Wednesday, July 8, 2009

An online world

My first hands-on experience with a computer was in the early 90s when my aunt returned to India after a long stint in the Gulf with a Personal Computer. Soon, that piece of equipment came to occupy the pride of place in our household, complete with a special room fitted with an air-conditioner and peppered with anti-humidity sachets. The PC itself used to occupy a large part of the room, with the boxes of floppy discs that went into it consuming most of the remaining space.

But that was almost two decades ago. Last week, when Airtel installed its new Net PC at my home for a review, it struck me how much the computer had shrunk. The Nivio Companion unit on which the Airtel Net PC runs has a CPU which is not an inch bigger than the set-top-box that comes with my cable connection, a sleek 15” LCD monitor plus a regular USB mouse and keyboard. The whole unit was safely perched on a small side table—in fact, the modem that comes with the connection and the extension box to plug in the wires took up as much space as the unit.

But is the Net PC just a small PC? Well, no, there is more to it, or, lets say, less to it. This is literally an Internet computer since it is useless without a Net connection. So forget about switching on a ghazal to hum you to sleep at night.

The Nivio Companion, which surprisingly takes just a few seconds to switch on, comes to life only with the Airtel broadband cable plugged in. The desktop appears only when you have logged in to the server using your Nivio log-in ID and password. Everything on the desktop is familiar, except for the fact that there is no My Computer icon, for there is no hard drive so to speak on the CPU. While some software are pre-installed on the virtual desktop, more can be downloaded from a site which looks something like the iPhone app store.

Though just a 256 kbps connection, the Internet is fast as there is nothing on your PC to slow it down. There is a catch, though. You cannot watch movie clips online—YouTube videos actually appear like a slideshow. The Nivio call centre told me they were working to resolve this glitch.

You can, however, download videos, movies or anything else on to your virtual desktop and play them. The Airtel package comes with 10GB online storage; more can be bought for an extra fee. Users also have the option of saving files from the virtual desktop to an external USB storage device. Printers can also be installed to the Net PC through one of the four USB ports on offer. There are also jacks for headphones and speakers.

Another great advantage of the Net PC is the running cost. The Companion uses just 5w of power and does not require any hardware upgradation. Moreover, since there are no moving parts on the CPU, it is virtually maintenance-free. And as all work is done on a virtual desktop, protected with high-power anti-virus package, there is no chance of acquiring a virus. Everything is saved to a central server, so in case of a crash or power failure there is no data loss.

The initial cost of setting up the Net PC is under Rs 10,000, including the Rs 7,999 for the Airtel Net PC (Nivio Companion, 15 inch LCD screen, keyboard and mouse). The Airtel monthly packages are priced between Rs 689 and Rs 1,199—all 256 kbps connections. Plus there is a one-time broadband installation cost of Rs 850. Airtel is not alone though, MTNL and Tata Indicom too have lauched similar products.

Overall a great buy for the cost-conscious households, though I wouldn’t recommend this to cyber junkies.

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