It's tough to feel affection for a trapezoidal slab of metal and plastic. In fact, when I first laid eyes on Audrey, the new Internet appliance unveiled by 3Com last week, I was underwhelmed. Here we go again, I thought: yet another overpriced, underperforming PC wannabe. Like many of the so-called Net appliances that preceded it (see below), Audrey promises the joys of the Net without the cost or unwieldiness of a full-featured computer. Given the lackluster company it keeps, though, that's not saying much.
What makes Audrey different is that it offers enough stylish touches to make what few functions it delivers feel like luxury. Not only can you type e-mail on its petite, wireless keyboard, but you can also send a voice message or scribble a note directly on its 8-in., touch-sensitive screen using the glowing Plexiglas stylus. A blinking green light alerts you to new e-mail even when Audrey is turned off. To get the news, you simply turn a knob in front to flip through any of nine "channels" featuring customized Web content from sites such as ABCNews, ESPN, Mr. Showbiz and my favorite, AccuWeather.com
Equipped with a built-in 56K modem, the 4-lb. Audrey lets you check all your news and mail offline by scheduling as many as five automated downloads a day. I loved rolling out of bed in the morning, reading the latest news and peeking ahead at a detailed, four-day weather forecast almost instantaneously--without the hum, whir, delay and bother of booting up my home PC.
Palm users will appreciate the ability to synch their schedules with Audrey's built-in family calendar, while anyone with high-speed access can buy an optional adapter for $59 that will plug into an Ethernet connection for zippy Web surfing.
For all its pluses, Audrey also has its flaws. The touch screen can be flaky and unresponsive; there's no spelling checker in e-mail; and Web browsing is diminished without such popular plug-ins as Windows Media Player, QuickTime and Shockwave. Call me cheap, but the $499 price tag seems about twice what Audrey is worth. The device works with such popular ISPs as Earthlink, Prodigy and AT&T but not with the biggest: America Online. That may be because AOL (which still plans to merge with TIME's parent company, Time Warner) is releasing its own appliance, built by Gateway, before Christmas. But if AOL means nothing to you, Audrey is probably the best (and priciest) of the breed.
Basically, I like her style. You'd think that by now I'd be immune to the charms of an inanimate object, but I find Audrey's fluted form hard to resist.