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$99 netbook not quite a prescription for success

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / September 23, 2010

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I expected the first $100 laptop to emerge from a lab at MIT. Instead, it turned up at the drugstore.

Nicholas Negroponte, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, began talking five years ago about building ultra-cheap computers to help educate kids in developing countries. His One Laptop Per Child project made a clever little machine, but wasn’t able to get it below that magic $100 price point. But the idea inspired companies like Taiwan’s Asus to develop netbooks — mini-laptops priced at around $350.

Now a little New York firm called Digital Gadgets has cobbled together a super-cheap netbook, labeled with the familiar Sylvania brand name and available for $99 at CVS pharmacies. It’s a remarkable achievement that would be even more impressive if it were a better computer.

The Sylvania netbook is about the size and weight of a hardback book. It’s got a 7-inch screen with a couple of small, predictably tinny speakers mounted on either side.

The keyboard is pretty much what you’d expect: cramped and confusing. To save space, the right shift key has been mixed in with the arrow keys, and our friend the apostrophe has moved down a couple rows. In short, it’s hard times for touch typists, made worse by the reduced size of each key. The netbook’s mouse puts left and right buttons on either side of the touchpad, rather than underneath. It’s a little off-putting, but I got used to it.

It’s harder to deal with the Sylvania’s primitive software and sluggish performance. The first bit of bad news is its operating system: Windows CE, a low-end product from Microsoft Corp. It’s basically the same software that drives the current line of Windows smartphones, which are being clobbered by Apple Inc.’s iPhone and Google Inc.’s Android phones. If Windows CE isn’t good enough to run a phone properly, imagine how it performs on a netbook.

While most netbooks run Intel Corp.’s respectable Atom processor, Sylvania went with a low-end chip from Taiwan’s Via Technologies Inc. The average netbook has a gigabyte of memory, but the Sylvania has only about 128 megabytes, an eighth as much. The latest smartphones have faster processors and more memory than this. No surprise that while the netbook boots up in less than 30 seconds, it takes its time doing pretty much anything else.

There’s no hard drive, of course, but that’s not a problem. The Sylvania is nicely equipped with three USB ports and a slot for SD memory cards, so you can plug in more storage space in seconds.

The basic software suite includes WordPad, Microsoft’s familiar text editor, as well as tools for viewing documents created in Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, as well as a reader for Adobe PDF files. There’s also a photo viewer, and a custom-built application for finding and watching YouTube videos. But with its slow processor, the videos look more like slideshows. They jerk and stagger across the screen.

Still, a user would probably spend most of his time with the netbook’s Internet Explorer browser, hunting up interesting websites. But not too interesting. The netbook browser will not support the most recent version of Adobe Systems Inc.’s Flash software, which is used to play videos and animations on many of the world’s top sites. Forget about checking out the latest news videos on CNN.com.

But you’ll be lucky to get CNN, or any other website for that matter. The highlight of the netbook is supposedly its Wi-Fi feature, which should enable wireless Internet service. Well, sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t.

I tested the Sylvania in multiple locations — at work, at home, even at a local McDonald’s. Sometimes it worked, hooking me up to the Internet without any fuss. But sometimes it didn’t. And the failures were quite unpredictable.

My gripes to the manufacturer produced a disheartening reply. While investigating my complaint, they found a bug in the netbook’s Wi-Fi software that causes intermittent failures. A company employee said they’ll soon put things right with a software patch.

I can wait, and so can you. A skimpy screen, a narrow keyboard, and slow software are all problems you can live with. But even a $1 netbook isn’t much use if you can’t connect to the Net.

Negroponte informed me by e-mail that he hadn’t heard of the $99 Sylvania netbook and is eager to try it out. Well, hold onto your money, sir. And that goes for the rest of you, too.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.