Slim & Sexy

SAN FRANCISCO (08/28/2000) - Consider the ancestral Galapagos finch. As Darwin first noted, that species has evolved into numerous forms, each adapted to a particular environmental niche while retaining its essential finchness.

Likewise, the standard beige-box computer is evolving. One branch of the PC family tree is sprouting funky colors and legacy-free designs that shed older slots and ports, limit expandability, and embrace new, unusual shapes. Another branch is budding with Internet appliances--products whose limited functions make them easier to use. Will the average beige-box PC end up on the endangered species list as a result?

In our quest to map the current computing family, we examined five systems that use legacy-free designs, two interesting-looking Internet appliances, and one hybrid of both. Legacy-free PCs--which have exchanged parallel and serial ports and the ISA bus for USB--may appeal particularly to big businesses, where IT managers are eager to use new technology but don't want employees messing with company systems. Net appliances, on the other hand, target new users, who appreciate simplicity. We tested these new PCs and appliances to see how they fare against beige-box units in looks, function, and speed. Despite the hoopla, we found that they wouldn't inspire us to abandon our plain old computers.

The number of legacy-free PCs and Internet appliances is increasing, but not everyone welcomes them with open arms. In an online survey of 460 PC World readers, we found that 82 percent had recently purchased a beige box with legacy parts, and that 49 percent wouldn't even consider using an Internet appliance.

Bright, flashy industrial designs--ushered in by Apple Computer Inc.'s iMac two years ago--may already be passe. For example, Dell Computer Corp. recently discontinued making its curvaceous WebPC, which fizzled with consumers. Our survey respondents agree with Dell's decision: 72 percent don't think the shape of a PC matters, and about 74 percent feel the same way about a PC's color.

Even so, companies such as Acer told us they planned to release colorful systems in 2001.

Christopher Painter-Wakefield, a software developer who also provides hardware support at Duke University, considers fancy styling nothing special. "Designers give the computer a swooshy front end, or some asymmetric holes on the monitor...but it's kind of like false fronts on old Western houses--everyone knows it's just one story behind there."

What's Under The Hood?

The real breakthrough with legacy-free PCs lies not with odd-shaped boxes and pop-art styling, but with the technology itself. Computer vendors are promoting legacy-free products for a good reason: They want to save money and promote new technologies like USB by junking the ISA bus, serial and parallel ports, their controllers, and a lot of ancient code. But there's a catch: Older printers, modems, video cards, and other add-ons would have to go because they would be accessible only via older ports. As Eric Klein, a senior analyst at the Yankee Group, puts it, "Legacy-free [design] is about...a huge cost savings for the manufacturers."

That said, manufacturers aren't the only ones who stand to benefit from legacy-free PCs. Peter Glaskowsky, senior editor of The Microprocessor Report and senior analyst at Cahners MicroDesign Resources, believes that for home users, legacy-free PCs "will be more reliable, easier to use, and have more features." Until the number of products grows and they've been in use for a while, however, whether Glaskowsky is right remains to be seen.

The biggest beneficiaries of legacy-free technology may be IT managers. Says Klein, "Legacy-free [technology] is more easily administered, is less trouble...[and] takes a lot of unnecessary stuff away." For someone managing a horde of corporate systems, that may sound mighty fine.

The five legacy-free PCs we saw seem designed to entice IT buyers with security features and built-in ethernet. But would they use legacy-free systems? Sean Albright, who works in the MIS department of the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, says managing ordinary beige boxes is hard enough. "Mostly the cases are easy to work with," he says of legacy-free units, "but once you're inside, the hard drives and floppy drives are tough to get at."

Another drawback: Because they lack expansion slots, many legacy-free PCs cannot be upgraded easily. That doesn't please Painter-Wakefield: "I don't see the real advantage of it, [when you] don't know what you're buying [and] you get a box you're not supposed to tinker with. It's not like computers keep up with the times, and I want to be able to upgrade."

Glaskowsky echoes Painter-Wakefield's concerns about these locked-box units.

"IT managers don't want to feel they've bought a machine that can become obsolete. They may not upgrade the machine, but they want the option to do so."

Shedding Old Traits

So what are these systems that manufacturers hope will catch on with IT buyers?

