Black Boxes: I Want My WebTV
WebTV Internet Terminal
($250; $20 monthly Internet service fee)
Sony Electronics Inc.
One Sony Drive
Park Ridge, NJ 07656
About three years ago, the World Wide Web changed rapidly from a playground for computer nerds into one of the most compelling new forms of media content available to the consumer. At the same time, a significant number of the world's couch potatoes migrated to the newer form of content and became Web potatoes, exchanging part of their time in front of the TV tube for time in front of the computer monitor.
Until recently, the numbers of television viewers who had the luxury to migrate to the new form of content were limited to those who had a PC and a connection to the Internet. Now, a new kind of inexpensive consumer device seeks to change all that, and provide Web and e-mail services with true plug-and-play simplicity--without the need for a home computer. The device is called the WebTV Internet Terminal, and it opens up many new doors for those who want to join the information age, but don't necessarily want the hassles associated with owning a computer.
The WebTV Internet Terminal is currently marketed by several manufacturers, the main two being Sony and Philips/Magnavox. The devices manufactured by both companies are functionally identical, and the WebTV network that connects them is the same network, regardless of which terminal you use. Microsoft's recent acquisition of the WebTV network also opens up several new avenues of possibility for the future (more on this later). We tested Sony's WebTV (model INT-W100) on a handful of different home televisions, and in a couple of different social situations (alone, with friends, with children present, etc.). Here's what we came up with.
New Uses for Your Old TV
The WebTV terminal is very easy to install in any home entertainment center. The setup procedure consists of the following simple steps: plug in the power and the phone cord; connect the terminal to your television; configure your WebTV account through the on-screen menus; then search the Web and send e-mail to your heart's content. Anyone who has ever gone through the hassle of setting up a typical computer-based Web connection will be amazed at how simple WebTV has made the process.
A couple of notes on cabling: if your television has no RCA-style audio/video connectors, you might need to purchase an RF modulator to hook up the WebTV terminal to your TV. For those who have more sophisticated televisions, the WebTV terminal comes with S-video connectors, which will transmit picture information more cleanly than standard composite or RF cables.
The standard version of WebTV comes with a remote controller that's capable of performing every task necessary to search the Web, write and send e-mail messages, keep track of your favorite sites, or anything else that the WebTV terminal can handle. The main drawback to this method of cruising around the Internet becomes apparent when it's time to enter text; the lack of a keyboard necessitates a slow, laborious process of choosing letters of the alphabet with a cursor and entering them one at a time. Fortunately, a WebTV infrared keyboard is available for $70, and is highly recommended for those who want to get the most out of their Internet experiences. This handy, wireless device will allow you to sit on the couch while you type e-mail messages or URLs to your heart's content.
For the most part, the WebTV terminal makes Web content very easy to view from the couch. Some Web sites--especially those that make use of small text--are difficult or impossible to see through the television interface, but such sites are rare. The terminal successfully translates most text into a crisp, readable font that's easy on the eyes, and graphics come through looking very sharp and colorful.
Those who are familiar with the Web know that there isn't just one form of content available on most pages and sites; technologies like Java, Shockwave, video and audio streaming (such as Progressive Networks' RealAudio or RealVideo, VDOnet's VDOLive, etc.) and embedded animation files are among the many types of digital media available to Internet connoisseurs. The list of media technologies that our test unit would play included RealAudio, GIF animations and most standard digital audio types. This means that your WebTV experience should include plenty of sounds, animations and interactivity.
What you won't see with the first version of WebTV, however, are the frames that have become common fare on the Web since the advent of HTML 2.0. Also missing is a way to view digitial video files, such as MPEGs, QuickTime videos or .avi files. But perhaps one of the biggest problems with WebTV is the high cost of subscribing--especially if you already pay an Internet service provider for your computer connection. Other TV-based Internet devices that should be on the market soon will allow you to select your own service provider--but for now, WebTV offers only their own service for $20 per month.
As for viewing multimedia sites created with Macromedia's Shockwave, an upgrade that will enable this type of interactive content is scheduled for late 1997. Microsoft's recent acquisition of WebTV also poses some interesting scenarios for the future--not the least of which are the possible addition of a small internal hard drive, and the replacement of the software interface with Windows CE, a slimmed-down version of the popular PC-based graphical user interface.
The concept behind the WebTV is pretty simple, and can be summarized in the name of the product itself: Web access on your TV. Unfortunately, this could be one of the product's main drawbacks as well as its chief selling point. The idea is to use your TV to access the Web--but most TVs are already busy most of the day accessing TV programming, and I'd wager that a large number of today's Web surfers access the Internet while someone else is watching the television. In other words, the WebTV terminal could very well create a conflict in the household between those who want to view a certain TV program and those who want to access the Internet.
In its current form, Internet activity is a very solitary enterprise, usually consisting of a single human being sitting in front of a computer and navigating content of his or her choice at whim. With the advent of WebTV, the possibility exists for a new type of Web experience, one which necessitates a greater degree of cooperation among family members. Here's why: as you navigate the Web from your couch with a number of friends or family members, somebody must be in charge of which pages to look at, when to proceed to the next page, etc. Also, not everyone reads at the same pace, so traditional Web content that is largely text-based doesn't play very well from the couch.
Sites that will play well from the couch, however, include slideshow-type graphical presentations and interactive edutainment content presented through branching, graphical menus. This is why the existence of WebTV means much more to the industry than just a new way to access the Internet; if they gain a large enough user base, WebTV-type devices have the potential to transform large portions of existing Internet and/or television content into something newer, fresher--and, in the end, smarter--than anything we've seen before.
Sony INT-W100 WebTV Internet Terminal
Modem Speed: 33.6 kilobits per second
Processor: 112 MHz, 64-bit RISC-based
Connectors: Keyboard, telephone (RJ-11, for data transfer only), S-video, composite video, stereo audio; smart card slot and WebTV 96-pin port for future upgrades
Remote Controls: Web/TV selector, TV channel selector, recent pages, scroll page, home/back page, arrow selector buttons (for choosing URLs and navigating menus), volume
Optional Accessories: RM-KW100 wireless keyboard; RFU-W100 RF adapter (for TVs that lack standard RCA-style A/V inputs)
Parental Control: SurfWatch
Supported Media Types: HTML 3.0 (minus frames), MIDI, .wav, RealAudio
Unsupported Media Types: Java, Shockwave, digital video playback (note: all three will likely be supported in future upgrades of the WebTV software)
Dimensions: 11.1 (width) by 2 (height) by 8.2 (depth) inches
Strengths: Easy to install
Crisp, clear output
Weaknesses: No digital video playback
No way to connect to outside Internet provider
Summary: A great on-ramp to the Web for non-computer users
Joe McCleskey is Smart TV's technical editor.