Reviewed Feb. 17, 2006 by Lisa Gade, Editor
Mainstream home Internet appliances were something we always spoke of in the future tense. Since the end of 2005 we've had the pleasure of reviewing two units that are in the here and now: the Pepper Pad and the Nokia 770. Though they tackle some of the same tasks and both run Linux, their approaches are macro and micro. The Nokia 770 wants to ride in your (err, roomy) pocket, popping out when you need an Internet fix, while the Pepper Pad wants to hang out on your coffee table, nightstand or take occasional trips to the local WiFi enabled coffee house with you. The Pepper is no pocketable device, measuring 12.1 x 6.6 x 0.8 inches and weighing in at 2.3 pounds. Though the Pepper's $849 list price tag does require deep pockets.Then again, you won't go blind using it thanks to its 8.4" 800 x 600 pixel display.
So what is the Pepper Pad? It's a web pad that you can use to surf the web, do email and listen to Internet radio, much like the Nokia 770. While the Nokia is more of an Internet tablet and less of an "appliance", the Pepper is an appliance which can control all of your AV gear elegantly, and with the proper software could manage home automation tasks using its WiFi or Bluetooth radios. Its 20 gig hard drive can hold quite a few pieces of multimedia amusement which can easily turn it into the bedroom video player or kitchen MP3 machine. Pepper, a Lexington, MA company hopes that not only ISPs and home automation folks will jump at the Pad but regular consumers too. To that end, the device plays videos, MP3 music, makes a great photo viewer and features the popular Mobipocket eBook reader (eReader support is in the works).
What isn't the Pepper Pad? It is not a notebook, Windows tablet or any other manner of traditional PC nor is it a PDA; though it has elements of each. The hard to categorize Pepper Pad is not intended to be a notebook replacement. If you're on a serious budget and need full computing functionality, go with a $700 notebook. It won't run Microsoft Office or other popular business applications. That's not the purpose it seeks to fill in our high tech lives and at an average $799 street price, it's not for those with limited budgets. Instead the Pepper wants to lounge next to the pool with you and be your couch companion. It's there when you want to read an eBook in bed without the whir of notebook fans stirring your slumbering bed mate. It can get a little wet and not skip a beat, it can serve up web pages pronto using your WiFi network.
The Pad runs the consumer electronics edition of MontaVista Linux 3.1 (kernel 2.6) on a top-of-the-line Intel XScale processor (the same cpu used in high end Pocket PCs like the iPAQ hx2490 and Dell Axim X51v). It is zero maintenance, doesn't need anti-virus software or frequent security updates, unlike Windows. It doesn't take 3 minutes to boot up: like a PDA, it's instant on and sleeps when you're not using it. Unlike most notebooks, it's rugged and has a touch screen which make it both adult and kid-friendly. Unlike PDAs and other pocketable devices, it provides a desktop-like browsing experience that's easy on the eyes.
Linux used to be the province of geeks, but today we're seeing consumer-friendly devices of all sorts running Linux with a friendly graphical user interface so you need never meet the command line (unless you really want to). Of course, the beauty of Linux is manifold: it's an open source, free operating system, so OS licensing fees don't bloat the device's cost; recompiling and porting apps to embedded Linux devices often proves both worthwhile and fairly easy to the world of open source programmers who create very useful additional software for these devices; and lastly Linux is a relatively resource-frugal OS which doesn't require killer hardware specs to run well. All it needs is a consumer-ready and friendly interface to make it in the world of mainstream devices. The Pepper Pad is a perfect example, running a keenly friendly UI on mostly high-end PDA hardware rather than more expensive and heavy notebook hardware. But before we get too far into the Pepper's excellent software, let's take a look at the hardware.
Design and Ergonomics
The Pad is smaller than most notebooks you've ever met (the tiny Toshiba Libretto and Fujitsu P1500d are exceptions which weigh about the same but sport smaller dimensions). It's most similar to some of the smallest Windows slate design tablets, but is more rugged and has a touch screen rather than an active digitizer requiring a special pen. It measures a foot across and is just under an inch thick. The large 8.4" color LCD dominates the front face, with ample side grips that house a thumb QWERTY keyboard (which automatically illuminates in dark environments) and stereo speakers. The power button, a left 5-way directional pad and right up/down roller for scrolling and multimedia control buttons (fast forward, rewind, play/pause, stop, volume up and down, brightness up/down) and a mic also lives on the device's front face. The stylus holder is located just below the display and you can use the stylus or your finger to interact with the touch screen.