All are smaller or more stylish than traditional beige boxes, all include some corporate features, and all lack some older technology. But having a PC that's higher on the evolutionary tree costs: Each is pricier than we'd expect, given its processor class and features.

Of the five systems we looked at, three could be called legacy-light--they have more USB ports, but older ports remain. Micron's ClientPro Cf and HP's EVectra have extra USB ports and built-in ethernet.

The ClientPro Cf comes with other corporate features, including a CD-ROM of network-management software and a Unisys service contract. In contrast, the EVectra offers security: A pro can set the USB, serial, and parallel ports to prevent users from attaching or removing peripherals, and the hard drive pops out for safekeeping or locks in place with a removable key.

The EVectra and the ClientPro Cf also differ in looks: The ClientPro Cf case resembles a horizontal beige box, only smaller (4 inches high, 11 inches wide, and 13 inches deep). The EVectra's sober beige and black minitower occupies even less space--it's 9 inches high, 11 inches deep, and 3.5 inches wide--and can be mounted under a desk or on a wall.

Both systems turned in PC WorldBench 2000 numbers consistent with what we'd expect of their processors and RAM. The ClientPro Cf parlayed a PIII-650 processor and 128MB of RAM into a PC WorldBench 2000 score of 158, while the EVectra--with a PIII-600EB and 128MB of RAM--earned a score of 146. (As we went to press, HP told us the EVectra would no longer be available with a PIII-600EB. It will instead come with a PIII-733.) Micron charges US$1299 for the ClientPro Cf with a 15GB hard drive, a CD-ROM drive, and a 17-inch CRT monitor. The EVectra costs about $1000 and comes with an 8GB hard drive and a CD-ROM drive, but it doesn't include a monitor.

Our third legacy-light model, Sony's PIII-700 VAIO Slimtop PCV-L640, straddles the line between home and business. The keyboard has a row of launch buttons for Web browsing or reading e-mail. Besides PS/2, parallel, and USB ports, the PC has two IEEE 1394 (FireWire) ports, useful for high-speed digital video transfers.

The Slimtop's thin, rectangular system unit and 15-inch LCD monitor come encased in flashy purple. Inconveniently, you can't hook this monitor up to any other computer, but an ordinary monitor port allows you to attach another display to the Slimtop. On our PC WorldBench 2000 tests, it earned a score of 141, consistent with its processor class. The Slimtop L640, with a CD-RW drive, 128MB of RAM, and a 30GB hard drive, costs $2599. That's no bargain, but the PC's small footprint and LCD work for space-strapped offices.

The remaining two units we looked at, IBM's NetVista S40 and Compaq's IPaq Legacy Free, are fully post-legacy PCs. The NetVista, for example, lacks PS/2, serial, and parallel ports and a floppy drive; instead, it sports three USB ports in the back and two on the front. (Inside, there's only one available PCI slot, imposing severe limits on your upgrade options.)The NetVista shuns beige casing in favor of cool, dignified black. Its $1099 price covers 128MB of RAM and a 13GB hard drive but no monitor; our test unit's sleek 15-inch LCD costs $1049 extra. (More reasonably priced CRTs are also available.) If you need removable media, the $49 S Cradle option holds any one of numerous USB drives, including floppy, CD-RW, and Zip. The versatile NetVista would be useful either at home or on a network (via its built-in ethernet). IBM couldn't deliver a shipping unit to us in time for testing, but our preproduction unit's PC WorldBench 2000 score of 172 compares favorably to the performance of other PIII-866 PCs we've tested.

Like IBM, Compaq has climbed onto this branch with its $1173 IPaq Legacy Free.

The IPaq has a funky, bulbous case with no flat surfaces; it resembles a silver book squeezed between two black bookends. The system contains five USB ports and no parallel or serial ports. A multipurpose drive bay allows you to swap out the installed SuperDisk drive for a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive, or to add a 6GB hard drive (on top of its internal 10GB drive). Built-in ethernet makes the system easy to network. The IPaq has a PIII-733 processor and 128MB of RAM, too, so we expected it to perform better than it did. It fared about as well as recently tested 650-MHz systems, with a PC WorldBench 2000 score of 156.

