A tiny computer built to link to the Net is more hype than help

E-mail your friends and family; stay in contact with your business," read the press release. "Less than $200 . . . Browse Internet Web sites." The tiny computer, NetPAD, from Momentum (617-262-2466), sounded exactly like what I'd been seeking for months--a lightweight device for accessing E-mail and the Web while I'm on the road. I refuse to lug a six-pound laptop through airport terminals just for its modem, so I've impatiently been checking the weights on new palmtops, waiting for the ideal piece of hardware. I thought Momentum had read my mind. Unfortunately the machine didn't deliver what it promised.

The NetPAD was about the size and weight of a videocassette--the minimalism I'd been looking for. And it traveled light--I needed only the machine, an AC adapter, and a phone line for connecting the 2,400-bps modem.

But when I jacked in, my excitement quickly faded. The first problem was that the tiny screen holds only eight lines of text, and they're pretty small lines. For some reason my machine didn't deliver even the full eight lines--line seven was cut in half. And because I was in a dimly lit room, I couldn't really read the liquid-crystal-display screen.

Then I realized that the loaded program gave me an E-mail address. I don't need another E-mail address. I already have far too many. It dawned on me that that cute little box wasn't designed to let me check existing accounts. Instead, it wanted to add fuel to the fire by having me open yet another account, this one through Momentum. I searched the menus for Telnet, an Internet feature that lets you log into other E-mail accounts remotely. Nothing doing. I was stuck in Momentumland.

Well, I thought, at least I can browse the Web. I selected that option from the on-screen menu and was immediately put into a text-based Web site. Now, I've browsed the Web using text-only software before, so I didn't panic immediately. But to picture what the Web looks like with NetPAD, imagine turning off the graphics-loading feature on your Web browser. Then pretend the text is all gray and black and running together, line after line after line with few paragraph breaks. Then imagine that you see just seven and a half lines before you have to scroll again. Finally, pretend your monitor isn't backlit. I quickly exited the Web.

I did find a few things to enjoy about NetPAD after I realized that its real purpose was to connect me to the defined services of Momentumland. I was able to check the weather in several cities that I travel to often. I could check stock quotes and financial services. NetPAD just isn't what it's billed as. I expected a tiny computer that would let me do what I wanted. Instead, Momentum wanted me to use its proprietary services. I'm back to checking the weight of new palmtops.

Phaedra Hise is a staff writer at Inc. magazine and author of Growing Your Business Online: Small Business Strategies for Working the World Wide Web (Henry Holt & Co.), due out this month.