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How does it work?

Netpliance's main claim to the machine is that "out of the box" it is ready to go. True to that claim, you can remove it from the box and just hook up your phone line and power cord and be on the net within minutes. Here's where I began to see the warts. The sound on the unit is very disappointing. According to my friend, when he powered the unit for the first time he thought that the speakers must be out of phase or broken since the initial tutorial's sound was awful. The tutorial uses a voice to guide you through the steps of using the machine. Way to go Netpliance, I'm sure the grandma set will get a lot out of a tutorial they can't hear properly.

Another problem popped up as soon as I began web browsing with the machine. The browser only supports HTML 3.2 and Real Audio 5.0. Any site that uses Java script heavily won't be very nice to look at, as will any site that requires Macromedia Flash. At $22 a month this is one of the worst internet experiences available. Anybody else remember why the 4.0 browsers were such a big leap beyond the 3.0 versions? The unit uses a proprietary version of QNX as its operating system. Never heard of that? QNX is a spin-off of UNIX. It's main selling point being that it can be ported to proprietary designs easily. The OS resides in the 16-MB flash memory. Since the i-opener has no floppy of other media storage capability all updates must be done remotely while connected to the internet. This means any one who keeps the i-opener internet service will have an updated unit indefinitely. That, for the grandma set, is a total plus. I can't imagine trying to explain how to install an update from a command prompt to my own grandmother.

The lack of external storage is eclipsed by the lack of a word processor. Beyond e-mail and web browsing I'm sure just about every user would like to compose a letter and print it on the available printer. Nope, can't do that. A definite thumbs down to Netpliance for deciding our parents and grandparents probably aren't smart enough to use a word processor.

More Problems

Up to now we've been able to center the review completely on the unit. Unfortunately, there is another side to buying the hardware that I've never come across before: business tactics that border on the ludicrous and oppressive. When my friend purchased his machine the agreement that came with the unit was to pay for one month of the i-opener ISP. By the time I was looking to find one of these units to review the agreement had gone up to four months. Ok, I can understand that part of the deal. Since the unit will only work with Netpliance's ISP you are locked into their service indefinitely anyway.

But here's also where the weirdness starts. According to the strangely worded Terms of Sale that have recently been enacted by Netpliance you are no longer the owner of the hardware. The hardware belongs to Netpliance, even though you paid to have the machine. A major problem here is that Netpliance has tried to retroactively apply the new TOS to purchasers who have been waiting weeks for their pre-paid units. That's even though that TOS was not in effect when they purchased their unit. Who knows what TOS Netpliance will try to enforce by the time a person receives their ordered unit? I personally won't buy a gift for my grandmother that will become a headache due to all the retroactive agreement changes. People awaiting delivery who will not agree to the new TOS have also had their order canceled by Netpliance. Netpliance has gone so far as to contact people who have ordered their units at Circuit City, and on behalf of Circuit City, give them an opportunity to agree to the new TOS so that they may receive their unit.

I ordered an i-opener from Circuit City and waited over a month to find out from Circuit City that the unit would never come. According to the sales staff at Circuit City, Netpliance was no longer shipping units to them. Since then Circuit City has stopped accepting orders of the units altogether. I've read reports at Slashdot that the reason for the hold up in shipping is that the units are being held at the factory for "updates" that will not allow the unit to be modified into a normal PC. At this point, the units can be ordered directly from Netpliance or purchased at CompUSA, who apparently has not suffered the supply cut off that Circuit City did.

Pros: Cons:
  • A lot of neat stuff for $99
  • Small package
  • Crisp display
  • Does work "right out of the box"
  • Only supports one model of printer
  • No USB devices are supported
  • The sound is so poor as to be beyond description
  • Mediocre web browser
  • Total lack of a word processor
  • Long delays in receiving the product (if ever)
  • Two hands required for web browsing

Conclusions:

After I read the stories at Slashdot reporting things other people had done with their i-openers I think that this purchase is best left to the serious hobbyist. I don't think that the people this machine is targeted at will get much use out of it after the initial purchase curiosity. There will be more Internet Appliances available soon that will be priced very closely to the i-opener. The smart money says to sit on the hype for a while and wait to see which unit actually gains the most industry share, and therefore, the most updates and product support. Unfortunately, the i-opener can't be used with any ISP service besides Netpliance's. At $22 a month that's a heavy amount to pay for its mediocre browser software. The total lack of a word processor really makes me wonder if Netpliance considers other uses for the machine other than their own ISP.

I wasn't looking for a replacement for one of my PCs and it would have been unreasonable to expect a machine like this to do that. But I was looking for a more reasonable internet experience. On the bright side: My friends i-opener is now out of its initial one month ISP agreement and he has canceled the service. I've bought it from him and will be modifying it to see just how useful the i-opener could have been had it been delivered with a more useful software package. On that note, I can't wait to see if the other Internet Appliance manufacturers have learned from Netpliance's blunders and will deliver a better product to consumers.

Victor Oshiro
00/05/13






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