Beyond iCEBOX FlipScreen Entertainment Center

The kitchen used to be considered mom's domain. But it's now the central gathering point in most homes. During parties, people congregate sipping cocktails and chatting while waiting for the food to cook. Mail is read and checks are written at the kitchen table. Messages are transmitted via refrigerator magnet. While we live much of our lives in the kitchen, it's a room that has largely been ignored by home-entertainment technology.

Until now.

The iCEBOX FlipScreen ($2,300) launches your kitchen into the 21st century. It's the first in a series of networkable devices in Salton's Beyond line. Opening the box, you're greeted by the message: "Your kitchen is about to get cooler." Indeed!

The iCEBOX is so cool because it combines all of our favorite activities - watching TV and DVDs, listening to CDs or FM radio, and surfing the Web or doing e-mail - in a stylish, easy-to-use package that won't get in your way when not in use. The 23 5/8 x 3 3/4 x 11 7/8-inch unit comes in silver or black and mounts discreetly under a kitchen cabinet. (An iCEBOX CounterTop version is in the works.)

While Salton recommends professional installation, it's really a breeze to do it yourself - anyone handy with a drill should have it up and running in less than 2 hours. At a minimum, you'll need an electrical outlet and a cable-TV connection where you're mounting the system. But to bring the Internet into your kitchen, you'll need either a telephone jack or, if you have a broadband connection, an Ethernet jack. And if your home network is wireless-capable, there are two PC Card slots that can, among other things, accept Wi-Fi cards.

The iCEBOX's heart is a bright 12-inch LCD touchscreen with 800 x 600-pixel resolution that flips down and then rotates and tilts for easy viewing from wherever your kitchen tasks take you. You can also interact with the system using the supplied keyboard or remote control, both of which are waterproof.

The built-in cable-TV tuner lets you watch your favorite shows right in the kitchen, without having to strain to see the TV in the next room. Flip on the set, and you can keep an eye on the big game while cooking up a pot of wings for your buddies, or jump online to check out the stats. Pop in a DVD, and you can enjoy your favorite movie or create a distraction for the kids.

Watching a letterboxed movie on a 12-inch screen can be a challenge, but the progressive-scan image looked surprisingly good. Animated titles like A Bug's Life and Toy Story were bright and vivid. And the iCEBOX's small speakers deliver enough sound to fill all but the largest kitchens.

Need to keep an eye on the kids or see who's at the front door? The feed from a remote video camera is easily connected and selected with one button press. The iCEBOX can play both regular CDs and ones with MP3 or Windows Media Audio (WMA) files, displaying title information on the touchscreen. One of my homemade MP3/WMA compilations with 200-plus songs played fine in consecutive order but hung up in random-play mode. Standard CDs and MP3/WMA compilations with a more modest track total had no problems.

While dial-up Internet access is supported, the iCEBOX does not support Internet service providers that require software installation. (AOL subscribers, this means you.) But iCEBOX really shines when it's used with a high-speed broadband connection. When a link appears onscreen, simply touch it - no need to click a mouse - and the Internet Explorer 5.5 browser takes you to that site. I found myself reading e-mail while waiting for something to finish microwaving.

Although the iCEBOX resembles and acts like a mini PC, it's not a full-fledged computer - it can't download or store information, and it can't stream audio from the Net (though Salton plans to add this feature later in 2004). About 95% of Web pages loaded without a hitch. But the iCEBOX runs Macromedia Flash 5.0, so sites optimized for Version 6.0 wouldn't load correctly. Salton's tech support told me the firmware, including the operating system (Windows CE.NET) and browser, will be automatically updated (for free) via downloads as the fixes become available. So the iCEBOX you buy today should stay cool for a long time.

The iCEBOX FlipScreen is one of those products you think you don't need until after you've lived with it - and then don't know how you ever lived without it.

iCEBOX, Dept. S&V, 83 S. King St., Suite 520, Seattle, WA 98104;; 877-463-7637