Low End Theory: Back to BasicsS


By Brendan I. Koerner

Every so often, I come across a product that inspires a thicket of hard-to-reconcile emotions. In the case of the $199 QuickPAD IR, my first reaction was straightforward enough—namely, bafflement at how such a seemingly archaic machine, best described as a Smith Corona word processor mated with a Psion Series 3, can possibly exist in this day and age. I mean, haven't the good folks at QuickPAD Technologies heard of refurbished and off-lease Dell Latitudes? Or AbiWord? Tough to see how they can carve themselves out a niche, given the competition from "real" laptops (i.e. those that can be used for more than just creating text).

But my initial flippancy was soon tempered by a mixture of nostalgia, understanding, and, finally, an inkling of respect. The QuickPAD is by no means the wave of the low-end future, but there's something to be said for stripped-down products with limited aspirations. After the jump, why I can't help but lovelike this grandpa-worthy technology. PLUS: A response from the ultrasonic pest control industry!

If the QuickPAD IR seems like a throwback to yesteryear, that's because, well, it's from yesteryear. As far as I can determine, the machine has changed little since 1997, when it was marketed by H45 Technologies as a laptop alternative. This, of course, was back in the day when the Apple PowerBook 1400 was considered unusually affordable at the low, low price of $2,500. The QuickPAD, on the other hand, was priced at the same $199 it goes for today, and you could beam your work to a desktop via infrared or PS/2 cable. The one major downside, however, was that the transferring didn't (and still doesn't) work both ways—you couldn't download data from your desktop to your QuickPAD.

Fast forward a decade and the QuickPAD has barely changed, despite the fact that QuickPAD Technologies was spun off H45. In terms of specs, the only discernible upgrade seems to have been a slight memory bump, as well as the addition of a program called Typing Tutor. This latter tweak was obviously made in order to heighten the QuickPAD's appeal to its new target demographic: kids, or, more specifically, the schools that educate them.

To his credit, QuickPAD Technologies CEO Henryk Szejnwald realized somewhere along the line that the low-ending of laptops would be the death of his business, if he continued to insist on marketing the QuickPAD to mainstream consumers. So he made like a Cretaceous Period mammal and adapted: QuickPAD refocused on selling to cash-strapped schools, with the promise that kids could write out their assignments, then beam them to a classroom's sole desktop.

But y'know what? I don't think kids are who QuickPAD should be going after. That's in part because, honestly, I don't think we're doing the young'uns any favors by training them to use machines that feature four-line, 40-character LCD displays. Assuming a class has 30 kids, and each one is given a $193 QuickPAD (there's a price break for bulk purchases), that's $5,790. Wouldn't that money be better spent on some new desktops or—and I may be crazy here—some group laptops? It's nice for each kid to have their own machine, but the QuickPAD's technological limitations in turn limit the knowledge it can impart.

A more promising market, to my mind, is folks who need to write on the fly—journalists, police detectives, surveyors, safety inspectors, etc., etc. The QuickPAD is great for such field operators because it boots up in less than three seconds, weighs just a pound, and can go 100 hours on four AA batteries.

Maybe QuickPAD should go back to playing itself off high-end laptops—in this case, ruggedized numbers like the Panasonic Toughbooks. Lord knows I could have used a QuickPAD on my trip to the Indo-Burmese jungle this past winter; I had to spend countless hours deciphering my chicken-scratch notes upon returning home.

The other nice thing about the QuickPAD, of course, is that it's not going to get gunked up with spyware, faulty drivers, aborted updates, and the million other headaches that make Windows such a pain. So though the price may not be that much better than a refurbbed, low-end laptop, you've got to factor in the tech-support angle. You're just not going to have much downtime due to sluggish performance.

Low End Theory: Back to Basics

My one gripe: the price. I realize that it's lower in real terms than a decade ago, thanks to inflation, but $199 still seems dear in this age of the Balance CN4949 and its low-end brethren. Think you can do it for $99, Henryk? That might also give you more of a leg up on your fellow portable throwback, the Alphasmart Neo. The Neo's got you on battery life (700 hours!) and screen size (six lines!), and for just an extra $50. How about a price war, to show 'em who's boss?

ULTRASONIC PUSHBACK: To my great surprise, I heard from a vendor of ultrasonic pest repellers in response to last week's column. A very nice man from Woodstream Professional Pest Management wrote in to say that, yes, they had scientific data to support the efficacy of its PestChaser. The man added that the PestChaser is registered for sale in Canada, having been approved by Health Canada in accordance with the Pest Control Product Act. (Any Canadians care to chime in about whether or not this is an admirable seal of approval?)

A FedEx package of scientific data is now apparently wending its way to my world headquarters here on 122nd Street. I'm still dubious, especially since the primary test alluded to by Woodstream seems to be this one from 1989. (And, according to this site, that study's author was later reluctant to discuss his research.)

But I'm going to keep an open mind, review Woodstream's data, and get back to y'all next week. Who knows—perhaps Woodstream is the Copernicus of rodent control, and all us naysayers are the equivalent of 16th-century ignoramuses going, "No, Nicolaus, the Sun obviously revolves around the Earth."

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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