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Smaller than a laptop, and not quite as good

It seems like a great idea: making a computer that's somewhere between the size of a cell phone and a laptop for people to carry around and surf the Web.

It's such a great idea that about a dozen companies have tried it, but most of these gadgets have met with complete apathy among consumers.

The Pepper Pad 3 is a new entry in this difficult field. It's a big slab-style tablet, almost 6 by 12 inches and an inch thick, with a small keyboard and a 7-inch touch screen. It lists for $850, but is available for $700 online.

Under the hood, the components are what you'd expect from a small laptop: a 20-gigabyte hard drive, 256 megabytes of memory, and a slow but power-thrifty 500 megahertz Advanced Micro Devices Inc. processor. Also, there's no DVD drive.

I really want to like the device, because Pepper Computer Inc., of Minneapolis, had the guts to give Microsoft Corp.'s Windows a pass and use Linux, an "indie" operating system.

The blueprints for Linux are freely available to anyone who wants to use them, making it a cheap and adaptable operating system, but the main use in homes so far has been to run TiVo boxes.

The Pepper Pad is explicitly not a replacement for a laptop or desktop PC, but a "couch computer" for home use. It's even set up to act as a universal remote for the entertainment center. But to spare you the suspense, let me say up front that this isn't the device that will break the curse of the Web tablet.

It has a real keyboard, split in two on either side of the screen, for thumb-typing. Not something you'd use for long e-mails, but adequate for pecking out Web addresses.

It has a good power-saving sleep mode, taking just 9 seconds to wake up. Once up, it takes less time to establish a Wi-Fi connection to the Internet than most laptops do.

For activities like surfing, the Linux software isn't a big impediment. The interface is a little different from Windows and Macintosh PCs, but it's intuitive enough, especially since the Pad has a stylus and touch screen.

But if you want to go further, you start running into problems. You're limited to installing the programs that are adapted for the Pad (unless you're a Linux whiz, in which case you can probably mess with the tablet any way you want).

Also, transferring files from a PC to the Pad wirelessly is clunky. You need to install an application on your PC, load it with files, and then "synch" them with the Pepper. I was unable to complete transfers of large movie files from the PC to the Pad. As a backup, I shuttled USB flash drives back and forth.

The Pad does play movies in a variety of formats, but apart from the problem of loading them, my unit had a flickering backlight when not plugged into the power adapter. Pepper Computer said this should not be typical.