Top view with IR window
The Pepper Pad's right side
A large IR window on the top edge controls all of your AV gear (and anything else that uses IR-based remote control), and a flip out wire stand holds the device upright on tables so you need not juggle the 2.3 lb. slate throughout a 2 hour movie or when reading eBooks. Heavy rubber end caps on the left side conceal the USB port and 3.5mm headphone and mic jacks. End caps on the right side cover the SD/MMC card slot and power plug. The Pepper Pad is finished in silver with gray rubber on the ends and surrounding the display (to keep moisture and dirt out of the LCD). The device is ruggedized with a steel inner frame and the afore mentioned rubber bumper-like sides and display seals. It's splash resistant as well, all of which means it can live safely on a coffee table or near children. The Pad isn't mil spec tough so don't drive your Jeep over it, but it is much less delicate than a laptop or PDA.
The split QWERTY keyboard seems odd at first, but works decently given that you'll have one hand holding each end of the Pad right near those keypads. Clearly the keypads are designed with ruggedness and water resistance in mind first and not fast typing speed. The rubbery keys have good travel and OK feedback and are adequate for entering URLs or pecking out short emails. Should you wish to do more, connect a standard USB keyboard or Bluetooth keyboard (folding or full-sized).
Pepper Keeper is the heart of the Pepper experience. It's the heart of the user interface and acts as your application launching interface. When you boot up the Pad you'll see the screen at the right, showing available applications (Game Pack 1, Mail, Music Library, Photo Library, Radio, Remote Control, Web, Video Library, Journal, eBook Library and Talk) with familiar web browser navigation controls, a URL bar and a Google search bar above.
The Pepper Pad uses tabs pervasively, and in Keeper they allow you to switch between applications, help and settings. Tapping and holding on a tab may bring up more functions in certain applications though there's no indicator such as a small downward facing caret to hint at that. Other than the somewhat hidden power of the tap-and-hold tab function, the Pad is extremely intuitive and easy to use, no manual needed. Web browsing is the core of the Pad, so the web navigation and URL bars are available in every application. No matter where you are and what you're doing, you can type in a URL and visit a web site. Running applications appear as small icons at the bottom of the screen and you can switch to a running application by tapping on its icon. The clipboard function (called Clippings) allows you to copy and paste information between applications and save entire web pages for offline viewing if you wish.
Mail and Talk (AIM)
Mail is a basic email application that can handle POP3 and IMAP email. You can check and send email after setting up your account. The email settings section has presets for quite a few common ISPs, reducing the amount of setup information you must know and enter. The mail application does not support multiple email accounts, which is a big drawback-- most folks have several email accounts these days, and if several family members share the Pepper, only one can use Mail. Should you revisit the email settings tab and select a different ISP from the popup list, your current email settings will be wiped out: use with caution! Mail allows you to set different incoming and outgoing email servers and ports (handy if your ISP doesn't allow you to relay when sending outgoing mail from a non-ISP account).
Talk is the Pepper's instant messaging client which you can use to share info between Pepper Pads and chat on AOL Instant Messenger. The client is full-featured and shows buddy status and offers formatting for messages including emoticons, sending links and formatting text. Yahoo instant messaging will be forthcoming in a future release but there are no plans for MS Messenger so you'll need to use a web-based MS Messenger site instead such as this one.
Mobipocket is a very popular eBook reader and the mobipocket.com site offers thousands of titles for sale as well as nearly 300 free eBooks. The reader is a pleasure to use on the Pepper Pad's large screen and you can visit mobipocket.com's site to download books directly onto the Pad. A version of eReader for Pepper is in the works as well.
Journal is exactly what the name indicates: a way to keep track of most anything you wish. Our unit came with a sample Garden journal which had quite a few pages and tabs for Veggies, Flowers and Notes. You'll use Journal's built in text editor to create or edit pages and it functions as a simple word processor. You can sync journal with the desktop as well.
