to work with various parts of the Microsoft Internet: it runs a version of Windows CE, connects up to the MSN home page, uses Hotmail as its email provider, MSN Messenger for instant messages and so forth. However, once you set up your account info, you can't easily change it if you made a mistake or want to transfer the device to others in your extended family. Audrey works with the Palm portion of the 3Com empire: you can synch up your contacts and schedule with your Palm Pilot, for example.

Both units are designed as single-tasking devices. Those of your relatives that you think can handle more than one thing concurrently will be as frustrated as I was in trying to do more. The argument here is simple is as simple does, but I don't buy it. Humans are multitasking beings.

Both units are fine for the occasional web page and light email duties. Anything more demanding than that though will be a stretch, and will be very frustrating, especially on the tiny screens provided. The one thing that the NIC had going for it was a real VGA monitor that you could hook up to it. You can play Real audio streams (but not video for some reason) on Audrey, and Windows Media streams on the iPAQ, and the sound quality is great. Too bad neither of them comes with a CD drive to play music.

The iPAQ is a picture frame until it dials up MSN. By that I mean you get a very nice single photograph displayed on screen (as a screen saver) when it isn't connected. To do anything else requires you to tie up your phone line. That isn't good. And even with the USB ports, you can't connect it to an Ethernet line, at least not yet. At least Audrey has some brains when disconnected: you can view your schedule and compose email. With the iPAQ, you can't compose a message unless you are online.

Speaking of email, both units coming with a flashing warning light that signifies you've got email. They both don't really work well: sometimes the light wouldn't flash for several hours, depending on how I was connected. Audrey, showing its 3Com/Palm heritage, had an extra coolness factor here: you can annotate your emails with recorded messages (that are saved as .WAV files) and "scribbles" using the touch screen (saved as .GIFs). With iPAQ, you have to stick with plain ole text. Neither unit worked when it came to viewing HTML email.

Audrey's documentation reminds me of early Macintosh: lots of detail in places that you don't need it, and limited info in places you do. The iPAQ has one manual that goes into correct posture and location of the unit, something I thought 99% of its users would either be scared away or ignore completely. Audrey's manual is not geared for new computer users: if you have hard enough time coming up with the server names and other info for setting up your Internet connection, think of what fun your parents will have with this section. At least the iPAQ is dirt simple in this regard: its operating manual is a pamphlet that is easy to follow.

All I can say after using both devices is that I still think getting a cheap PC or iMac for grandma is still your best bet. Especially if you are the defacto technical support person in your household, trying to debug these units remotely won't be easy, unless you get a second copy of the user manuals or buy a second unit for your own home. For example, it took me a while to find Audrey's volume switch (on the back) to quiet her down. And having your parents describe which of the cute little buttons they pressed did what will be an amusing exercise in family communications.

The iPAQ has a few impressive debugging tools in it, but ultimately the best device is the one that you are familiar with, and the one with which you are reading this email on: a Windows or Macintosh PC. If your family spends a lot of time chatting using MSN Messenger (but not AOL IM), or have their own Palm Pilots and actually use them to keep track of their schedules, then you might want to consider one of these units.

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David Strom
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