Microsoft's new $199 box is aimed at serving technophobes who simply want access to the Internet, as well as geeks with complex home computer networks. It doesn't succeed well at achieving either goal.
Microsoft’s new MSN TV 2 Internet & Media Player tries to do two things at once, almost always a recipe for disaster in personal technology.
The $199 box, introduced in October as an update to the fading WebTV line, wants to offer simple, computer-free Internet access to technophobes as well as fancy home networking to discriminating ultrageeks.
At best, MSN TV 2 (www.microsoft.com) is only half-bad. The new design retains the simplicity of setup and operation that once made WebTV modestly popular. But the other intended audience, which Microsoft describes as “broadband enthusiasts,” will justifiably turn up its collective nose for reasons I’ll describe below.
The original WebTV, introduced in 1996, was an elegant $400 device for displaying Web pages and e-mail on a television set. The price was a bargain back then, when entry-level personal computers cost $1,500.
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MSN TV 2, the first major overhaul of WebTV, does the same things and can be a reasonable, if occasionally frustrating, alternative for anyone who insists on going online without a computer.
The creamy white and silver box, manufactured for Microsoft by RCA, is the size of a small DVD player and can be installed in minutes. You just plug in the power cord, a phone line, a left-right audio cable and either a standard yellow video plug or an S-Video cable. For broadband, you substitute an Ethernet cable or Wi-Fi adapter in place of the phone line.
You spend your first few minutes with MSN TV 2 opening an account. Unlimited dial-up service through a phone line is $21.95 a month, or $199.95 a year if you pay in advance.
Then you start browsing the Web using a wireless keyboard and handheld remote included with the MSN TV 2.
You also get an e-mail inbox with a generous 2 gigabytes of storage and can add up to 10 secondary accounts for family members with 250 megabytes of storage each.
Web pages are rejiggered and enlarged by Microsoft to look presentable on TV screens, which have less resolution than computer monitors and therefore display fuzzier text.
This makes the text readable, but it’s often a struggle to navigate complex Web pages when you’re seeing them only in chunks.
There’s also no mouse, only arrow keys on the remote and keyboard for moving a highlight box to any links you want to select.
When you’re trying to get to the middle of a long menu, that makes for a lot of thumb pressing.
MSN TV 2 has two USB ports for attaching an inkjet printer, a memory card reader for viewing digital pictures or a Wi-Fi adapter.
I found MSN TV 2 capable of meeting most Web challenges, including access to my secure online bank account, as well as playing streaming Internet radio and video broadcasts.
You can even use MSN Messenger for exchanging instant messages, although MSN TV 2 won’t work with the much more popular AOL Instant Messenger.
On the other hand, there’s a long list of things MSN TV 2 can’t do. You can’t write a letter, because the box has no word processor. You can’t edit a digital photograph or play a computer game or assemble a collection of digital music.
A well-configured entry-level Windows PC with monitor today costs as little as $500. There are all kinds of community resources for learning how to use a computer. So I view MSN TV 2 as a poor substitute that no longer offers a big cost savings.
For the computer savvy with a home computer network, Microsoft is pitching MSN TV 2 as a way to shift music, digital photos and video from a PC to a TV. To use MSN TV 2 through an existing broadband service costs $9.95 a month, or $99.95 a year.
Indeed, MSN TV 2 makes it easy to find digital photos, video and music on your PC’s hard drive for playback through a TV, as well as delivering of streaming Internet audio and video.
Microsoft even presents a custom menu of video clips for broadband subscribers, such as news segments from its MSNBC cable channel.
But broadband users won’t want MSN TV 2 for much else, because Web browsing, e-mail and instant messaging would be so much faster on a PC.
And that’s the fatal flaw. There’s a whole category of products for moving digital entertainment from PC to TV media receivers or media adapters that cost the same or less up front than MSN TV 2 and don’t require any kind of monthly fee.
One example: the Linksys Wireless-B Media Adapter WMA11B (www.linksys.com) at about $175.
There’s no reason, in other words, to pay $10 a month to Microsoft for the privilege of accessing your own media files.