This application is one of the Pepper all-stars! Tap on the Remote Control icon and you'll see a window that lists eight icons for common contexts (play CD, play radio, watch cable TV, watch Tivo, watch VCR, watch DVD, watch satellite TV and watch TV). Humans do things in contexts, so this makes perfect sense. Should you select watch cable TV, the pad opens up a screen with controls for your TV, cable TV box and AV receiver (no need to switch between remote control screens). If you select watch DVD, the screen loads with remote controls for the DVD player, TV and AV Receiver. The Remote application supports multiple rooms each filled with its own AV gear (create new tabs to add more rooms) and has presets for some popular gear. Should your piece of equipment not be on the list, you can use the learning remote feature to teach the Pepper Pad your gear's remote codes. The on-screen buttons are customizable (change, add or delete as you see fit) and are large enough to operate with a finger.
Taking advantage of the tight web integration, the AV Remote has a tab that will take you to Titan TV listings which you can customize to fit your cable, satellite or on-air service. Titan TV is free and gave accurate, easy to read listings in our tests.
Display, Sound and Multimedia
The Pepper Pad's 800 x 600 touch screen is bright and colorful. It's an active matrix display with 7 brightness levels and it supports 64,000 colors. Photos look very, very good on the Pad as do videos. in fact the screen resolution, sharpness and overall quality beat out the large screen Archos AV 700 portable media player. The viewing angle is modest: good enough for personal viewing but you'll need to tilt and angle it appropriately when sharing the view with others.
Sound through the built-in stereo speakers is surprisingly good. Portable built in speakers are usually atrocious, and generally the smaller the device, the nastier the speakers. So we were pleasantly surprised by the Pepper Pad whose speakers are quite loud and sound good enough for video playback or light Internet Radio listening in the background while surfing. For much better audio quality and for private listening, plug a set of headphones into the Pad's 3.5mm stereo headphone jack. MP3s sound excellent through a good set of headphones, thanks to the Pad's 20 bit stereo codec and good sound hardware.
The AV remote setup for watching cable TV
Pepper's multimedia applications include an MP3 player, Internet radio, photo viewer and video player. The MP3 player supports MP3 format only (AAC and WMA including protected WMA support is forthcoming). It supports playlists and you can use the navigation controls up top or the hardware buttons to control playback. With the screen dimmed, the Pad should last 8 hours for music playback.
The Internet radio application is another gem, making good use of the Pepper Pad's broadband connection and ever-ready web browser. You can listen to any station using .pls or .m3u link formats and set up tabs for different kinds of programs (i.e.: news, rock, jazz and classical). Since the Pad multitasks, you can listen to Internet Radio or MP3s when you're doing things in other applications.
The video player handles MPEG2, MPEG4 and AVI files, including DIVX and some QuickTime MOV files. Support for WMV files, including protected WMVs is coming. Though the unit has the impressive Intel 2700G graphics processor with 16 megs of RAM, the video player currently doesn't take advantage of it. That's in the works for the future as well and should really make the video player shine. We tested the device with a variety of AVI (mostly ffmpeg encoded) and some MOV files at VGA and lesser resolutions and bitrates from 1,000 kbps down to 350 kbps. For movies ripped from DVDs (high resolution files) the video player did a good job with files encoded up to 650 kbps in full screen mode. For TV shows (lower resolution), the unit did fine with files encoded at up to 850 kbps full screen with stereo 128k audio tracks. The player shows movies in a window by default (playback is always smoother for high bitrate movies) and you can turn on full screen playback with one tap (you'll see some dropped frames for DVDs encoded above 600 kbps but it's still very watchable).
The video player, running a movie in a window
You can control movie playback using the on-screen navigation controls up top when not in full screen mode, or the hardware buttons on the right keypad. Like all Pepper apps, the video player has tabs and you can organize your videos as you see fit. To import video into the Pepper Pad use the Add Videos feature and you'll be able to import movies to the Pad's 20 gig hard drive from USB flash drives or SD card media. Importing a 300 meg video takes several minutes but exporting to a flash drive is faster.
