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Internet Power for the PC-Challenged

By Jim Bray

If you covet cyberspace but have no computer, covet no longer.

Thanks to Microsoft and Sony's set top WebTV box, you can not only surf the World Wide Web and correspond via e-mail, you can greatly enhance your TV viewing experience at the same time.

WebTV is really cool - and "techneophytes" may find it a marvelous compromise between an unfriendly PC and the virtual world. WebTV comes wiht the set top box and its "point and click" remote control. The remote is good for all the usual audio/video functions (and is easily programmable to work different brands and components) and it also works well for navigating the Web Browser's screen.You can even use it to hunt and peck on an onscreen keyboard - for typing in e-mail or Internet URL addresses - but you'd have to be some kind of nut to do this more than once.

A far better solution is the cute little wireless keyboard that's available as an option. They should really just mark the system up a few bucks and include the keyboard in the price.

Anyway, the box that's the WebTV system's heart is a little smaller than a VCR and plugs into your TV either via cable or audio/video RCA patch cord. There's also a parallel printer port for outputting the wonders of the Web.

Hookup and configuration are easy, and an onscreen help/tour familiarizes you with the operations. When you set it up, you type in your zip/postal code so it knows in which neck of the woods you live, and your cable and/or satellite operator. Then, and on subsequent overnights, it downloads searchable TV listings and information and stores it on the system's built in hard drive.

This "Enhanced TV" is really neat. It's similar in concept to the onscreen guides you can get on some higher end TV's, or with digital cable or satellite services, but it goes them a couple of steps more. For instance, if a particular TV show has a related web site, you can visit it via WebTV's built in 56K modem while you're watching the program (or anytime, really). There's also related information made available through an "info" link.

You can also channel surf on your TV, without disturbing the show you're watching, or visit recently viewed channels or web pages. Incidentally, this picture-in-picture facility is done digitally and doesn't require PIP capability in your TV.

Enhanced TV can also offer "information on the fly," which I witnessed during a hockey game broadcast. During the game, a little “i” appeared at the top right corner of the TV screen, and it was hyperlinked to player and team info and stats from the team’s Web site. You can surf the team while the game continues onscreen at the same time.

Now if only if I liked hockey…

As a Web Browser, WebTV leaves something to be desired, but remember this is new technology and it will be upgraded automatically by download - and in fact has already seen at least one upgrade since its introduction.

The biggest problem with browsing via WebTV isn't WebTV's fault; thanks to the resolution of today's TV's, its resolution is something like 544 x 378 pixels, as opposed to the 640 x 480, 800 x 600 or higher of computer monitors. This makes for a smaller, less crisp window onto the virtual world - and I noticed that sites that use a lot of red tend to be a mite smeary.

But it's a real, live Browser and, other than things like Flash movies (they say it shows Flash movies, but during the short time I had WebTV for the test it only showed a demo move for me and refused to acknowledge all the other Flash movies I encountered), it’ll let you view pretty well everything that's out there in cyberspace.

The 56K modem is slow compared to cable modems and other high speed connections, but comparable to what many PC users have.

The WebTV service costs $24.95US ($34.95 in Canada) a month, for unlimited hours, which seems a bit pricey when compared with some ISP services or cable fees - but don't forget the TV extras you're getting in the price. You can also access WebTV via a conventional ISP (WebTV then costs only $14.95US/month - plus your ISP rates), as long as your ISP of choice can support WebTV. WebTV says that 95% of ISP's can offer the service, so it shouldn't be difficult finding one if you want to go that route - or if you already have an ISP for your PC's Internet access.

WebTV can be the ideal solution for people who don't want to buy a PC (or who can't afford a decent one) but who want to surf and/or e-mail. Despite its shortcomings as a Browser, it does almost everything a surfer could want - and what it does for TV is well thought out and welcome.

Hopefully, more web site designers will take WebTV into account when they build their sites. I ran into several that required side to side scrolling because they didn't lend themselves to the "scrunched" WebTV Browser, and many use a lot of red, which as mentioned above looks smeary on your television.

To be honest, I didn't expect much from WebTV. I thought it would be little more than a gimmick that made a lot of compromises when it comes to the WWW - but I was wrong. It's a slick and well thought out system that, despite a few birth defects and other flaws not necessarily of its making, deserves a real shot.


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January 31, 2006