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Macintosh TV: It Slices, It Dices

Is Macintosh TV the wave of the future for the next generation of Macintosh-using couch potatoes? Or is it merely a special edition gimmick that will run afoul of societal customs? That’s what Apple intends to find out.

Macintosh TV combines a IIvx-class Macintosh with a color television monitor. The Macintosh details include a 32 MHz 68030 (no word on the speed of the data bus, the albatross slung around the neck of the IIvx) with 5 MB of RAM, a SuperDrive, and a 160 MB hard disk. The hard disk is no doubt standard, but Apple limited RAM expandability to 8 MB, which is pure idiocy in today’s world where 8 MB is rapidly becoming a realistic minimum configuration. I suspect that the 5 MB comes in the form of 4 MB soldered on and a 1 MB SIMM in a single slot, but I can’t imagine why Apple would prevent you from putting an 8 MB or 16 MB SIMM in that slot. It’s also unclear which motherboard model Apple used – only the original PowerBooks were limited to 8 MB of RAM, but none used 32 MHz processors.

Like the Performas, Macintosh TV comes with various pieces of bundled software, including ClarisWorks 2.0 (perfect for many students), the American Heritage Electronic Dictionary, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, HomeWork Templates, and the Performa Click Art Collection. Bundled CD-ROMs include Grolier’s Multimedia Encyclopedia, World Atlas, Space Shuttle, Wonders of the World (Volume I), Time Almanac 1993, and the Kodak Photo CD Sampler.

The television is a 14" color Sony Trinitron display capable of displaying 8-bit color (256 colors) with a .26 mm dot pitch (that’s good). Although the system has 512K VRAM, there’s no telling if you could add more. More interestingly, Macintosh TV includes a built-in cable tuner. Interaction between the television and the computer is limited to frame grabbing, channel surfing, password-protection of TV mode, and closed captions, although many of these features I’d have to see to fully understand. The frame grabbing feature will prove incredibly popular, I suspect, and I’m sure we’ll soon see 640 x 480 startup screens from every imaginable television show and movie. Do keep in mind that you may violate copyright law by grabbing such a screen shot and distributing it, even for free.

Apple didn’t stop with the Macintosh and the TV, but added a standard AppleCD 300i internal double-speed CD-ROM drive. The CD-ROM drive plays normal audio CDs and CD-ROMs, and is compatible with Kodak’s PhotoCD format disks.

Normal TV and computer features abound, so you can attach all sorts of Macintosh peripherals, as well as TV peripherals like a VCR, camcorder, laserdisc player, or video game unit. A single infrared remote controls both the TV functions and the CD player, and I bet that someone at MacHack next year will hack it to control the Mac as well.

If Macintosh TV sounds like an experiment, that’s because it is. Apple only sells Macintosh TV in the U.S. (a chorus of groans arises from international readers – I know) and only via selected consumer retail stores, higher education dealers, and the Apple Catalog. The price isn’t bad at $2,079 (and that’s the ApplePrice, which means that you probably won’t find significant discounts from it), and there is only the one configuration.

If I were in college, I’d be drooling over Macintosh TV, although I still think I would have preferred a Duo over a desktop Mac of any sort. Nonetheless, the college market is perfect for such a machine. Many college students don’t yet have TVs, Macs, or CD players, and with the addition of some decent speakers (a slightly strange omission), you’ve got a fabulous dorm room system (minus a radio, unfortunately). Dorm rooms, generally being smaller than the average broom closet, won’t suffer from what I see as the major problem such a Mac will face – placement. It sounds silly, but how many of you watch TV from the same location as you work on your Mac? I’m willing to bet the percentage is low – my mother always told me to move back from the TV when I was a kid (apparently The Mother’s Manual knew about VLF and ELF radiation long ago) but you can’t read a computer screen from six feet away. Most normal furniture that holds TVs isn’t designed to function as a desk (the ergonomic implications of people using TV stands as desk are painful to consider), and frankly, 14" is a bit small for a TV these days. There’s also a question of whether or not many people think of TVs and computers as being related – TVs encourage passivity whereas computers require interaction. Interactive TV has generally flopped – will the same societal viewpoints hurt Macintosh TV?

Finally, although it seems to make sense to combine these electronic gadgets, similar attempts at combining fax machines, scanners, printers, and copiers have generally failed miserably. Macintosh TV could run afoul of the same problem – why buy a Macintosh TV when you already have a TV or a Macintosh? Because it’s cool, that’s why!

So no, I don’t think that Macintosh TV will put the Mac into every living room. I do think it that will be perfect for a high school or college student who doesn’t already have a computer, television, or CD player. Putting it all into a single case was intelligent as well, since the people for whom Macintosh TV makes sense move frequently, and it’s a pain to deal with gobs of different components and cables.

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