The Photo Library shows off the Pad's excellent display and makes a great companion to an SD card-based digital camera. You can import photos from SD cards and flash drives, and view photos full screen, in slide shows and do basic editing: rotation, red eye removal, crop and auto fix (auto fix takes 2 minutes on a 5 meg photo but does a good job of fixing contrast and levels). Photo Library's Flickr tab takes you to Yahoo's popular online photo management and sharing site at www.flickr.com where you can view and upload photos from the Pad.
Horsepower and Tech Specs
The Pepper Pad runs on a 624 MHz Intel XScale PXA270 processor and uses Intel's 2700G 2D/3D graphics accelerator with 16 megs of VRAM (sounds just like the Dell Axim X50v and X51v Pocket PCs, doesn't it?). It has 256 megs of RAM (used as a RAM disk mostly, from what we can tell to speed up commonly used OS and application components and save power by avoiding spinning the hard disk) and 32 megs of Intel StrataFlash ROM. The Pepper has a 20 gig 1.8" hard drive on an ATA bus, integrated WiFi 802.11b and Bluetooth 1.2. The Pepper application framework (Pepper Keeper 2.1 and Java 2) runs on top of MontaVista Linux 3.1 CEE with kernel version 2.6.13 (preemptive).
It has an SD/MMC slot (currently only cards up to 1 gig are supported) and a USB 1.1 port that works for syncing and as a USB host so you can connect USB keyboards, mice, flash drives and even a hub to the Pad. Currently external optical drives and hard drives don't work with the Pepper Pad, just flash storage devices. You can use SD cards and flash drives to add videos, MP3s and photos to the Pad and you can export MP3s to these media. You can also use Pepper Desktop to transfer media, bookmarks and other data to and from the Pad over a USB cable. Currently Pepper only offers a Windows version, the Mac version is in the works. Pepper Desktop replicates the Pepper experience almost completely and is reliable and easy to use. File system support includes EXT3 (journaling), EXT2, FAT, VFAT/FAT32, HFS and HFS+ (in other words, Windows, Mac and Linux file systems).
WiFi and Bluetooth
The Pepper Pad is all about the Web, and to that end it has WiFi 802.11b which works well with open and WEP secured access points. WiFi signal strength is good and the Pad has a signal strength indicator at the bottom right. Tap on that indicator to see access points in range, current access point and to turn off the WiFi radio or go to WiFi settings. Connections to unsecured access points are seamless and fast: if the Pepper finds one, it will automatically connect and it will also automatically re-connect to previously used access points. When scanning for available access points, the Pad will tell you if an access point requires a WEP key and it has a manual scan option should you need to look for just the one you want in areas that are littered with access points. WiFi supports DHCP and manual IP configuration, and open and shared WEP keys.
Want to use a wireless keyboard or mouse with the Pepper Pad rather than USB? The Pepper Pad has Bluetooth 1.2, uses Bluez for those of you familiar with Linux and supports HID, SPP and OBEX profiles. It does not have the DUN (dial up networking) profile so you won't be able to use a Bluetooth enabled mobile phone as a modem for the Pad. We tested the Pepper with Think Outside's Bluetooth mouse and keyboard and both connected easily and worked reliably.
The Pepper Pad has a 3,600 mAh Lithium Ion battery (actually two in tandem totaling 3,600 mAh) that are not user replaceable. The included world charger is compact (similar in size to PDA and phone home chargers), so it won't add a lot of bulk and weight to your bag as do notebook brick chargers. The Pad's large color display is power hungry and as a result we only got 2 hours on a charge when using the Pad for surfing and video playback (these two activities consume the most power). Reading eBooks and listening to MP3s with the screen dimmed uses considerably less power, and we got 5 hours of eBook time and 8 hours of MP3 playback with WiFi turned off. If you're not using the Net, turn off the WiFi radio-- this makes a big difference in runtimes even if you're not actively using the network connection. When watching feature length movies, you'll want to keep the charger close by, and Pepper suggests you plug the Pad in overnight to charge so it's ready for the next day. The Pad won't overcharge if left plugged in overnight though you need not charge it that long: two hours suffices when the Pad is off or sleeping and 4 hours does the trick when you're using it while it's charging.
