Thursday, February 02, 2006

Putting WebTV to the Test

A good set of wheels doesn't make the road any smoother

by Carla Diana

[See Photo]

January 15, 1997 -- As a consumer electronics [Image]
critic, I regularly dole out complaints about
products. Last week I got a chance to put one of my
favorite products, WebTV, in front of an even harsher set
of critics: my parents. For Christmas, I showed up on
their doorstep with a Philips/Magnavox WebTV unit and
wireless keyboard, gift-wrapped with glad tidings from my
boyfriend and me.

Why would I subject my dear folks to the agony of
fruitless searches, the disappointment of meaningless
content, and the mind-numbing ennui of waiting for
webpages to load up? [Harrumph! -- Ed.] For one thing,
they've expressed interest in this thing called the
Internet for some time now. My mother -- as someone who
can start out looking up Mark Twain's birthdate, go
through six Encyclopedia Brittanica volumes, one World
Almanac and a Physician's Desk Reference, and end up
researching antidotes to Mad Cow Disease -- seemed the
type of person who could enjoy exploring cyberspace. Add
to this the bonus of their being able to e-mail me during
my impending extended visit to Rome, and I had a surefire
gift. Even if they had no use for the Web, twenty bucks a
month for unlimited e-mail is a pretty good deal.

Getting a computer was out of the question. The
unfriendly interface was intimidating to them -- why
force them to learn to use a mouse if you can get a
remote control to do the same thing? -- and way out of my
price range. WebTV, on the other hand, didn't require a
separate workstation or demand that they leave the
comfort of the couch to use it, so it quietly joined the
mountain of black-box set-top appliances.

Due to my family's excruciatingly discriminate tastes,
gifts are always bestowed with a patient understanding
that they might have to be returned. Since this one was
no different, I stood anxiously with receipt in hand as
we set it up (a breeze) and walked my parents through a
brief tutorial. We surfed through etown.com, which looked
pretty good, then The New York Times online, which looked
not so good. After programming some "favorites," sending
an e-mail message and checking the weather in my mother's
native Milan, my parents found surfing the Web to be
frustrating at times, but exciting enough to be worth the
effort.

There were some minor drawbacks to the hardware. The
remote control was well laid out, but its black buttons
are not terribly visible against black background and
have miniscule gray legends, so that even the commonly
used "go" button is difficult to read. The keyboard,
basically a compact version of a computer keyboard, shows
a similar lack of attention to detail. Keys corresponding
to basic functions like "send," "search" and "scroll up"
are labeled using mote-sized gray letters. The function
keys themselves are the same size and shape as the letter
keys, so that the user must revive her hunt-and-peck
abilities to avoid making a mistake. Since a major
function of the unit is e-mail, the "@" key could have
been isolated so you don't have to press "shift" each
time you use it, and the "return" key could have been
labeled with the word "go" to correspond with the screen
prompts. All of these are small complaints, although my
parents didn't enjoy having to continuously remove
eyeglasses (distance and reading), Clark Kent-style, in
order to see both the screen and the keyboard. They're
now considering bifocals.

The legibility of a screen full of
not-formatted-for-WebTV text was my biggest fear, and not
an unfounded one. We came across inscrutable letters more
than once, but for the most part I was pleased with the
way most websites looked from the couch. Whether it's
pleasant to read long texts on the TV screen is a
different question. I'm pretty sure that my Dad, who'll
never give up his beloved newspaper, no matter how bad
all those black smudges on the furniture are, will soon
resent this interactive takeover of his TV set when my
mother needs to look up the Italian stock market right
before a round of "Final Jeopardy." Sorry, Dad, but look
at the bright side: WebTV's inability to print or
download text means that it's more likely to be used for
quick checks rather than in-depth research.

The overall verdict: WebTV remains an affordable,
low-maintenance, user-friendly interface, but the
Internet still presents obstacles to the casual user.
Searching for information can be a chore, waiting for web
pages to load is tedious and good content isn't always
the reward for a tenacious hunt. As the web continues to
grow, getting a handle on what's out there becomes a
challenge for both users and content providers, and WebTV
is only the first iteration in the development of good
surf-ware. For now I doubt my parents will spend much
time reading on-line magazines or participating in forum
discussions. What they will do is use their WebTV as an
up-to-the minute living room/library reference tool when
they need to look up museum information, check theater
schedules, find out the weather and, of course, e-mail
their darling daughter while she's on the road.

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This column is an etown.com exclusive.

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