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Computer 101

photo
[Photo: MyTurn.com ]
The GlobalPC comes with an AMD chip that MyTurn.com says runs at Pentium-class speed, 8 megabytes of RAM, a 4.3-gigabyte hard drive, a 56K modem, keyboard and mouse. It can be hooked up to a TV or to an optional monitor.

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 25, 2000


Other than software limitations, GlobalPC is ideal for computer novices looking to surf the Web and send e-mail.

Setting up the GlobalPC took minutes. Figuring it out was a piece of cake. Connecting to the Internet? Well, nothing's perfect.

But once it did connect, the GlobalPC was a pleasant surprise. The computer turns on and off like a TV. It doesn't come with a monitor but can be hooked up to one, or to a TV. And it's priced like a TV at $299.95.

Call it Computer 101. The GlobalPC is aimed at beginners, those who have avoided computers because they don't want to spend a lot of money for machines they don't understand how to use.

It's part of a move this year by the tech industry to simplify things. A number of companies are coming out with inexpensive devices that allow people to do basic things, such as surf the Net and send e-mail.

The GlobalPC goes beyond those functions. It offers word processing, programs for making greeting cards, signs and banners, clip art and games. The programs are basic, nothing fancy, but they're easy to use.

One of the ads for the computer, made by MyTurn.com, pokes fun at the complexity of other computers, particularly those running Microsoft Windows: "Tired of trying to explain the Blue Screen of Death to your Mom? Buy her a GlobalPC."

MyTurn.com also eliminated the mystery in shopping for a PC. Instead of traditional computer stores or online shopping where people have to wade through the jargon about chips and memory and speed, the GlobalPC is available at stores such as Wal-Mart, Montgomery Ward and Electronics Boutique. The Tampa Bay area was one of the first in the country where the computer went on sale this summer.

What comes in the box is what you get: A computer running the GEOS operating system, developed in the '80s by Geoworks. It has a 486 chip, a modest 20 megabytes of random access memory, a smallish 4.3-gigabyte hard drive and a standard-speed 56K modem. It's a far cry from today's most powerful PCs, but it should be less intimidating for new users.

But once you master the GlobalPC's simple tools, you can't upgrade to name-brand software such as Microsoft Office or the many games and educational programs available on CD-ROMs. They won't work on this no-frills machine.

In addition to the programs that come preinstalled, the makers of the GlobalPC offer a limited number of titles that can be downloaded from their online store. Those include three game packages ranging from $9.95 to $24.95; seven education titles from $12.95 to $19.95, including well-known programs such as Reader Rabbit and Treasure Math Storm; and four productivity packages, including extra fonts and a thesaurus. One warning: The software at the online store runs only on the GlobalPC.

Right out of the box, the GlobalPC is easy to set up and start. Posters give step-by-step instructions with illustrations. There's no jargon, just clear English.

Plug in the full-size keyboard, the mouse, a monitor or TV, a phone cord and the power cord. Then turn it on. It takes users through the registration process (made easier by putting the registration number on stickers on the poster) and choices for its online service.

That's where our test hit a bump. After filling out the required fields, the first three attempts to send the information failed. I called tech support and was told the company's server was down and to try the next day. I did, with the same results and the same explanation when I called. The apologetic tech rep said someone would call me when it was available.

It started to sound like the all-too-familiar problems with tech support that plague the PC industry and users. Good price, promising product, glitchy service. But the company called later that day, with the same tale of tech woe: Server's still down; we promise to call when it's up. And the next day, the company left a message: The server's back up. Please try again. We're sorry for the inconvenience.

Finally, I completed the registration, signed up for the Internet and e-mail service and played with the computer.

The GlobalPC has two power switches, one on the back and one on the front. After the initial set up, using the button on the front provided a first pleasant surprise. It springs to life like a TV, instead of running through the lengthy "boot" process required by other operating systems. Using the one on the back, however, will make it go through a boot each time it's turned on.

It immediately offers an on-screen tutorial to walk users through how to use the computer, even providing basics such as how to use the mouse. The main screen offers choices: Internet and e-mail. Create and use documents. Organize information. Play and learn. Computer Utilities.

The word processor is basic. It has a wizard that will create the design for documents, or users can start with a blank page. There are choices of font and type sizes, but it's not as elaborate or complicated as Microsoft Word. The same goes for the spreadsheet, personal finance and other sections.

Turning off the GlobalPC proved to be as pleasing as turning it on. After starting a letter, I simply switched off the machine. With most PCs, I would have lost my work because I had not saved it first, then gone through the proper shutdown sequence. But when I turned this computer back on, it opened to the same letter, with nothing lost.

To surf the Internet, the computer has its own browser, no Netscape or Internet Explorer. That could create problems if GlobalPC doesn't upgrade its browser to match the new features that are frequently offered by the name brands and incorporated in thousands of Web pages.

And GlobalPC works only with its Internet access service -- no America Online allowed -- so users have to gamble that they'll remain satisfied with that offering.

MyTurn.com has several payment plans, ranging from $10 a month for 10 hours of surfing and one e-mail account (99 cents for each additional hour) to $15 a month for unlimited access for a year paid in advance to $19.95 for monthly billing with up to seven e-mail accounts.

The only surfing glitch occurred when Hotmail.com would not open because the browser couldn't handle the JavaScript. (I checked another Microsoft site, msnbc.com, which opened with no problem.)

I surfed the Net, then checked e-mail. A message appeared: "Your GlobalPC is doing too much. Hit the on/off button." Again, nothing lost, but it's not up to the multitasking more sophisticated computers will handle.

The e-mail has an interesting twist. I sent a test message from another computer with a Microsoft Word document attached. The message arrived, but GlobalPC wouldn't open the attachment because it was Word.

I had to send the e-mail to the "conversion center," where it was switched to a format the operating system would recognize. Then it was sent back to me. The whole process took only a few minutes, but I'm not sure I would send sensitive material this way. A message with a photo attachment opened with no problems.

The GlobalPC comes with a converter switch that allows you to connect it to a TV, and to switch between the screen for the PC and a TV show. Aha, here's where it will get complicated, I thought. Visions of 12:00 flashing on VCRs danced in my head.

But it was a snap. The necessary wires were all there, and connecting the computer to a TV with a cable box and VCR required switching only one wire on the TV. I thought the computer on the 27-inch TV looked better than it did on a 15-inch computer monitor.

While I was impressed with the GlobalPC, my teenage son dismissed it. Too slow, he said, not enough stuff on it.

But for some people, I think it has just the right stuff.

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