iMac, Meet Audrey

The machine boasts a radical new design that puts the PCs of old to shame. It promises a speedy on-ramp to the Internet, with quick and constant access to e-mail. And its maker hopes it will revolutionize the way we use technology.

Oh, and that iMac thing is nice, too.

Apple's iMac is getting a run for its money from Ergo, 3Com's new brand of Internet appliance, as both companies vie to offer the low-cost solution for easy Internet access. The first Ergo model, dubbed Audrey ($499), hit the shelves in October.

With its curved corners, sleek casing, and choice of five colors, Audrey cuts a striking figure. A stylus for on-screen scribbling docks onto the top of the device and doubles as an e-mail indicator, blinking when you've got mail. Audrey bears a vague resemblance to Rosie, the robot maid from The Jetsons , if you can imagine that George Jetson finally lost his cool and beheaded his mechanical domestic.

Functionality is what 3Com hopes will set Audrey apart. Think of it as the ultimate organizer, an always-on central terminal where family members can share schedules and to-do lists. At least, that's how 3Com envisions it. The front of the device sports six buttons - a power button and others for e-mail, a date book, an address book, a Web browser, and an Actions palette that moves information between applications.

Any similarity to the Palm Pilot is purely intentional; in fact, 3Com sees Audrey as a natural extension of Palm-based personal digital appliances. The device runs on the QNX operating system and uses Palm's syncing technology. Along with its two USB ports and built-in modem, Audrey sports a serial port for a Palm cradle in back, for syncing with your Pilot.

There's only one problem with 3Com's scenario: What can Audrey do that a low-priced computer can't? For $799 these days, you can buy an entry-level iMac. Sure, 3Com's Audrey costs several hundred dollars less, but the iMac is built to let you do a whole lot more. It all comes down to what you want out of a computer: inexpensive Internet capability or greater functionality.

Unless, of course, you find Audrey's resemblance to the severed head of a cartoon robot just a little unsettling. . . .

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