LIFE IN CYBERSPACE / For Value, eVilla Just Doesn't Compute

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SONY'S eVilla Network Entertainment Center is the most

capable Web appliance that I've seen yet. But in this troubled product

category, that's a backhanded compliment - like praising the best

black-and-white TV or the finest AM-only radio.

It ought to be simple: Build a computing device tuned for e-mail and Web

access, pare away the cost and complexity of traditional PCs, and watch

computer-phobic consumers snap it up by the truckload. Unfortunately, every

attempt so far has turned out to be overpriced, underpowered or both, with

predictable crash-and-burn results.

If the next impact crater turns out to have the eVilla's name on it, that

will be a shame. If anybody can get this formula right, it ought to be Sony.

The consumer-electronics giant comes tantalizingly close in many ways with this

$499.99 device, built around a brilliant, sharp, 15-inch Trinitron monitor

(with 14 inches viewable), positioned portrait-style to minimize scrolling on

Web pages. It connects to the Internet with a standard 56k-bps modem, but, like

a conventional computer, works off-line as well and stores data in its own

memory.

The eVilla's bright, clean interface puts most commands one mouse click

away, and a set of chrome buttons on the front toggle between Web browsing,

e-mail and the eVilla's start page. Whether you wake it from sleep or boot it

up, it's ready to use in seconds, although dialing up to the Internet is as

frustratingly slow as on any PC.

The eVilla is also the first Web appliance I've seen that renders Web pages

cleanly and correctly, thanks to its inclusion of the Opera browser, a bit of

a cult favorite among serious Internet users.

The eVilla handles most of the popular programming and file-format

standards on the Web - JavaScript and Java programs, Macromedia Flash

animations, RealAudio and RealVideo streaming media, MP3 files, mpeg-1 video,

and Acrobat Reader files. Sony says it soon will offer an update adding

compatibility with Word, Excel, WordPerfect and rich-text- format documents.

To archive downloaded songs, clips and documents, the eVilla includes a

slot for Sony's chewing- gum-size Memory Stick storage cards, plus two USB

ports to plug in a Zip drive or one of a handful of Epson and Hewlett-Packard

inkjet printers.

The e-mail program is basic but eminently usable for everyday

communication. And that's it-there are no other programs to use here.

In many other respects, theeVilla doesn't measure up to the challenge.

Unlike other Web appliances, it's heavy (32 pounds) and bulky, at about 16

inches tall and almost as many inches deep.

One of the key ideas in the Web-appliance dream is to simplify the Web's

vast reach for newcomers. But Sony's channels in its Net Guide start page say

more about marketing deals than consumer interests.

Some of these links are worthwhile. ABCNews.com is certainly a fine source

of information, if perhaps not my first bookmark. Meanwhile, there are no book

or travel retailers, although Sony says they will be added soon. It also will

adjust the mix of channel providers based on what consumers say. Good thing,

because you can't edit these links yourself.

I was equally disappointed to see how slow and glitchy the eVilla's

operating system acted. It's based on the Be OS - revolutionary software

developed in the mid-1990s as a specialized media platform. The Be-built

software on the eVilla, despite some respectable hardware to run on (a

266-megahertz National Semiconductor processor and a total of 88 megabytes of

flash and regular memory), often seemed to grind its gears and sometimes froze

outright.

There's a small hole on the eVilla's front panel where you can insert one

end of a paper clip to reboot it - not a confidence-inspiring sight.

Finally, there's that ugly cost issue. At $500, the eVilla is no great

bargain compared with new PCs and Macs, let alone used hardware. Worse is the

$21.95 EarthLink access fee to use the eVilla. Although you can employ an

eVilla account with a regular computer, you can't use any other Internet

provider with it, nor can you switch an existing EarthLink account to an eVilla.

If the eVilla cost less to purchase and operate- say, $300 for the hardware

and $15 a month for the service - I'd be more tolerant of its shortcomings.

But at prices like this, even if you despise computers, you'd be better off

getting a cheap PC or Mac, then finding friends or family members to walk you

through the things you really want to do.

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