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The cutting-edge couch surfer

June 23, 1998
Web posted at: 12:50 PM EDT

by Christina Wood

(IDG) -- Okay, desk jockeys--get out the popcorn, crack open a cold one, and hit the couch. Tonight you get to do more than flip channels while your brain goes on holiday. You're going to surf the Net, play a few games, build yourself a new Web page, and send some e-mail. Sound like work?

Nope. It's play--and here's how you can tell: You're in your living room parked in front of the TV.

Suddenly the wacky world of home electronics is rich with choices for transforming that idiot box into an entertainment, research, and communications center for the entire family.

Why, you might ask, would you want to turn a perfectly good TV--source of endless hours of passive, vacant entertainment--into a computer, source of endless hours of work and frustration? I wondered the same thing. After all, this is my living room we're talking about. So the answer had better be "to provide cutting-edge entertainment to a group of comfortably seated people, preferably holding cocktails." I also wouldn't mind not having to fight the rest of the family for computer time to surf the Internet.

So with fun in mind, I looked at three approaches to getting as much computing power out of television as possible--from set-top boxes that turn your TV into a Web-surfing machine, to high-end computers that attach to your television, to devices that connect your PC and TV. I found that you don't need to spend thousands of dollars to get the Net on your set.

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The Jaguar of Computers

The Philips DVX8000 Multimedia Home Theater is the Jaguar driver's answer to computing. This slick, sexy, powerful machine will definitely make people envy you. But it isn't exactly a financially sound choice, and it will need constant tinkering.

The DVX8000 looks like a fancy stereo, but it's actually a 233-MHz PC with a Pentium MMX processor, a hard disk, a floppy drive, a 33.6-kilobits-per-second modem, two Universal Serial Bus ports, and standard PC connectors. It's also got a TV tuner, high-end video, an FM tuner, a Marantz-designed preamplifier, Surround Sound, and a player for DVD movies, DVD-ROMs, CD-ROMs, and audio CDs. And there's more: a wireless keyboard, plus a remote control that looks like something Mr. Spock would carry. Without the TV, speakers, or (necessary) amplifier, the DVX8000 lists for $5000. Ouch! To make matters worse, it's worth buying only if you also have a very high-resolution TV or (preferably) a giant monitor. Set-top boxes that perform many of the same functions but cost only about $1000 should be available later this year.

As with any Jaguar car, though, the DVX8000's fun factor is very high. The Myst sequel Riven was stunning on my 25-inch TV and captured the gaze of everyone present. Playing You Don't Know Jack while reclining on the couch was a blast--the best use of the TV set I've seen. My son loved playing his kid games, and when we watched a DVD movie in Surround Sound, the earth moved.

But computing or Net-surfing on my fairly-new-but-not-high-res TV was a bust. I nearly went blind trying to read e-mail, and the World Wide Web was a hopeless blur. Forget using Word, Quicken, or a greeting card maker--I couldn't see them at all. After a few hours of squinting, I had to take some ibuprofen and lie down.

When my headache was gone, I selflessly returned to my research. I wanted to see how a DVD game would play from the couch. Since they're still a tad scarce, the only one I have is Silent Steel. But before I even got to play, my TV crashed. Not only that, but after I rebooted (my TV!) I couldn't get any sound: My home entertainment system was reduced to a hobbled Pentium PC that would let me watch but not listen to HBO.

I learned one important lesson here: Don't let Windows near any device--TV, toaster, hair dryer, whatever--that you want to be able to just turn on and use. Troubleshooting the television is not my idea of fun.

If Mickey Mouse Had a PC

Another device that tries to turn your TV into a computer is the Wireless PC@TV. It intercepts the signal that your PC sends to the monitor and transmits it through radio waves to your television set. I installed the transmitter on my PC and hooked up the receiver to my TV upstairs. The process turned my office into a rat's nest of wires, but it worked. I turned on the TV, and there was my computer desktop. Using the infrared keyboard with built-in mouse, I could run applications, send and receive e-mail through my Internet service provider, and play games--all from the comfort of my couch. Amazing!

But that's where the magic ended. I had to tinker for hours to get the remote mouse to work, and I had to run downstairs to the office to pop in a CD-ROM game. None of it was worth the effort. The keyboard is very nice, but everything looked terrible on the TV. I couldn't read the screens, and navigating through e-mail and Web pages was a nightmare. Worst of all, waiting for the signal to travel between my TV and PC made my brand-new Pentium II-233 run like it was a 486--an old 486. Even if the product costs only $400, it's at best a Mickey Mouse solution.

Sometimes Simple Is the Best Idea

Next I went for simplicity--WebTV. It just does one thing: connects your TV to the Internet. It won't run CD-ROMs, so forget about playing Riven or You Don't Know Jack in the living room. And WebTV doesn't currently run Windows, so you can't even play any downloadable games. (Future versions will support Windows CE, or so Microsoft says.)

But even without games (sigh), I found WebTV to be the best of the three approaches. I looked at the WebTV Plus, developed by Microsoft and available in stores from Mitsubishi, Philips Magnavox, and Sony (prices start around $200). I also checked out the older version, the $99 WebTV Internet Terminal. I preferred WebTV Plus even though it costs more. A nice picture-in-picture feature lets you watch TV in a window while you surf. The wireless keyboard (which costs an additional $70) is delightful. And if you subscribe to the WebTV Plus network for $19.95 a month, you can scroll through TV listings and jump directly from some shows to relevant Internet sites. WebTV Plus also comes with a 1GB hard disk. Best of all, the Internet and e-mail both look good on the TV screen--no squinting necessary. And surfing the Web is fun with a crowd, a drink, and comfortable seating (though it does escalate remote control wars).

What makes WebTV more than just a fun toy is a new Web site that lets you do some remedial computing in the living room: Inergy provides Internet-resident e-mail, a contact manager, a word processor, a Web page designer, and some other basic computing tools. It's a subscription site: Each application costs $5 per month, and comes with 10MB of storage space on the site (you can buy more). Subscribers just log on to use the tools; no other software is needed. The tools are adequate--the word processor has a thesaurus and a spelling checker, the contact manager is pretty good, and the Web page designer is very basic. None are likely to compete with Microsoft Office, but they run fairly quickly over the Internet. Just try that with Word.

You can pick up messages from any computer or Internet device that's handy. I even uploaded some files from my PC to the Inergy site, then used my TV screen to build my own Web page.

What Do You Want?

So this is the choice you'll have to make: Are you willing to spend a lot of money to get complete computing power (including games)? Or would you rather spend less cash and get the Internet and a little computing power? If fun is the deciding factor, I'll stick with WebTV. Don't get me wrong--I'd like to play CD-ROM and DVD games in the living room. (In fact, I'm hankering for a game of Jack right now.) But I could buy a lot of cool toys with $5000-plus--the money it would take to make the DVX8000 sing--and so far those $1000 set-top boxes are nowhere to be found.

Frankly, I may be an intrepid computer journalist, but I'm not ready to let Windows loose in my living room.

Christina Wood is a contributing editor for PC World.
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