We’ve all heard about how wonderful network computers will be for the last two years. So far, the hype has exceeded the quality of the product, and the prices for those NCs on the market has been not much lower than a low-end PC. The idea behind network computers – small, inexpensive desktop machines that are dependent on a server – is a good idea for many users who don’t need high-power workstations on their desk.

NeoWare (formerly HDS) has entered the NC fray with an attractive and handy unit called the NeoStation. (We tested the NeoWare @workstation, a much larger unit, which won our "Top of the World award in a NC wrapup last year.) The NeoStation is a small black unit that looks like an oversized modem standing on end. Standing on end with an included base that attaches to the bottom back end of the NC resulted in a surprisingly stable unit. Small feet are also included in the package if you want to lay the NC on its side. On end, it looks quite dashing, though, so that’s the way we left it. It also fit neatly next to the monitor, almost out of sight.

The front of the unit has a power button and microjacks for a microphone and headphone. The back has standard PS/2-style mouse and keyboard inputs (also called ATX size), a 15-pin VGA monitor jack, an RJ45 Ethernet port, one DB9 serial port and a parallel port. Also on the back is a power connector socket which leads to a sizable transformer, then to a standard electrical cable. The back of our unit had blocked-off holes for a second serial port and a slot marked "PC Cards", which could hold promise if the unit accepts standard PCMCIA (now PC Card) cards. These ports become available for additional cost.

Connecting the NeoStation was easy. Everything you need in included in the nicely packaged NeoWare box, except for the monitor. NeoWare supplied us with a no-name 17-inch unit, but we suspect you can use any late-model monitor with a VGA jack that supports multiple frequencies and resolutions. Plug all the connectors in where they should go (the keyboard and mouse are supplied), attach to the network, and power up. A configuration utility is used to provide connection information, such as whether an IP address is permanently assigned or one is dynamically received at boot time.

The NeoStation is being marketed primarily as a Windows NT and Windows 95 terminal, although it can be used with UNIX. To drive the NeoStation from a UNIX server, you need a copy of the NetOS for Intranets server software. This wasn’t provided in our review package, but it is downloadable from the NeoWare Web site once a password for access has been obtained. We still had a copy of NetOS from our @workstation test on our SCO OpenServer machine, so we used that.

When connected to a SCO OpenServer machine the NeoStation appears like a standard X terminal, running at basic Ethernet speeds. We measured an average loaded throughput of 3Mbps on a dedicated connection between the NeoStation, an unmanaged hub, and the SCO OpenServer unit. Fast Ethernet is supposedly supported, but our NeoStation would not switch into fast mode with our test network even when the server was forced to 100Mbps operation. The NeoStation can use Ntrigue/X and can run any Java applets directly, as did the @workstation. All applications (except Java) run on the server, not the NeoStation, so you’ll need a powerful server if you plan to install a lot of NeoStations on your network. We didn’t test the NeoStation with any Java applets, as few users in a real UNIX network use them. We managed to get 1024x768 resolution from our test NeoStation, and an upgrade can boost resolution to 1600x1200.

In short, the NeoStation is an attractive network computer that works well without requiring special treatment. Using NeoStation with Windows NT is a lot easier than with UNIX, but both can happily be reached by the unit with a NetOS installation. For the price, the NeoStation is a better buy than many fancy X terminals.