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No computer? Device just prints e-mails

PUTS MESSAGES ON STATIONERY

By Larry Magid
Special to the Mercury News

October 18, 2006

Everyone in my wife’s extended family uses e-mail to keep in touch except my mother-in-law Lucy. Like many fellow octogenarians, Lucy hasn’t gotten around to buying a computer and getting online.

But, thanks to Hewlett-Packard and Presto Services, she’s now receiving e-mail from family members.

And all she has to do to retrieve her e-mail is pick up the paper from the output tray of the HP Printing Mailbox (that I borrowed for evaluation purposes and installed in her room).

The device looks pretty much like a typical ink-jet printer, only instead of a USB or printer port, it has a phone jack. The printer uses a plain old telephone line to call the service up to five times a day to check for e-mail.

It downloads any messages into the printer’s memory and prints them out. There’s no keyboard or screen so Lucy can’t respond, but she can get messages from her family and pictures of her grandchildren.

As Lucy’s “Presto Account Manager” I have access to a Web site where I can determine the times of day the device will call for e-mail, the print sizes for text (12, 14 or 16 point) and even the style of the stationery for the messages. I also manage the list of people who can send her e-mail.

This is a spam-free service because only people on that list can write to her (Lucy can call the company to have them add people). And, when her relatives sent her birthday greetings last week, all they had to do was include “[Presto Birthday]” in the subject line for the greeting to be printed on birthday stationery.

Lucy may have to replenish the printer with paper now and then, but that’s pretty easy to do — just lift the oversize lid and slip it in. Changing ink cartridges might be a tad trickier for her. My only complaint about the printer is that there isn’t a simple way to force it to dial on the spot. It can be done, but it’s a bit complicated. The company says it was left out because people might be disappointed if they don’t get e-mail when they press it.

The printer costs $149.99, the service is $9.99 a month and, of course, Hewlett-Packard will extract its usual ink tax for replacement.

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