Contact: Acorn Online Media (01223) 518518 or www.acorn.co.uk
Price: #399 including network interface but not keyboard or monitor
What is it: a low-cost network computer
Applications: information browsing on the Internet or intranet; basic word processing and email; running Java applets or specially written software
Acorn has a head start over other companies trying to bring low-cost network computers to market. The Cambridge company has more than 15 years experience of making computers for the cash-strapped educational market and more recently made set-top boxes for interactive TV trials.
Although home users won't be able to buy Acorn's NetStation until January, business users will be able to get hold of it before the end of the year. So what can they expect?
To keep the cost to the home user down, the NetStation is designed to work with a domestic TV. The home version won't be sold with a standard keyboard or a mouse, but will be supplied with a TV-style infra-red hand control with a miniature alphabetic keypad.
A VGA outlet is provided for office use so the device can be plugged into a standard monitor. Bringing the peripherals up to office standard adds a further #200 to the price.
The system is built around a 40MHz ARM 750FE processor designed by sister company Advanced Risc Machines. Apart from being cheaper than an equivalent Intel processor, one of the advantages of the ARM chip is its very low power consumption. This means it produces very little heat, so the NetStation doesn't need a fan. In fact, the system box has no moving parts at all because it doesn't have a hard disk or a floppy disk drive either. The basic software is built into only 4Mb of ROM. It consists of a network computer version of RiscOS, Acorn's well-established Archimedes operating system, together with a Web browser and a Java interpreter also written by Acorn. Other software is downloaded to the computer as required, fitting into RAM. You get 4Mb of RAM as standard, with the option of adding up to an extra 32Mb.
Typically, the NetStation will have only modest amounts of storage capacity, so most of its software and data will reside on a server. This raises the question of communication speed, which is even more critical than on a PC. This is because the small amount of storage space available locally on a network computer (NC) means that files need downloading from a server every time they are used.
Basic versions of the machine will come with either a V34 Plus modem, or an Ethernet adaptor for use on a network. The modem offers a data transfer rate of just less than 34,000bits/s over a standard telephone line, but the Ethernet adaptor operates 300 times faster at 10Mbit/s. This highlights why NCs make more sense when connected to networks as part of a company intranet, rather than as consumer products for Internet browsing via the ordinary telephone system.
Another key question for business users concerns where NetStation's software will come from. For simple data sharing applications, HTML or CGI scripts may suffice when working with the Web browser. But more complicated tasks may require specially written Java code.
Whatever the case, applications cannot be too memory hungry, as the memory probably won't be available.
At the moment, NetStation's applications are limited to what you can accomplish with the built-in browser and email functions, or are able to write yourself.
However, this may be no barrier to companies wanting to roll out their own custom intranet applications. And the relatively low cost of the devices could make them attractive for widespread deployment at sales outlets and booking agents.
Verdict: Although it falls a long way short of a conventional PC as a general-purpose productivity tool, Acorn's network computer may be able to find a role in dedicated fleet business applications.
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