3Com's Audrey is a completely different beast. While Audrey has some of the same basic features as the Compaq appliances, it's designed for a whole other class of user. It might still work well to get Grandma online, but 3Com is marketing it to a much more Internet-savvy audience. The company is marketing Audrey as an Internet-enabled electronic family organizer.
Audrey is the first in 3Com's Ergo line of Internet appliances. 3Com, which recently spun off its Palm Computing handheld computer operation, obviously didn't spin off a lot of what it learned from the handheld device; Audrey is in many ways like an overgrown Palm device, with a built-in appointment calendar and address book. In fact, it can be synchronized with a Palm through one of its USB ports.
From a design standpoint, Audrey is all attitude and style. It comes in five different Martha Stewart-reminiscent colors (linen white, sunshine yellow, meadow green, ocean blue and slate). Its shape is right out of the Jetsons. Audrey can stand on a counter with its kickstand-style rear leg or hang on the wall with an optional mounting bracket.
Like the Palm, Audrey uses a pen-like stylus instead of a mouse. You tap on the screen with the stylus to choose Web links, open e-mail, or select boxes to enter text. You also can write or draw "scribble" notes and messages with the stylus - these are saved as graphics files, and sent in e-mails as GIF graphics files, so anyone can view them with a Web browser. (You can also send audio messages - Audrey's microphone records sound bites and attaches them to e-mail as Windows WAV audio files.)
Unlike the Compaq appliances, Audrey doesn't come configured. When you first plug it in, you can have it sign up with one of several national Internet service providers or use an existing Internet account. If you have broadband Internet service - a cable modem or DSL - you can plug Audrey into that with an Ethernet adapter that connects to one of the appliance's two USB ports. In a household that already has a computer, that means you can share your existing Internet connection.
The Audrey also comes with a small, wireless keyboard. Considering how much thought was put into the rest of the design, the keyboard is a disappointment - the typing surface is only 9 inches across, and feels a bit cheesy under the fingers. It's likely that Audrey's designers thought that the keyboard wouldn't be used that often; it certainly doesn't offer any incentive to do so.
Audrey's flexibility comes at the cost of a more complicated and longer setup than Compaq's products required. Still, getting online with Audrey is a fairly quick process - the setup program runs once the power plug is connected and walks you through configuration.
In addition to its datebook and address book software, Audrey has a Web browser and e-mail client. All of these functions are available at a touch of one of the buttons on the face of the appliance.
One of Audrey's unusual features is its Channel Selector, a large round knob centered under the bottom of the display. Audrey comes configured to download and store a set of preset Web "channels," including news, financial, sports, weather and retail Web sites. Rotating the knob displays a menu of these channels.
Despite its advanced features, there are some surprising limitations to the kinds of e-mail Audrey can read. It doesn't display messages sent in HTML (the language of Web browsers), and the types of e-mail attachments that Audrey can handle are very limited.
If you want to view attached documents or graphis, you'll you'll have to use a Web-based e-mail service or look at your mail on a PC. And while Audrey has a built-in Real G2 player for listening to voice clips or or streaming audio, it doesn't support streaming video or MP3 music files.
Audrey's biggest drawback may be its price tag. At $549, it's not much cheaper than some low-cost PCs. And since the device is intended more for families that already have PCs than for Internet novices, this may be a problem.
If convenience and style - or having the latest stock quotes available while you raid the refrigerator - matters more than price, then Audrey is a winner.