Appliances Versus PCs

Internet appliances such as the Netpliance I-opener have moved further from their origins than legacy-free PCs. They lack hard and floppy drives as well as parallel and serial ports, and most don't run Windows. As a result, appliances rely on application service providers, which let you use programs such as word processors online (see "ASPs Explained," page 124). The devices tend to be small. Most cost under $300, plus monthly ISP charges, making them ideal for beginners or as PC supplements. However, if an appliance was your only computing device, its limited features could frustrate you.

According to the Yankee Group's Eric Klein, "[They]...open the door to a class of customer who never would have considered spending $1000 for a PC, because [instead of imposing a high up-front cost] it's a monthly recurring charge."

MicroDesign Resources' Peter Glaskowsky believes that Internet appliances' lack of a hard drive can actually be a benefit. "It's secure," he says. "You don't have to worry about leaving personal data on the machine, because it can't hold any."

PC Mutations

The i-opener net appliance was one of the first to hit the market--and in many ways it remains a model for the rest, combining simplicity and a low price. For $399 plus $22 a month for Internet access, the I-opener is essentially an 8-by-6-inch color LCD plus a keyboard. A mouse costs $20 extra--and you'll want one, because using keyboard knobs to navigate is a pain. As soon as you plug in the power and phone cords, the I-opener logs on to Netpliance's servers and checks for e-mail. If you leave the device plugged in with the monitor powered off, it will periodically download new messages. Writing and addressing e-mail is equally easy, and the unit even supports a printer.

The I-opener has limitations, however. It includes a Web browser, but like most Internet appliances, it offers no way to install new software or copy files.

Its e-mail doesn't support attachments. Finally, you can't use just any ISP: By purchasing the I-opener, you buy into Netpliance.

Cidco's MailStation moves even further from its beige-box origins: E-mail is about all it does. The MailStation resembles a big calculator with its 6-by-2.5-inch gray LCD screen built into an 8-by-6-inch slab, and it comes with a cramped keyboard. Though Cidco plans to support downloading of headlines from Yahoo (a feature that didn't work on our unit), the MailStation doesn't let you browse the Web.

The MailStation costs $100, plus $100 a year for an ISP account that, as with Netpliance, becomes your sole ISP. It runs on either AC or batteries, so you can compose e-mail offline, and it's small enough to carry around (though the screen is unprotected). But it comes with a skimpy 384KB of memory--so you can't store e-mail when the buffer fills up. Instead, you must either delete messages or print them. (The MailStation works with any printer that supports DOS, but that excludes many common ink jets; the device can also send e-mail to fax machines.)Neither a legacy-free PC nor strictly an appliance, the last product we looked at runs Windows but doesn't look like a PC--and it costs more than you may be willing to pay for style. A portable but elegant blue slab, the Qbe Cirrus from Aqcess is most comparable to a notebook because it can operate on battery power, has a removable drive bay that comes with a CD-ROM drive (it can also hold a CD-RW or DVD-ROM drive), and runs Windows 98. But the model we tested, which contains a PII-400 processor with a 12GB hard drive and 128MB of memory, costs $2999--steep for a 400-MHz notebook today.

What do you get for the extra money, besides the kind of looks you'd draw by pulling up to the office in a Maserati? For starters, the Qbe's face is a 13.3-inch touch-screen LCD monitor that can switch between landscape and portrait modes with one poke of the stylus. It also has a smallish keyboard and a three-button mouse; or you can use the built-in handwriting recognition as if the Qbe were a giant Palm device. Flashy features abound: The Qbe includes voice-recognition capability and a pop-up video camera that supports face recognition for security or videoconferencing (we didn't test these features).

Connectivity is a Qbe specialty. Along its edges you'll find two PC Card slots, an ethernet port, a modem jack, IEEE 1394 and USB ports, and an infrared port.

A port replicator, the Porticle, attaches to the back and supports the slab like an easel.

On the downside, the Qbe is heavy (7.4 pounds) and lacks a screen cover. Wires inconveniently protrude from the edges when peripherals are plugged in, and the Porticle doesn't swivel. Finally, despite its stiff price, the Qbe Cirrus delivered only average performance for its processor class among notebooks, earning a PC WorldBench 2000 score of 95.