A battery icon at the screen's lower right corner shows you the remaining charge and tapping on the battery icon tells you the charge percentage and estimated remaining hours and minutes of use. When the battery is nearly depleted, the battery icon turns from green to red. When the juice runs out, the Pad will go to sleep if you don't plug it in. Data is stored permanently on the hard drive so it won't lose your stuff when the power runs dry.
At CES in January 2006, Pepper announced the Pepper Pad Plus which will be available sometime in Q2 2006. The Plus has an improved battery which should last 60% longer, adds WiFi 802.11g (b will still be supported), upgrades hard disk capacity to 30 gigs and upgrades Bluetooth to 2.0. The Plus will include VoIP (finally, a use for that microphone!), Windows Media 9 support and multimedia streaming from UPnP devices. The software upgrades will be available as a download to existing Pepper Pad owners and Pepper will have an upgrade program for those who wish to upgrade their unit to the Plus. No price has been set for the hardware upgrade program but the software upgrade will be free. In fact, Pepper frequently releases free software updates that add new features (Mobipocket and Flickr support being recent examples), and has top notch support via phone, email and fast, personalized help on their forum at www.pepper.com/forums. I posted a few questions on their forum one weekend (not revealing who I was or that I was reviewing the unit for a publication) and received answers to my questions in less than an hour. These days, high tech support is often limited and out-source to India-- what a refreshing change to get immediate, knowledgeable support.
We really like the Pepper Pad: it's intuitive, has a high resolution screen that's easy on the eyes, is rugged and offers instant on access to the Web and more. The Pad requires no maintenance and that means no service packs, anti-virus updates or spyware to deal with. The desktop browser experience is top notch and beats PDAs hands-down, the AV remote is a dream to use and the video player in conjunction with the Pad's high resolution display made us put our Archos back in the box. Internet radio streaming and MP3 playback mean you need never surf in silence and the 20 gig hard drive will hold a nice collection of media. It's kid-friendly thanks to the rugged design, touch screen and tinker-proof OS. If only it had a sketch application!
Pro: Very easy to use: no tech expertise needed. No maintenance, no virii, no spyware to worry about. Instant on means no waiting to boot up just to check your email or a TV listing. The unit is portable, rugged and family-proof. Great resolution and screen size for web surfing and Firefox gives a desktop-like experience. Photos and videos look great. Awesome AV Remote application. Excellent tech support, regular free OS and application updates. Can use USB and Bluetooth keyboards and mice. SD card slot is great for viewing digicam photos on the big screen. Touch screen eases navigation.
Con: Battery life isn't the Pepper Pad's strong point when surfing the Net or playing videos. Mail application supports only one email account— what were they thinking? Until the OS and software take advantage of the Intel 2700G graphics accelerator, high bitrate videos will drop frames in full screen playback. Battery isn't
user replaceable so you can't swap in a spare on the road. It's expensive! At $500 the unit would sell like hotcakes but at its current price appeal is more limited.
Display: 8.4" 64k color 800 x 600 SVGA TFT display. Intel 2700G graphics accelerator with 16 megs RAM.
Battery:3600 mAh Lithium
Ion rechargeable. Battery is not user replaceable.
Compact power adapter included.
XScale PXA 270 624 MHz processor. 256 MB built-in RAM. 20 gig 1.8" hard disk using ATA interface.
Size:12.1 x 6.6 x 0.8 inches. Weight: 2.3 pounds.
in stereo speakers, mic, 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
jack and mic jack. MP3 player included. Currently there are no apps that take advantage of the mic and mic line input... VoIP coming in Q2.
WiFi 802.11b (also supporting LEAP) and Bluetooth 1.2.
IR:Dual IR emitters and IR receiver for use as an AV remote.
SD / MMC card slot. Yes the hardware supports SDIO but NO, there are no drivers to enable it. 1 USB 1.1 port supporting USB host for use with USB flash drives, mass storage devices, USB keyboards and mice. Bluetooth for expansion using peripherals such as BT keyboards and mice.