Home Computers: Instant office: just add electricity: The all-singing, all-dancing personal activity centre has arrived to solve the space war. Nigel Willmott reports

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The Independent Online
THE LAST time there was a personal activity centre in the house, it had 'Fisher-Price' on the side, resided in the playpen and kept the user occupied so other members of the household could go about their tasks uninterrupted. Change the name to Acer, and the location to the office, and plus ca change . . .

This enterprising package is computer, fax, telephone answering machine, on-line information terminal, reference library, CD music centre, radio and games console all in one - the complete small office/home office kit.

Among all the endless discussion of megabytes and megahertz, the computer industry often loses sight of more basic considerations - like where to stash all the gadgetry. Not the least of the benefits of the PAC450 is that it replaces separate boxes for fax, modem, answering machine and audio off- air information receiving unit with one full-width add-on PC card slotted inside a modest- sized computer processor box.

The whole shebang was therefore simplicity itself to set up. A 15-minute job, requiring only two power sockets - one for the processor and one for the screen - was only complicated by the usual problem of computer manual muddle. This one was conceived in Taiwan, and a solitary less-than-clear instruction is one too many - particularly when it concerns the correct voltage.

The diagram showing the European and US settings consisted of a rectangle with one half blacked out. It was impossible to tell whether the black bit represented the position of the switch for European voltage. Having had one of our reviewers blow up a machine in similar circumstances, this was the cause of some angst before I decided that as other hacks had had this machine for review, it must be set in the right place. I closed my eyes and pushed the mains switch.

The only other set-up problem is almost too embarrassing to reveal. Having bought audio equipment in the late Seventies at a time when such electronics were becoming almost fault-proof, I have never felt the inclination to invest in a CD player. And I have only used CD-roms on other people's machines. Hence I was faced with the unexpected problem: how do you take a CD out of its packaging without snapping it?

Here was a world of knowledge awaiting me, courtesy of Microsoft's Bookshelf, but I could not yank the CD out. It took a considerable amount of bated breath before I rediscovered the wheel. (For the equally technically challenged, press with your thumb in the middle, while pulling up the edge of the disk with your fingers.)

Dumb, but it illustrates a point. Often the biggest problems with new pieces of technology are the ones no manual covers. No computer supplier should under-estimate the bone ignorance of its customers.

With the AcerPac it was a case of 'I have seen the future and works - almost'. Acer has gone about four-fifths of the way towards an all-in-one instant office system. For instance, windows systems were a big advance over text-based operating systems, but by the time you have three dozen tricky little icons to choose from, some of the much-vaunted simplicity has gone. Acer solves it with an opening screen of idiot-proof big pictures with simple rubrics: fax, telephone answering machine, reference, etc.

Click the mouse on telephone or music centre and you find a screen which looks like a real answering machine or music centre. These virtual homologues are operated in the same way as their real-life counterparts, except you use the mouse to click on buttons instead of pressing them.

However, even real-life machines need instructions. And while Acer's 44-page set-up manual is mostly excellent, scrolling through the full on-line manual on screen is not so easy.

Print and paper still have a role to play and an intermediate system manual between the set-up guide and the manuals for specific programs like Windows and Works would have been a great help.

The other main software innovation is Start/Smart. One of the worries many people have about using fax-modems is leaving their computers on to receive incoming messages. The AcerPac solves that by having a 'sleep' mode, whereby the computer goes off, but the fax and telephone can be woken up by an incoming call. The system is operated by pressing a small panel on the front of the machine and the sleeping machine returns to life to give you the last setting before you powered down.

Unfortunately, powering down the machine on some occasions cut off every other telephone on the system, and I never managed to find the setting on the telephone unit that caused it. However, assorted children got great fun out of ringing their nearest and dearest and telling them they were talking to a computer - the built-in microphone can also be used to record short snatches using the Windows Sound Recorder program.

A holidaying child en route to the US with little knowledge of computers also established an instant rapport with Bookshelf and looked up via the atlas and encyclopedia - a dictionary and thesaurus are also included - the places he was bound for.

Adults can also relish what is on offer. I am in my command module, writing this on a Windows word processor. I am happily listening to my one and only audio CD - an album of Count Basie mainly distinguished by its rock-bottom price at Woolworths - given quite decent sound by a set of pounds 25 amplified speakers from Tandy. I have just broken off to telephone a friend using the automatic dial facility in the cardfile directory I have set up. The music shuts off when the handset is 'lifted' and returns when the call is terminated.

I can listen to the call on the speakers or on a set of stereo headphones. The fax is on in background mode to receive any incoming messages, and earlier I sent a brief order to a company having mastered Winfax in about five minutes.

The main question with such a user-friendly system was: how could I give it all up when the repo men called for it? I did so mainly because, at pounds 1,999 including VAT - a pounds 350 reduction on the original price - it was too expensive.

The computer is an unexceptional 486 25SX, the modem is a slow 2,400 bits per second, and the ease of telephoning is still not up to Mac equivalents. Even given the cost and hassle of all the separate components, the incentive of such a simple all-in- one system was not quite keen enough.

Vital statistics

System: PC-compatible.

Hardware: 486SX-25 processor; 4-megabyte system memory; 130-megabyte hard disc; SVGA colour monitor; CD- rom drive; fax/modem; music centre/sound card.

Software: Windows 3.1; Work for Windows; Winfax; Microsoft Bookshelf; Start/Smart.

Supplier: Acer (0753 523024).

Availability: Dealers, mail order.

Price: pounds 1,999 (inc VAT).

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