The Qbe is pricey if you are looking for a portable computer to take with you on business trips. But it makes more sense if you spend a lot of time walking around at work because with the Qbe you can input easily with one hand--something you can't do with a notebook.

New Branches

As we went to press, we learned of several new legacy-light systems and Internet appliances that we couldn't get our hands on in time to test.

Acer's Veriton FP1 and Veriton FP2 legacy-light PCs, scheduled to ship this fall, retain serial and parallel ports to go with their four USB ports, but they shake up traditional PC design. The keyboard and mouse communicate via radio, and the LCD monitor attaches to the unit on a swiveling neck, reducing the number of wires poking out. FP1 prices start at $1899, FP2 prices at $1999.

Meanwhile, the New Internet Computer Company offers the New Internet Computer.

Unlike other Net appliances, it includes a CD-ROM drive and lets you choose almost any ISP. The NIC costs $199 (with no monitor) and includes a 56-kbps modem and an ethernet port.

These offerings don't break new ground, but they remind us that legacy-free PCs and appliances continue to proliferate.

Flowering Trees

After examining legacy-free PCs, Internet appliances, and a hybrid, we understand their appeal. Some are inexpensive, most are easy to use, and they all seem to work within their limitations. But it's easy to get caught up in their coolness without thinking about what you need.

Our survey respondents reminded us that shape and color aren't vital. The lesson to be learned from the rise of legacy-free computers and appliances is that we want cheaper, simpler, more-reliable systems. But if these machines happen to complement the office furniture, so much the better. After all, even evolutionary trees need some flowers now and then.

Dan Littman is a contributing editor for PC World, and Kalpana Narayanamurthi is an associate editor.

Style & Pizzazz Go Only So Far

The boxy beige PC will not go the way of the dinosaur any time soon, if the results of our exclusive online reader survey are any indication. A large majority of our 460 respondents say they've recently purchased a traditional PC with legacy ports rather than a legacy-free system. And while some users cite footprint, design, and color scheme as factors to consider when choosing a system, most remain satisfied with the standard PC case--as large, beige, and blocky as it is. As for Internet appliances, don't throw away your full-service computer just yet. Roughly half of our respondents balked at the idea of using a Net appliance at all. Others would consider using an appliance, but only as a supplement to a fully functional PC.

--Kalpana Narayanamurthi

ASPs Explained

To be more than one-trick ponies, Internet appliances require as radical a departure in software design as in hardware. Appliances lack hard drives and floppy drives for storing any software or data, so appliance users must run programs and store files on the Internet. A new kind of software resource, called an application service provider, has emerged to fill the gap.

ASPs come in a hundred variations--everything from a simple online calendar to a business accounting program like NetLedger. The ASP model could appeal to laptop-toting road crews who don't want to lug heavy drives, or to IT staff who would like to off-load routine system management. But no one knows when--or if--users will accept ASPs. Here are three hurdles the services must surmount:

Online storage It might feel creepy to leave personal or business files in cyberspace. Working with an ASP probably offers better security than carrying around a theft-vulnerable laptop or leaving your office PC unguarded every night and weekend, but you must be prepared to put your trust somewhere other than in your PC.

Cost With shrink-wrapped software, you pay for the initial purchase and you buy occasional upgrades if you want them. So far, no settled pricing model has evolved for online software. Will you pay by the month? By CPU cycles on the host? By promising to read a certain number of advertisements? Take your pick.

Instant upgrades When an ASP upgrades its software, that's the program you get the next time you log on. It's an efficient way to distribute new features--indeed, many companies today run their client-server databases that way--but it also short-circuits your company's ability to evaluate new software before deploying it. On top of that, you may have to learn new features or navigation tools unexpectedly.

The pressure is on ASPs to solve these and other problems. Yet with a market that could include every PC, appliance, and handheld in the land, it's no surprise that all the heavyweights are working the ASP angle: Microsoft Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., Oracle Corp., IBM Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., Apple, Novell Inc., and AT&T Corp. are among the companies positioning themselves for a piece of the action. But Roger Kay, an analyst with International Data Corporation, cautions that potential customers should take the long view: "ASPs will arise over time as the tools and bandwidth to support them become more ubiquitous. Some types of ASPs can be used now; others will take five years or more for realization."

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