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Pepper Pad: A simple-to-use multimedia computer

The Pepper Pad is a multimedia device that doesn't quite fit an existing category. Yet its premise is appealing: A product that performs many of the functions of a conventional computer, but that's much easier to use.

The Pepper Pad

The Pepper Pad (www.pepper.com) is a 2.3-pound, 0.75-inch thick rectangle with an 8.4-inch color screen, a split thumb keyboard and stereo speakers. Its Linux-based operating system carries few of the burdens of Windows. It turns on instantly to reveal a simple, clean interface, displaying icons representing a dozen built-in applications, most involving the fun things that can be done with computers such as accessing, viewing and sharing photos, music, videos, radio programs and books, as well as surfing the Web, communicating using e-mail and AOL instant messaging and playing games. There's also an application that lets you turn the pad into a powerful remote control for your home entertainment system. It has a Firefox-based Web browser, Bluetooth and built-in Wi-Fi.

The Pepper Pad is not intended to be your main computer. It's neither ideal for writing documents nor creating spreadsheets, and many of its applications are not as feature-rich or as versatile. For example, the photo album cannot edit images. But the Pepper Pad has none of the problems of a conventional Windows computer: no viruses, no security updates, no long startup times and little of the complexity. And being able to turn it on instantaneously encourages spontaneous use. Have an urge to buy a book? It's the fastest way to get on the Web and do it. Like an appliance, it's designed so just about anyone can pick it up and start using it immediately. And with rubber bumpers and water-resistant construction, it should be less resistant to damage.

The pad uses a touch screen, stylus and the split-thumb keyboard to enter information. The keyboard is a clever solution for entering text while keeping the product small and usable in your lap or while standing. There's also a five-way controller and a wheel for navigation and scrolling.

Each application works in a similar way. Touch one of the icons and it opens. A list of options appear across a tabbed bar. I viewed movie clips that came preloaded and was able to transfer my own movies and still images onto the Pepper Pad's internal 20GB hard drive. Importing can be done through the pad's SD slot or USB port.

Setting up e-mail is also a breeze. Choose from a list of popular e-mail applications such as AOL, Yahoo, etc. If yours is on the list, you can select it and most of the settings will be filled in. Otherwise you can add it manually. AOL Instant Messenger is built-in, working much like it does on a computer.

There's a built-in Mobipocket book reader that lets you download and read books. The 800-by-480 pixel screen is sharp and clear, fine for reading books as well as displaying photos and videos. As with most notebooks, the screen is not usable outdoors in the sun.

What are the downsides? I found the keyboard took some getting used to; the keys don't have the crispness of a BlackBerry, and occasionally touching the screen didn't provide an immediate response. Also, the rechargeable battery lasts just two hours. Inevitably, some will want an application that's not included, perhaps an address book or calendar. Until more applications become available, the best solution is to use one of the growing number of Web-based solutions.

But for those who want to avoid the complexity of a computer and get right down to doing an assortment of activities involving digital media, communications and the Internet, the Pepper Pad is the only product I know of that fits that need and does it with aplomb. List price is $849; it's currently available on Amazon with a $100 rebate.

Soon there will be another tablet product with a smaller screen like the Pepper Pad. Microsoft recently announced its Origami platform, a tablet computer that runs Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. Products have been announced from Samsung, Asus and others, with availability beginning this summer at about $1,000. Origami is the latest version of the Windows tablet computer, just in a smaller form factor with a 7-inch screen. The first tablet computers were not successful until the manufacturers added a full-size keyboard, so the success of Origami is uncertain. Unlike the Pepper Pad, which is geared to the consumer, the Origami is likely to be initially positioned for vertical applications, leaving it up to the customer to figure out what to do with it. That's where the Pepper Pad is way ahead.

Need a reminder -- make it a Cute one

Cute Reminder is aptly named. It's a clever little program that lets you create a short note or reminder nearly instantly without opening any program. A little sliver of a tab sits at the edge of the screen that's barely visible. When you want to create a note, move the cursor over it and a panel pops out that lets you select either a timed note or reminder. When the reminder pops up it's small and off to the side of the screen. You can click to open it or put it to sleep for minutes or days. Everything is done with just two clicks or less, and the program takes great pains to gently remind you without being annoying or distracting.

You can open its control panel to view the list of notes and reminders, export them to Outlook and print them out. Cute Reminder frees your mind of all the things on your mind without losing track. It's one of those products that exceeds expectations. It costs $30 from www.cutereminder.com.

Baker has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents and was named San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000. Send comments to phil.baker@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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