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Sunday, October 13, 2002


Under $200 PC: You get what you pay for

By Matthew Fordahl
Associated Press

It's been about 20 years since a new Atari 400 or Commodore Vic 20 could be had for less than $200. Even then, those relics were well on their way from bargain bins to the dust bin of PC history.

Since then, few if any new computers have sold for less than $200. Any that did were seriously outdated or inoperable.

Now, in a challenge to established tech giants, several upstarts have banded together to create a PC that retails for $199.86.

It doesn't do Windows. In fact, it doesn't do a lot of things.

The Microtel SYSMAR710, sold only at Wal-Mart's online store, runs on a Linux operating system variant called Lindows, which has been hyped as a new choice for consumers who want to break away from the Microsoft monopoly.

The Lindows computer does show signs of inspiration but they're overshadowed by the fact that this inexpensive system is simply cheap, underpowered and needs work on both hardware and software.

In other words, you get what you pay for.

It might be useful for those who limit their computing to surfing the Web, sending e-mail or playing simple games. Or curious experts who can handle the Linux technotraps that haven't been dumbed down by Lindows.

For most, it may be wiser to save for a truly useful computer, which can be had for a few hundred dollars more.

The Microtel system runs on an 800-megahertz C3 microprocessor from Via Technologies, with 128 megabytes of memory, an anemic 10 gigabyte Maxtor hard drive and an NEC CD-ROM.

It's packaged in an unstylish beige box that would give Steve Jobs nightmares.

The $199 price tag does not include a monitor, modem or floppy drive. It does have an Ethernet networking port for high-speed Internet connections. Otherwise, a system with a modem costs $230. Monitors, which must be purchased separately, start at about $150; floppy drives can be bought for $20.

The setup instructions are woefully inadequate, consisting of a diagram of where to stick each plug. My system included a glossy book on the computer's motherboard but no instructions for the operating system.

Once assembled and powered up, the computer made a high-pitched noise that I first thought was a noisy CPU fan but later discovered was the hard drive.

It takes 2 minutes to boot up -- considerably longer than the 45 seconds for my Mac or the 1 minute for my Intel-based Windows machine. Programs also take much longer to launch compared to my Windows PC and Mac.

The operating system is pleasing to the eye, with colorful balls representing various program and categories. The desktop is navigated much like Microsoft's operating systems.

But in the rush to make things easier, Lindows removed from the default setup some of the most useful features of Linux, including virtual desktops and user accounts. Users are logged on automatically as an administrator, making the system vulnerable to hackers and selfdestruction.

Lindows does make progress in one of Linux's most frustrating aspects. It built a mechanism for finding, installing and running software.

Lindows' ''Click-N-Run Warehouse'' is as easy as surfing through a list of 1,600 programs, selecting the ones you want, waiting for them to download and clicking a button to run.

It worked most of the time.

My biggest complaint is that the $199 PC includes only 10 programs. Unlimited access to the warehouse costs another $99 a year.

Many of the programs were developed by open-source hobbyists. Though some are fun or useful, most are not polished. Solid documentation is rare.

All the programs offered through Click-N-Run are also available elsewhere on the Internet to anyone who can figure out how to download them and get them installed on a Linux computer without Lindows' hand-holding.

The Click-N-Run Warehouse also does not list system requirements. I downloaded a game called TuxRacer but discovered afterward that it required a lot more power than my SYSMAR710 was able to handle.

I also downloaded Sun Microsystems Inc.'s StarOffice, a polished knockoff of Microsoft's Office productivity suite. It's free to Lindows users and generally worked well, though it loaded very slowly.

StarOffice's open-source twin, OpenOffice, also is available for free but it never installed properly on my system using Click-N-Run.

An incomplete early version of America Online for Lindows also is available. Lindows also ships with Netscape's latest browser.

As the name Lindows suggests, there is limited support for some Microsoft programs. I installed and ran Office 2000, though the word processor occasionally crashed when I tried to save documents.

Ultimately, Lindows is indeed about choice -- one that doesn't cost a lot of money but may end up costing considerable frustration and disappointment.

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