January 11, 2002

Linux for people who think an iMac is hard to use

Author: JT Smith

- by Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
My latest toy is the Internet Computer from OEone. This is a $799 (US) box preloaded with Linux that takes user friendliness to a level you won't believe until you see it for yourself. I found the Internet Computer easier to set up than an iMac, and lots easier to use than a typical Windows PC. But this is still a real, hacker-friendly Linux computer with a terminal window only two mouse clicks away from its default desktop.

The hardware

I mentioned iMac in the headline because the Internet Computer has a very iMac-like look; not the new version that just came out, but the original version that now sells for the same $799 as the Internet Computer. But the Internet Computer has several features the iMac lacks, like a TV tuner, a floppy drive, and an ergonomically-shaped, scrolling two-button mouse.

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The built-in speakers aren't great, but they never are in low-cost computers. The built-in 17-inch CRT monitor is clear and stable, nearly flicker-free. I like the keyboard better than the standard iMac one, too, which has always felt flimsy to me.

An 800MHz P III, 128 MB RAM, and 20GB hard drive are more than adequate for most home computing needs. The 24X CD ROM drive is quieter than most others I've heard. Cooling fan noise is also minimal. This is a civilized computer. Its only major flaw is lack of expandability. The motherboard only has one PCI slot, and the TV tuner already occupies it. Any additions must be external, either serial, parallel or USB.

All in all, it's a pleasant package, well worth $799 for the hardware alone. And OEone claims this is not a "loss leader" price. I pointedly asked the company's finance v.p., Eddie Vlasblom, about this, and he assured me there was a "healthy margin" on each unit sold.

The software
There is no KDE or Gnome here, and no start button, gear or foot in the lower left corner of the screen. This is a browser-based user interface. Remember when Microsoft worried about Netscape's browser making their Windows user interface irrelevant? OEone has proved that Microsoft's fears were justified. The Internet Computer uses a highly-customized version of Mozilla 0.9.3 as its desktop.

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(More screen shots at http://www.oeone.com/pics/.) It is not quite like any other desktop user interface I've ever seen. Being as I'm a stodgy, middle-aged person who has used KDE daily for years, it took a little time for me to get used to a different interface. A "little time" in this case meant about five minutes of clicking on different icons to see what happened. I doubt that any person who has ever used any computer would take much longer to learn how to use the Internet Computer to browse the WWW, send and receive email, write and print letters and homework assignments, use the calculator function, play downloaded MP3s or music CDs, kill spare time with a game or two, and keep track of appointments with the built-in calendar.

(If that calendar looks suspiciously like the Mozilla calendar, that's because OEone people wrote most of the original code and contributed it to the Mozilla project. OEone has a page that tells more about their Mozilla-oriented and other Open Source contributions. It's good reading.)

Setting up the Internet Computer
An iMac has four wires to plug in. The Internet Computer has five, but the additional one is for something the iMac doesn't have: A connection to your TV antenna or cable TV line. A cartoon-like diagram guides you through the wiring process. It's so simple that any regular Linux.com or NewsForge reader ought to be able do it without the diagram. Even someone who has never set up a computer before should have no trouble wiring the Internet Computer if they spend a second or two looking at the diagram.

The next step is getting connected to the Internet. Choose a phone line or Cat-5 connection. If you don't have an ISP account already, you will be steered toward Earthlink (shades of the iMac again!) and walked through the signup process in small, simple steps. If you already have a dialup ISP account, you need to type in your ISP's local phone number, then your username, password, email settings, and ISP-assigned DNS. I thought it was a little strange to require DNS to set up a dialup account, because every dialup ISP I've used in the past five years has assigned one dynamically at each login. OEone tech support told me that most ISPs in Canada, where they're located, still require assigned DNS, but they'll have a "dynamically assigned DNS" checkbox in their next software release. For now, getting that information from your ISP online or by phone is no big deal. And if you have trouble with your Internet setup, OEone's tech support people are smart and helpful, head and shoulders above those you initially encounter at most larger computer companies.

Registering the Internet Computer online is not as easy as it could be, although it's no harder than many other "call home" software registration processes. Again, if all else fails, OEone tech support can guide you. They're based in Hull, Quebec, and are so generally affable that it makes you wish every computer company in the world had Canadians doing their tech support.

So you get through this setup and registration rigamarole, and you're ready to go. Watch TV in one part of your screen, do your homework or surf the Web on the rest of it. Admire the (very cool!) thumbnails you automatically get of every Web page you bookmark. Play some games (including several Loki demos that look and sound great on this machine). Turn off the TV and listen to some MP3s while you marvel at just how easy navigating a Linux-based file system can be.

Online data backup, software updates, and tech support
Let's say you want to store critical data offsite. OEone gives you 100MB of free online storage with your Internet Computer purchase. You choose which files to back up and CLICK! those files are copied to OEone's servers. Alter those files, and CLICK! the newer version is saved. Accidentally delete a file or part of one? CLICK! you can restore the latest version of that file from the server. Brainpower needed to do this is exactly zero.

