by Andrew Flegg <email@example.com>
The network computer was first put forward as an idea by Acorn in 1996. A cut-down machine capable of most tasks a home user would want to do: word processing, email, web browsing and so on, but with new software and functionality being delivered either through a modem or over a LAN from a central server. It was a thin-client and, with the backing of computing heavyweights such as Oracle and IBM, was destined to take over the world. Unfortunately, it was something the market wasn't ready for and the rapidly falling costs of a full PC meant it never really took off. Since then, Acorn have disappeared and the Internet boom has come and, some might say, gone - but the original NC concepts have been updated to today's markets by Pace, the inheritors of Acorn's legacy. The result? A small, cheap, RISC OS machine with one function: browsing the web... The Bush Internet "Surf Set".
The Surf Set was launched in 1999 and advertised heavily (something that could never be said about Acorn hardware) but has only achieved moderate sales. New versions and mountains of old stock means that you can pick up an IBX-100 for twenty quid from various places, such as Toys 'R' Us and Currys.
For your money the box, see right, contains a ten metre telephone cable; power supply; remote control and batteries; a 29-page manual; quick-start guide; email guide; warranty card; SCART cable and, of course, the Surf Set itself. The telephone cable plugs into one of the three sockets on the back of the box and your wall, providing a second socket for any devices whose connection may have been "borrowed", such as a phone. The remote control is much larger than others you may have and has a limited set of buttons for navigating web pages whilst closed. However, when flipped open it reveals a QWERTY keyboard for typing emails and URLs which, although small and rubbery, is adequate for typing reasonably long emails - with practice. The remote can be seen in both closed and open forms below, alongside a 30cm ruler for comparison. The documentation is well written: both clear, concise and technically accurate. It guides users though the installation process in easy steps, but a peak-rate helpline is available for those who get stuck.
The box itself is small, light and stylish in a simplistic, brushed aluminium case. Its size is helped by having the transformer for the power supply external to the box; not needing a fan due to the use of an ARM; and the small number of support chips required as the ARM7500 being used includes the VIDC20 and IOMD2 currently necessary to run RISC OS. The rear of the box is simplicity itself, with sockets for power, phone and SCART lead being the only connections. There are no switches and nothing further on the front, save for three LEDs (for power, active and online) and the infrared receiver.
The V.34 modem supports speeds of upto 33,600 bps which is just about fast enough for browsing graphics intensive web sites. Once "World Wide Web" has been selected, the box dials the pre-setup ISP (Bush Internet) and starts the registration procedure. The procedure is straight-forward and gives you a chance to get used to the keyboard, but you will need to phone the helpline if you are ex-directory or have Caller ID disabled. Finally, you set up your email and can choose up to five addresses at bushinternet.com. Unfortunately, the email is web based rather than downloaded to the box, so you have to read and reply to email whilst online, racking up per-minute phone charges.
The default homepage is a simple affair, customised for the device and so doesn't really stretch the box - however, pressing the "Goto" button on the remote pops up a dialogue box with the "http://www" pretyped, allowing you to enter any URL you like to test the boxes capabilities. The specification states the browser is "HTML 3.2 compliant" with "HTML 4.0 extensions": what this means in real-life is that some sites won't look quite right, especially if they use Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) extensively. However, the browser (NCFresco v2.15) does support a little CSS and most sites will look quite good.
It is in fact surprising how well the browser copes with most web sites and a testament to Acorn's font manager that the anti-aliased fonts look so good on a TV screen. Sites such as Google, Yahoo!, Amazon and Manchester United all look fine - the browser even supports SSL so that secure online ordering from Amazon should be possible (this was unable to be tested, however). Unfortunately, the box doesn't have any support for more taxing technologies such as Flash, Java, RealAudio and so on - meaning that, for example, online banking is probably out of the question (though if you know of any banks which have simple non-Java banking services it'd be useful to know). In fact, the box has no sound hardware at all, so listening to WAVs or MP3s will always be impossible. Bookmarks can be stored in the non-volatile RAM (the only local storage the box has) and can be accessed easily through the remote. However, the bookmarks can only be arranged in a flat-file, no folders are possible: so that once you've got more than twenty or so, looking through them becomes slightly tedious.
As a simple, cheap way of browsing the Web, the Bush Internet Surf Set fulfills its goal admirably - however, the lack of an offline email client, no telnet or IRC ability, no Java and no audio all add up to a set of annoyances which mean that trying to sell the box for over £50 is probably optimistic. Yet the IBX-100 is available from many high-street stores for less than £20 and, with Christmas approaching as I write this, may make an ideal gift for family which has no real need for a full computer, but is interested in many of the possibilities the Web has to offer.
In the next article, we'll investigate what can be done with this sub-£20 RISC OS computer, outside of its original purpose. We'll show you how to get a Desktop, change the ISP, play games and program it.