Some sacrifices are out of proportion to savings

NO MOUSE OR TRACK ball. No hard drive. No CD-ROM player. No graphics. No color. No delete key. If you want cheap computing, you may have to give up a few things, including Windows, DOS and MacOS.

But that, some suggest, might not be a bad idea. Competitors with much to gain by dethroning Microsoft Corp. from its reign over the personal computer industry have suggested that simple, cheap computers connected to the Internet might replace many of the functions of the complicated, expensive machines we have now.


These so-called Internet appliances would offer access to the net, use software downloaded from it and, because disks may be omitted, might make users store their work on a remote computer somewhere in cyberspace.

These computers or something like them, some suggest, could bring the wonders of computing to the masses we might call the Great Undigitized. Current computers are admittedly expensive and hard to use. Stripped-down models with fewer features would be not only more affordable, but also easier for the Undigitized to master.


So goes the theory, and industry reports note that Internet appliances are under development. But cheap nonstandard computers with limited functions are hardly new.

One of the latest is the PN-8500MDS Super Powernote from Brother International Corp. This laptop computer weighs about 4.5 pounds and sells for a mere $300, not counting a $70 optional battery that promises (and might actually deliver) about eight hours on a single charge.

Most of the Super Powernote's software is built into read-only memory. It includes word processing, a spreadsheet, an address book, a calculator, a calendar, a to-do list, a clock and communications. One serial and one parallel port let you hook up a printer and modem.

A built-in floppy drive uses 1.44 megabyte disks and can load things like a collection of business letters, templates and game that come with the machine. But mostly it will store data, not programs. Only the disk format, not the rest of the machine, is IBM-standard. Very, very few programs have been written to run on a Brother Super Powernote.

The unlighted, blue on chartreuse, 24-line-by-80-column LCD screen is not terribly sharp in the best of light and difficult to read in dimmer ambience. The keyboard has a pleasant feel, but it does not have an oversized backspace key or any sort of deletion key, and the arrow keys are laid out in a straight line instead of a logical T or diamond.

Nor does the keyboard include the computerish Ctrl, Alt or Esc keys; instead a comparable key marked "code" switches the regular keys to functions labeled in green with terms as clear as "expr," "p ind," and "l out," not to be confused with "layout."

Suddenly the theory of the simpler computer begins to yield to harsh reality. The way you must use any computer is almost entirely arbitrary, at the whim of its designers, and designing for simplicity is not easy. Forced as it is to operate within the severe constraints of only 63 kilobytes of random access memory, there are many, many things this machine simply cannot do.

Yet using this machine requires every bit as many trips to the manual as any computer I have ever seen, because the on-line help is all but worthless and the general design is thoughtless.


The method of setting a password is typical. Once you have selected "password" from the main menu's "setup" option, you might think pressing the return key would let you enter the password. That, however, merely sends you back to the main menu. The correct choice, as you can learn only from the #F manual, is the not entirely obvious key combination Code-Shift-K.

Standard elements of modern word processing like fonts and proportionally spaced characters are essentially impossible to achieve with the software here, and color is out of the question.

The software includes a decent variety of standard printer drivers, but they can invoke only the printer's most basic fixed-pitch font. Nonetheless, an entire page of the manual is devoted to the strange and tiny icons that represent things like centered text or format changes on the screen, and printing an entire document requires a completely different process from printing a single page.

The machine could communicate easily with CompuServe through a standard modem, but it is limited to text only, which eliminates most other on-line services (not to mention the World Wide Web) and makes navigation difficult for novices.

Using this machine was a grim reminder of the bad old days of personal computing, when speed and memory limitations constantly reared their ugly heads and options were few but no less difficult to understand. Here you can easily out-type the screen when entering text in the middle of a paragraph.

Hit the "Next S" key to go to the next screen, and the machine laboriously scrolls the text line by line by line. No document can be bigger than 32 kilobytes.


And although the backup battery saves your work when you turn the computer off, the software that converts the machine's nonstandard word processing files into something typical word processors may read requires that you save your work to floppy disk or watch it disappear. The conversion needs that memory to do its job.

Since nothing about this machine is standard, from the software to the keyboard and the commands, virtually nothing you learn from it will be useful with any computer outside the Brother universe. It is useful mostly as a lesson in just how much you may have to give up in the name of simplicity and economy without actually gaining any simplicity or much economy.

Stephen Manes is a columnist for the New York Times.