Walt Mossberg

Info Appliance Offers Nice Touches, but It’s Costly, Has Limitations

For years, there have been sporadic efforts to create a digital device that would be simpler and more reliable than a personal computer, yet large enough and capable enough to carry out the most common tasks PCs perform.

The movement for such “information appliances,” which I supported, was especially strong in the early and mid-1990s, when computers running Microsoft Windows were far more complicated and crash-prone than they are today.

Several companies tried to build desktop and laptop-computer-size information appliances, but none of the designs captivated the public, and they cost almost as much as a cheap PC. The movement lost steam by 2001, when both Microsoft and Apple Computer were producing better-designed, more stable PC operating systems.

The Pepper Pad, which can play music, surf the Web
The Pepper Pad, which can play music, surf the Web

Information appliances actually did arrive, but in a different guise — the smart cellphone and the advanced personal digital assistant, or PDA. These hand-held devices are gradually accumulating the hardware power and software selection needed to do most core PC tasks, like Web surfing, email and even document creation.

Now, however, a small Massachusetts startup company is making another go at the full-size information appliance. The company, Pepper Computer, is launching a slick-looking tablet device called the Pepper Pad, which it hopes will attract PC users and nonusers alike as a simple, convenient tool for using the Internet, playing digital media, keeping a journal and more.

The idea is to offer something as convenient and simple as a Web-connected PDA without the complexity and security problems of a PC. The rugged device even has a tiny, built-in keyboard that can be used for thumb typing. It also comes with desktop software that lets users wirelessly synchronize the Pepper Pad’s contents with a Windows PC (Mac compatibility is in the works).

In my tests of the Pepper Pad over the past few days, I found it mostly did what was promised, but it isn’t quite as easy and intuitive to use as its makers claim. Many of its built-in programs offer limited functionality and seem rough around the edges. And, at $799, it costs more than some laptops and much more than a basic desktop PC.

The Pepper Pad is available at Amazon.com, where preorders are being taken. It is expected to start shipping by the end of this week. More information is available at www.pepper.com.

Unlike some earlier info appliances, the Pepper Pad is able to take advantage of modern technologies developed for the PC. It offers built-in Wi-Fi wireless networking for getting on the Internet at broadband speeds, and Bluetooth short-range wireless networking for hooking up peripherals. It has a slot for the popular SD memory cards used in digital cameras, so you can transfer photos easily. And it has a USB port meant for use with the new little USB thumb drives, so you can easily import photos, music and videos.

Inside is a 20-gigabyte hard drive, the Linux operating system and a Web browser based on the open-source Mozilla code that also underlies the popular Firefox browser.

The silvery unit is horizontally aligned and measures about a foot wide and 6.6 inches high. It is just 0.8-inch thick, and weighs only 2.3 pounds. A large, bright, color touch screen, measuring 8.4 inches diagonally, is flanked by the keypad, which is split into two halves. You navigate through the software by tapping icons with a stylus. You also can use a five-way directional pad or a scroll wheel to navigate.

The battery is sealed and rechargeable, and the company claims it will last for two to three hours of continuous use, which seemed about right from my tests but pretty meager. An internal steel chassis and rubber bumpers make the Pepper Pad pretty rugged.

The user interface is clean and clear. Photo-realistic icons lead you to the main programs: the Web browser, an email program, photo viewer, video player and music player. There is a simple word processor, a few games, an Internet radio program and a program that allows the Pad to be used as a TV remote control.

Throughout the software, the Pepper Pad uses a tabbed interface to organize files, and it has a “Keep” function that allows you to retain copies of Web pages and other material for offline viewing.

The Pepper Pad also has some serious limitations. Its main font is sort of fuzzy-looking, and the capital letter “I” looks like a left-hand bracket symbol. Response times were often slow: Pressing the rubbery keypad keys or tapping on the screen too often yielded no immediate result.

In the photo program, you can’t make your own albums — all pictures can be sorted only by date. The video program can’t play back the two most popular types of digital clips, Microsoft’s Windows Media Video and Apple’s QuickTime. Games were painfully slow to play.

There is no support for printing or for connecting to the Web via a dial-up modem or wired broadband connection, though these are planned. You can’t view or edit common PC documents such as Microsoft Word or Adobe PDF files, though this capability is also planned.

In general, I would say the Pepper Pad is too expensive and too limited to fulfill its mission, at least in this first incarnation.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at walt.mossberg@wsj.com


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