Linux and the New Internet Computer
Manufacturer: The New Internet Computer Company
Price: $199 US
Reviewer: Bill Ball
Larry Ellison is well known as one of the first persons to coin the term “Network Computer”, a much-heralded promise of low-cost network appliances and terminals for corporate America. His latest spin-off venture, The New Internet Computer Company, may become known for fulfilling that promise by actually producing and selling the lowest-cost Internet and network capable computer on the market today—the NIC, or New Internet Computer.
At $199 for a main box, speakers, keyboard and mouse, the NIC provides a surprising host of features. A color-matched $129 15-inch monitor is optional. Perhaps the best feature of all is that the NIC runs Linux! All the software you need to start surfing the Web is included on a bootable CD-ROM that sports a Linux 2.2.15 kernel, Netscape Navigator, and connection software for dial-up ISPs, DSL, cable modems or an internal network. This means that you can get to work right away.
As if the price point on this piece of hardware wasn't low enough, you can also use free ISP service from NetZero with your NIC. You're not locked into using the offered service, though, so if you want to use your existing ISP, your company's LAN, or your at-home DSL or cable modem, go ahead.
Linux is finding its way into the computer industry in an ever-increasing variety of platforms, ranging from “Big Iron” servers the size of refrigerators to embedded devices and web servers that fit inside a box of matches. You'll find that the NIC provides a simple, inexpensive way to browse the World Wide Web, use electronic mail and read Usenet news.
You must order your NIC on-line at http://www.thinknic.com/. You'll receive e-mail confirmation of your order, and you can track the shipping through NIC's web site. You'll then receive a box containing the NIC, a keyboard, mouse, mouse pad, amplified speakers, NIC software on CD-ROM, power cords, phone cable, warranty information and a short, ten-page user guide. You'll also get free Internet service from NetZero. This means no confusing service agreements, obfuscated rebates or other insidious deals aimed at enticing consumers to the Dark Side's network.
The NIC is a single-board computer sporting a 266MHz Cyrix CPU, 64MB RAM and a CD-ROM drive. The front of the unit sports a power and reset button. On the back, you'll find two USB ports, two PS/2 ports for the NIC keyboard and mouse, a video out connector for a monitor, an RJ-45 jack for built-in 10MBps Ethernet, two RJ-11 jacks for the NIC's built-in 56K modem and a (curiously) nonfunctional joystick port. You can orient the NIC horizontally or, if you prefer, vertically using two detachable feet.
My initial intent was to hook the new NIC to my LAN, as I use Linux, DSL and IP masquerading for Internet access. I unpacked the NIC, plugged in all the cables, connected the NIC to a nearby hub and turned on the computer. I then inserted the NIC CD-ROM, pressed Enter, saw an initial splash screen on my spare monitor and then...nothing! The screen cleared, and a small, flat blinking cursor appeared on the upper-left corner of my monitor as the CD-ROM spun down.
With a sinking feeling in my gut, I called NIC's technical support line and was connected to a help technician in less than ten minutes. After describing my problem, Rod, the technician, told me to turn off the NIC, then power it up and tap the keyboard's Delete key twice to access the NIC's built-in Award BIOS. After loading the default CMOS and system setups and saving the changes, the NIC rebooted, brought up Linux and displayed its initial configuration screen in 65 seconds. You may need to do this if you change the NIC's monitors between boot-ups.
When you first start the NIC, the system will boot Linux, load X11 and bring up a desktop running Netscape with a configuration screen, as shown in Figure 1.
There are a number of ways to access the Internet using the NIC. You can set up a free Internet account with NetZero using the built-in modem, configure the NIC to dial up and connect with your current ISP, or configure the NIC to use your LAN and a default gateway for Internet access or use as an X11 terminal. For those unfortunate users without local calling access to an ISP or NetZero, you can also set up the NIC to access BamNet at $0.06 US per minute. When you start the setup, you'll see a dialog, as shown in Figure 2.
After making sure a phone line was plugged into the back of the NIC, I then signed up for NetZero's free Internet service. After filling out several dialogs, the NIC dialed into NetZero and I was surfing. This took about about 15 minutes. Unfortunately, NetZero requires a floating advertising bar on your screen, or you'll be disconnected.
I also connected using my local backup ISP and was able to create the account and dial in within a few minutes. Connection speed was nearly 56KBps using the NIC's internal modem.
Setting up Ethernet and using a default gateway on my LAN gave me Internet access in less than 30 seconds. All settings are saved in the NIC's flash memory. You should know that the NIC's system does not offer Netscape Messenger for mail or Netscape Discussions for browsing Usenet news. You'll also find that the Preferences menu item under the Edit menu is grayed out and inaccessible. To use electronic mail or other services, you'll need to use remote web sites or local server software.
Sound is supported, and Real's RealPlayer G2 for Linux is included. This means you can browse to your favorite Internet news radio, TV or movie sites and hear stereo sound. The NIC's external speakers are small but amplified and feature a 3-D sound push button.
The fact that the NIC only offers Netscape and Internet Relay Chat when used as a basic Internet workstation could be viewed as a limitation. However, if you select the NIC's tools button on the local “Meet the NIC” web page (http://localhost), you'll find a button labeled “Tools” that brings up a desktop window with folders for a Windows Citrix client, assorted solitaire and board games, a secure shell terminal, Telnet terminal, ATT's vncviewer client and a simple IRC client. This is the extent of the software available on the NIC's CD-ROM.
I was also able to quickly turn my NIC into a networked X11 workstion and run clients from my server by first clicking the NIC's Xhost+ utility, starting a telnet session, then exporting the NIC's DISPLAY variable like this (I named the NIC “nic”, of course):
$ export DISPLAY=nic:0
I then ran numerous clients, as shown in Figure 3.
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