The Web has grabbed the attention of many people who hunger for information and entertainment, and groups as varied as the National Hockey League and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival have put huge efforts into making their Web sites attractive and informative. But, though TidBITS readers by definition already have some form of Internet access, many families lack the relatively modern computer, modem, and Internet service account needed to get online.
New consumer electronics products from Philips Magnavox and Sony, both licensing the WebTV name, make Web and email service available to anyone whose home has a television set and a phone line (just about everyone, although the set and phone jack must be in close physical proximity). The sleek, black gizmos cost about $300 (plus another $100 if you want the "optional" keyboard – you do) and service is about $20 per month, less than most folks pay for cable TV.
One big advantage of WebTV is that everything’s ready. There are no software programs to shuffle, no special utilities to download if you want to listen to sound or view video, and no out of memory errors or general protection faults. The unit has a built-in, high-speed modem (33.6 Kbps v.34bis), so all you need to do is hook up the cables from the WebTV to your telephone jack, an electrical outlet, and your TV.
The WebTV concept is that home users want entertainment and information to come to them. The basic WebTV model, with just a handheld remote control and no keyboard, meets that goal. You can browse to your heart’s content, using arrow buttons on the remote to move around a Web page, and the Go button to follow a link or choose an option. This feels odd to someone accustomed to a mouse, but isn’t too foreign; it reminds me of programming a VCR.
WebTV displays Web pages on your television screen. Even if your TV is much bigger than most computer screens, it can’t display as much information: TVs don’t have as much resolution as even a 640 by 480 monitor, though the WebTV’s S-Video port provides a slightly better picture for TVs that support S-Video. Many Web pages look quite different on a WebTV than they do in Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer. For instance, thanks to the interlaced nature of TV screens, horizontal rules flicker on a WebTV if they are only one pixel high. Generally speaking, text may wrap differently and graphics may appear elsewhere than the designer intended. Web pages designed for unusually large monitors (a bad idea in my opinion) will be difficult to deal with.
Real Updates — The latest WebTV version supports RealAudio, which enables Web users listen to concerts, newscasts, and other sounds in real time. The bandwidth of a modem connection provides high enough fidelity that voice (such as a newscast) sounds fine and music (such as a concert broadcast) is passable. Early WebTV buyers will find that their unit can update itself to include this feature and others; when the WebTV developers complete new abilities, each unit offers to retrieve the needed software and update itself. Updates takes several minutes by modem, so the WebTV asks if you’d like to take the time before it does so.
Email for Everyone — WebTV can do email, too, and can keep track of up to five private mailboxes. This kind of email is probably best suited to writing to the kids at college, or having Becky and Timmy drop Grandma a line. The WebTV can’t fit enough text on a TV screen to show much of an email message at once, and the (Helvetica-like) proportional font makes formatted email useless, but sending and receiving short messages should work fine.
This brings us to the issue of typing. Most Internet users will need to type from time to time, even if they never use email. To tell your WebTV to visit "www.cnn.com" or "www.tidbits.com" you must type the address. WebTV lets you use the remote control to hunt-and-peck on an onscreen keyboard reminiscent of the Newton’s; this is easy to master (you can even switch between the standard QWERTY typewriter layout and an alphabetical arrangement) but painfully slow.
The keyboard uses the same infrared remote control technology as the WebTV remote, so you can sit on the couch and type with the keyboard on your lap. It’s a compact keyboard, and might take some getting used to, but it’s much better for typing than the remote control.
Mark Likes It! I was surprised that the WebTV’s browser grew on me; I’ve enjoyed the couch-potato approach to Web surfing and appreciate the ability to pop up a Web page whose URL appears in a TV program or commercial. In other words, even long-time Internet users can be heavy WebTV users. Naturally, WebTV’s target market is the family that doesn’t have a computer, but I can see real value to adding a WebTV even for a connected family. While you’re at it, buy one for Grandma, too.