Cream Puff

3Com's Audrey lacks substance

You could call 3Coms Audrey an Internet pastry: Its a light, sweet and tasty snack, but essentially an unfulfilling experience.

It has some fine qualities, to be sure. Unlike other Net appliances, Audrey works with just about any Internet service provider. If you dont have an ISP, it helpfully walks you through signing up for AT&T WorldNet, with which 3Com has a business deal. You can connect via the built-in 56-kilobit-per-second modem or over an Ethernet network with an optional adapter.

Audrey looks nice. Its small and cute. It giggles when you start it up. And when you receive an e-mail, the stylus that sits on the top of it flashes a neon-green light.

But its designers seemed more interested in Audreys appearance than anything else. For example, Audrey lets you set up just one e-mail account. This is a critical omission for a device thats supposed to be shared among family members. 3Com says it will address this in future models.

A potentially great feature is Audreys content channels, which you select with a knob. But the channels — sponsored by content providers such as AccuWeather, CBS MarketWatch and — were not very useful. The browser worked fine, but because of the small screen — 6.25 by 4.75 inches — most Web pages required horizontal scrolling. Tedious!

Other rough edges: In testing its multimedia features, I befuddled Audrey by trying to play a video clip, and had to restart the device. It can play RealAudio and .wav sound files, but not MP3s, Windows Media, QuickTime or any video. Also, Audreys wireless keyboard is simply too small. 3Com says its research indicated people wanted a teeny-tiny keyboard that could be stowed away easily. Still, the keyboard needs to be redesigned.

3Com says Audrey will appeal to tech-savvy consumers, which explains why it lets you synchronize contact and calendar information with Palm devices. But will tech-savvy consumers really pay $499 for a substandard Internet experience?