HOUSTON -- In early 2006, tech news Web sites were abuzz with rumors that Google was preparing to release its own personal computer, a low-cost machine it would sell through Wal-Mart.
Google and Wal-Mart denied it and, as many tech rumors go, it faded into obscurity.
But just because it was a bad rumor doesn't necessarily mean it was a bad idea. Now, Everex and a company called gOS have teamed to build such a beast, with Google only peripherally involved. The TC2502 gPC costs $199, and through the rest of this year will be sold exclusively through Wal-Mart.
In fact, it's even more exclusive than that. Not all Wal-Mart stores are selling it. Fortunately, you can also order it from Wal-Mart's Web site.
I've been playing with the gPC, which Everex sent along with a 17-inch LCD monitor that sells for $150, making the total cost of the package $349. The system is aimed at low-income and first-time PC buyers, and that seems like a good price for a complete system, but hold that thought. I'll come back to it later.
As you'd suspect for this price, the gPC is not a powerhouse. It comes with a 1.5 GHz processor from VIA, 512 megabytes of memory, an 80-gigabyte hard drive and a DVD/CD-RW drive. It has plenty of USB ports, an Ethernet connection and a dial-up modem, though it's disabled.
Rather than using Microsoft's ubiquitous Windows operating system, it comes with a customized version of Ubuntu Linux. The interface is a desktop program called Enlightenment. Here, it's been tweaked to be as simple as possible, and it reminds me a little bit of Apple's Mac OS X.
Linux demands less muscle than Windows, so having a minimal amount of memory and processing power is not much of an issue here. If you're used to speedy computers, you'll notice that the gPC is no racehorse, but its performance is acceptable enough.
Most Windows-based computers come with enough software to get you started, and manufacturers then pile on junkware. The gPC is free of that and instead provides links to Google's online applications. Prominent icons at the bottom of the screen quickly take you to services such as Gmail, Google Docs & Spreadsheets, YouTube, Blogger, Google Calendar and more, all of which open in the Firefox browser.
There are also some icons for non-Google services, such as Facebook social network, the Skype communications service, the Meebo instant messenger and Wikipedia.
The Google applications require an account with Google, but signing up for any one of them - say, Gmail - gives you access to all of them, so it's a fairly simple process.
Because the emphasis is on online applications, you must have a broadband connection to use the gPC to its full potential. Generally, a high-speed Internet connection is going to be more expensive than a dial-up one. There are a handful of exceptions, such as AT&T;'s $10-a-month dial-up service, but it's not available everywhere. For those who remain offline, there are a few traditional client programs here, such as OpenOffice.org, the open-source clone of Microsoft Office.
I found the gPC and its gOS operating system easy to use.
For example, just clicking anywhere on the open desktop brings up an equivalent to the Windows Start menu, and right-clicking gets you a menu of popular programs. I also like the Package Manager, a part of Ubuntu, which finds and easily installs dozens of free and open-source programs.
So long as you stay within the sandbox that the gPC sets up for you, you should find it a friendly computer to use.
Linux and particularly Ubuntu have come a long way on working with different kinds of hardware, but whether it will have drivers available will be hit or miss.
I was able to plug in a Canon Pixma MP780 printer, and it was instantly recognized and ready to print. But it would not see a Linksys WUSB54GS Wi-Fi adapter. Had I wanted to rely on that to get onto the Internet, I would have been out of luck.
Overall, I like this and might recommend the gPC for those folks with very basic needs and a tight budget. But how good a deal is this really? Could you get something at a similar price with Windows on it?
For example, one of the commenters on my blog pointed out that Tiger Direct, an online seller of computers, has refurbished eMachines systems with a faster processor, a bigger hard drive and Windows Vista for $199. (Now, those systems only have 512 MB of RAM, and I wouldn't advise running even Vista Home Basic with that little memory.) I suggest shopping around to see what's in the used and refurbished markets before settling on the gPC.