Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

Emailing to a Computer-Free Zone

To many of us, the Internet is an essential part of our daily lives, whether we’re communicating by email, chatting via instant messaging or surfing the Web for research or entertainment. But to some friends and family who don’t own computers or aren’t comfortable going online, the Internet can come off as a club that pulls its users closer together while causing others to feel left out.

For the analog grandfather who wishes he could see the digital vacation photos that everyone else in the family emails to one another, or the beloved aunt who just can’t or won’t get an email address, one company thinks it has a solution: turn emails and digital photos into paper documents, automatically, without a computer.

Presto
The Presto service offers a way for users to receive emails without having a computer: by printing them out. www.presto.com.

This week, we tested a new service called Presto that works with a special Hewlett-Packard printer called the Printing Mailbox. After setup, the user is assigned a Presto.com email address to which friends and family send text emails or photos. But the owner of this gadget doesn’t need a computer, and never has to go online to retrieve emails. The Printing Mailbox automatically and periodically dials into the Internet using a regular phone line, retrieves all messages sent to it — including photos — and prints them out.

Hewlett-Packard Co.’s Printing Mailbox costs $150. The accompanying Presto service (www.presto.com) from Presto Services Inc. costs about $10 monthly or $100 annually. The printer doesn’t work without Presto, making it useless if you stop the service.

The Presto plan includes optional free subscriptions to various articles and puzzles, which print out in addition to any emails that you receive. You set up and manage the account via a Web site accessed from a computer, a task intended to be performed on the owner’s behalf by a friend or relative.

Overall, we liked Presto and the H-P Printing Mailbox. It has some room for improvement, but it does an excellent job of emphasizing simplicity, and providing a way for the computer-phobic to feel part of the online community.

But the system has one major drawback: It’s a one-way street. The owner of the device can receive emails but can’t email back. The printer has no keyboard, and can’t scan in typed or written notes that might be converted into emails and sent to others.

The idea of bringing email to those without computers has been tried before. For years, EarthLink sold a simple two-way device called the MailStation. This small tabletop gadget included a bare-bones screen and keyboard and also used a dial-up connection to automatically receive and send email. But EarthLink stopped making the MailStation.

To get started with Presto, we took 10 minutes setting up the Presto account, doing so as if the Printing Mailbox were going to be used by someone else. This process designated us as the account managers and asked us to choose a username and password that let us log in to the account from any computer. Another step suggests setting up dial-in and printing schedules; we chose 9 a.m., 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. Print size can be preselected as medium, large or larger — a feature that helps older users with poor eyesight.

We entered our credit-card information and created an email address. This address will receive messages only from those whose names and emails are added to a list so as to prevent spam or unwanted email.

Finally, we scanned a list of optional subscriptions before choosing a few, including a weekly health column; a daily Sudoku puzzle; and a Dave Barry humor column that comes out each Sunday. Other optional categories included food and recipes, arts and entertainment and travel.

We unpacked our printer, plugged in its power and phone cords, inserted its included ink cartridge and loaded 50 sheets (the maximum amount) of paper. We never had to turn it on or off; the printer automatically dialed into Presto the first time its phone cord was connected. Unlike a fax machine that audibly dials, the Printing Mailbox works silently until it churns out a message, pleasantly chiming to indicate new messages.

Even though we receive many emails on a daily basis, the sound of the Presto chimes had us up and dashing to the printer to see which friend or family member had sent us something and what it was. The Printing Mailbox prints embedded or attached photos but not attached Microsoft Word documents — a feature Presto may add in the future. The photos looked good, even on basic white paper. Users could insert photo paper for printing, as long as it was the same 8½” by 11″ size.

By default, an attractive pale green border printed around each personal email, with the subject line prominently centered at the top of the page. The Presto account manager can set the style for all printouts, such as Birthday or Wedding. Or anyone sending email to a Presto user can go to Presto.com to select an email style. Each style has a designated code that, when used in the subject line, produces the printed template for the receiver. We tried this by labeling a subject line as “Hi Walt [Presto YellowWave]” and the printout had a pale yellow design on its top and right edges.

The printer itself is handsome with a shiny white patina and the cartridge and loaded paper hidden from view. It has just three buttons: stop, volume up and volume down; the notification chimes can be adjusted to one of six noise levels. Holding stop while pressing the volume up button twice forces the printer to dial in and check for mail, a handy feature if you can’t wait to receive something.

The printer and its ink cartridges can be ordered through the Presto.com site. They cost $25 for a cartridge that will print about 330 pages and $35 for a 580-page cartridge. The printer’s ink level can be monitored from the Web site, letting the account manager order more ink when necessary.

The Presto service and its accompanying H-P Printing Mailbox offer a simple and relatively affordable way for friends and family to feel included in the otherwise intimidating environment of email. We wish Presto offered a way for recipients to respond, but this service might be just enough for its target audience.

Email: MossbergSolution@wsj.com


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