Our Take: AOL in the Kitchen

Internet appliances have been facing a lot of criticism lately, and for good reason. Sales of most have been slow, and integration with users' existing home networks and ISP accounts has been poor. The InstantAOL TouchPad from Gateway offers the average home user the best option for adding another Internt access point in the house.

The device runs a Linux-based version of AOL, using the Netscape Gecko engine as the internal browser - a feature which is speculated to be in the works for AOL's next desktop client. The TouchPad is the first product product from AOL to use Gecko, with a similar PlayStation 2 client expected later this year.

From the beginning, the InstantAOL TouchPad offers the company's hallmark simplicity to make setting up the device fairly easy. If you're connecting via the device's 56k modem, all you need to do is plug in the phoneline and AC adaptor. Users can also connect the device to a home network, a more complicated solution handy when you want multiple Internet access points around the house.

Connecting the TouchPad to a home network for Internet sharing is where setup can get fairly complicated. On the desktop computer, special AOL for Home Networks Server software must be installed. Currently, this is in beta and available to TouchPad users. Once the AOL for Home Networks Server software is installed on the desktop, the TouchPad can "tunnel" a connection via the cable, DSL, or modem connection to the Internet. This functionality also allows you to be on more than one AOL screen name at a time.

Some TouchPad devices have an HPNA interface (networking over existing phonelines for connecting with a home network, while others have an ethernet port. Be careful when connecting a device with HPNA to a phone line with DSL, as BetaNews experienced problems communicating with the desktop when a DSL microfilter was attached. Removing the microfilter from the TouchPad and desktop HPNA card solved the problem, but not without a fair amount of unusual troubleshooting.

The InstantAOL TouchPad is currently the best Internet appliance for the majority of home users, as most already have an AOL account. The TouchPad makes it easy for AOL members to add another place in their home to access the Internet. Because of the familiar interface, it is also far easier to use than competing Internet appliances. Another bonus is that AOL members do not have to configure any mail settings on the device.

Navigation while browsing the Web on the TouchPad is fairly speedy, particularly if connecting with a high speed home network. AOL users can also take comfort in easy access to instant messaging and their buddy lists. The TouchPad is the only Internet appliance with access to AOL instant messaging services.

The TouchPad will set you back a hefty $499 and is available now directly from Gateway.

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