Software updates are just as uncomplicated. CLICK! and that's it. If you're on cable or DSL, go pour a cup of coffee while it happens. If you're on dialup, go eat a meal. It's all automatic. That CLICK! was all it took.

Now we come to a built-in feature Windows and Mac don't offer: a little button that allows OEone tech support to log into your computer directly and fix things remotely. CLICK! and they have access -- and they only have access when you do that CLICK! instead of owning a permanent backdoor into your computer. Linux sure is nice, eh?

If you don't want OEone to hold your data or mess around inside your machine, it is possible to change settings (by command line only at this point) to use a different server or allow someone other than OEone to access your machine. This takes a little hacking skill, but not much. Chances are, if you're up to doing this sort of thing, you are not going to buy an Internet Computer for yourself, but are going to get one for grandma or someone else who would like to have a computer and Internet connection but might take a lot of handholding to get going with a complicated operating system like Windows or Mac.

The advantage of a near-zero learning curve
One fear many Linux-hip people have when they think about turning relatives on to Linux is of getting endless "How do I do [whatever]" questions. I assure you, based on my experience with the Internet Computer so far, that you will not get many of those bemused phone calls if you buy one of these units for someone close to you (or talk them into buying one themselves). If you do the initial ISP and email account setup for someone like your computer-illiterate uncle, from that point on all he has to do is push all the keys and click on all the icons, and he'll be up to speed in a day or two. Even if he screws something up and doesn't know what to do to unscrew it, he can hit the power button to turn the system off, then restart; we're talking ext3 filesystem here, so chances are nothing will be harmed.

Initial software offerings on the Internet Computer are limited. This eliminates the typical new user complaint about how hard it is to figure out which programs to use among the (too) many offered in most user-level Linux distributions. I almost immediately added Star Office 6 (beta) to mine, just as a person who buys a new Mac or Windows box might add Microsoft Office, because some sort of full-featured office suite is absolutely necessary for my work. This was no big deal -- if you're used to command line-based Linux software installations. OEone people say they will soon have lots more software available, along with utilities to automatically add customer-loaded programs to the desktop. They're working fast to improve their package. The next version of their base software is supposed to go into beta at the end of January, with its final release in February. For the unsophisticated computer users who are OEone's primary target market, this is probably soon enough. Tyros will have a chance to get acquainted with their new machines before they start adding applications.

Meanwhile, for more advanced Linux users, don't forget that barely-hidden command line. Even though the Internet Computer may look like an "appliance" at first glance, it is a full-featured, hackable Linux computer at heart. If you want to install or change something today instead of waiting for OEone to do it, go right ahead. No one will stop you.

Flaws and bugs
I am enthusiastic about the Internet Computer, but that doesn't mean it's perfect. Here are some negative notes I made while playing with it:

  • Even though the documentation said it could record TV shows, there is no obvious way to do this yet. One OEone employee told me the documentation writers had been a bit "enthusiastic" about some of what they included in the first version of the user guide. Look for video recording capability in the next software version.
  • No chat software, even though chat capability is mentioned in the docs. The story here is that they were planning to include a combination ICQ/IRC client in 1.0, but it wasn't quite ready by the scheduled release date, and was held back for the moment.
  • No NTSC or S-video output on the video card. Sad. I am disappointed that it isn't there. Add this capability, and the Internet Computer could almost replace a TiVo or other time-shifting TV-watching aid, and serve as the heart of a simple home entertainment center, over and above its computer functions.
  • An optional superdrive (combo DVD/CD reader/writer) and drivers for it would make the Internet Computer a perfect "video archiving" device. This would allow users to save an endless number of favorite TV programs, either for their own future pleasure or to share with friends.
  • If you're browsing local files while not connected to the Internet, you get constant "cannot connect to server" error messages. This will never be noticed by users with full-time cable or DSL connections, but is going to annoy people who use dialup and can't tie up a phone line every second they're using their computer.

None of these little problems are show-stoppers. And, anyway, what do you expect from a brand-new product that retails for a mere $799, including software and hardware? This thing is barely out of beta, and considering that virtually all the software revisions and additions (besides proprietary games) OEone is adding are free -- and downloadable with a single CLICK! -- the Internet Computer would be a great deal even if it had five times as many deficiencies.

The PR and ad campaign for this product have been low-key almost to the point of nonexistence. As far as I'm concerned, this is a point in OEone's favor. I am sick and tired of big boasts with no product to back them up. It is refreshing to see a Linux-based "end user" product that is not only truly innovative, but has more substance than hype to it.

Author's note:
I'll do a "fresh" review of the Internet Computer as soon as OEone's promised software update is released. Meanwhile, I'm keeping a close eye on ELX, AKA "Everyone's Linux," a new user-level distro from India that shows plenty of promise, but isn't quite far enough along to warrant a full review. ELX, like OEone, is made up of hard-working programmers doing lots of developing and almost no promoting, aware of all the bugs in their early releases and coding frantically to fix them. With any luck, I'll be taking a close look at ELX in the next week or two.

Category:

  • Linux
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