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A new spin on channel surfing

WebTV merges television and the World Wide Web, but don't expect it to replace your home computer just yet.

By DAVE GUSSOW, Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 17, 2000


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The DishPlayer 500 includes a satellite dish, keyboard, remote and a set-top box that includes a digital video recorder.
Saturday night plans solved: No trip to a video store. No choosing from the usual suspects on cable TV.

This time, we could simply select something from hundreds of channels available from the Dish TV satellite network and WebTV. So we looked . . . and looked . . . and didn't find anything. No movies or programs that enticed, no sports that excited, not even on pay per view. Nada.

Could TV be an even vaster wasteland with satellite? Not really. Despite that Saturday setback and a few glitches, a two-month test of WebTV in this writer's home office turned up a lot to like.

Overall, my family found the Web part of WebTV less rewarding than the TV end of the neologism. And if the future means TV and the Web are merging, it's a marriage that needs some work.

The WebTV Network Plus service includes a DishPlayer 500 satellite receiver and set-top box from EchoStar Communications Corp. plus the WebTV online service from Microsoft. The package includes personal TV service with a digital video recorder (to die for), on-screen TV listings, a remote control that's a couch potato's dream machine and a modem to connect to the Internet through a phone line.

The installers arrived at the scheduled time. It took a little more than two hours for them to find the right spot on the roof for the satellite dish, which is about 20 inches in diameter, set it up, drill a hole through the outside wall and check it out. They set up the set-top box before they arrived, which knocked 30 to 40 minutes off the time I would have had to spend getting it going.

Tallying WebTV costs
Along with all the other gadgets, they ought to throw in a calculator with WebTV just to track how much the package of hardware and services costs.
For a company that sometimes mocks the phrase "ease of use" with its software, Microsoft makes WebTV a breeze for even the newest of newbies. On-screen directions -- in English, not technobabble -- lead users smoothly, step by step, to register and enter credit card information. Help is never far away.

It took only a few minutes to set up the account and e-mail (up to six e-mail accounts are allowed). But it didn't take much squinting to realize that WebTV would present a challenge for my aging eyes. Sitting about 6 feet from a 27-inch TV, I found reading e-mail and Web pages difficult. Typing on my desk chair while balancing the keyboard on my lap also was a new experience, as was adjusting to a keyboard about half the size of a standard one.

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WebTV users can use Personal TV, above, to schedule automatic digital recordings of shows.

I also had to readjust to a dialup connection for the Internet, having been spoiled by a cable modem at home and a high-speed connection at work. Even with a 56K modem, the Web on TV seemed to take forever to load pages. One night, I called up the same Web sites on my PC and had no trouble accessing sites that were still loading on the TV. Several times, I couldn't even log on to the service. Flashbacks to other dialup services crossed my mind.

That doesn't mean getting the Web over TV is a bad alternative for someone who doesn't want to buy a PC or pay more for high-speed service.

Lee Cave, president of the Hernando Symphony Orchestra, has been using WebTV for about two years for surfing and e-mail, with a 13-inch TV as his monitor. Cave, who uses a word processor for writing, calls WebTV "a worthwhile half-step" for someone who doesn't want a PC.

His only complaints: Some Web sites aren't accessible, the monthly fee is higher than other services, and it's difficult to get technical help for problems.

But it was the TV part of WebTV that proved appealing, particularly the remote control and the set-top box receiver/recorder with a hard drive that can hold up to 12 hours of video.

The enhanced TV listings are a breeze to navigate. Search by daily listings, categories such as movies, sports or news (and subcategories for each, such as baseball, basketball or football) or a keyword. The listings include summaries of shows that are highlighted by the viewer.

I wanted to record a special two-hour Law & Order, which was to be broadcast as back-to-back one-hour shows on a night we had plans to go out. I called up the listings, clicked one button on the remote and was set. I never checked a manual, never needed help. (Even my wife, who cringes at the thought of taping a show, liked it.)

Arriving home, however, I found that only one of the two shows recorded, for reasons I never figured out. Not good, but the satellite came to my rescue. Quickly checking the listings again, I found the missing episode on a West Coast station and set it to record.

Watching the episodes the next day I found even more to like. Click a button on the remote control to fast forward. Click it again and it's faster. Click it again . . . and whoops. It went through the rest of the show in the blink of an eye.

One button jumps a recorded program ahead 30 seconds at a time, making it easier to skip the commercials. Another button gives an instant replay of the previous few seconds of a show. I used pause and instant replay while watching a show or a game live, which is possible because the program goes through the hard drive on the set-top box. It's perfect for when the phone rings or someone is at the door. You click to pause, then pick up where you left off.

I could watch one recorded show while recording another, but it does not allow you to watch a live show when it's recording another.

WebTV lets viewers use the Web and TV at the same time, making it possible for people to play along with a few game shows, including Jeopardy. I saved my interactive test of the Web and TV for the NCAA basketball tournament.

Working with CBS Sportsline (cbs.sportsline.com), WebTV gave fans a combination of a live TV screen and a Web page, with scores, brackets and, yes, an ad. Viewers also could switch to online chat instead of the brackets.

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[Photo: WebTV]
Viewers can be watching a football game, for instance, and surf over to WebTV partner, CBS SportsLine, for the latest coverage.

It was not a sports junkie's dream. The live game was shrunk to about a third of the screen. The scores offered no more than what CBS showed on its regular broadcasts, and the overall package didn't give enough information for the amount of space it hogged.

The chat was worse. With only a few people online, the insightful comments ranged from "Gonzaga all the way" (from someone named Brandon) to "Anyone here" (from Ken).

One co-worker, a big basketball fan, agreed with my assessment after seeing a photo of the screen. Another thought it would be cool to chat with friends during a telecast.

Again, WebTV shined when it came to watching the tournament. I had a choice of three CBS outlets with different feeds from the satellite. I played director, watching the games I was most interested in. Tampa Bay stations were supposed to be available, but Orlando stations mistakenly were set up instead. The package of four local stations (WFTS-Ch. 28, WTVT-Ch. 13, WTSP-Ch. 10 and WFLA-Ch. 8) costs $4.95 a month.

A nifty feature on the remote: a "recent" button that shows a screen with up to six windows for channels that have been recently viewed. Highlighting a particular window lets the viewer see what's on at the moment and either click it to go full screen or move on to check the next window.

Sometimes, WebTV pushes the mix of Web and TV too far. A little bar at the bottom of the screen occasionally popped up, inviting me to visit the -- surprise -- Microsoft home page. So I did, with nothing there that tied in to what I was watching or to WebTV. Trying to return to TV, however, proved a challenge. I could watch the show on a little inset window, but could not get back to the TV without turning the TV set and set-top box off and then back on.

In addition to that irritation and a few other technical problems, I had a new experience in technology frustration: Waiting for the satellite to boot up, essentially. Turning on the TV, I got a message, "A problem has been detected with the multi-dish switch." The update would be finished, the message said, in about 5 minutes.

So I waited. Five minutes turned to 10 to 20 . . . to more than 45 minutes. During that time, I could not watch anything but the screen (it makes the Windows "blue screen of death" almost bearable). A WebTV spokesman blamed the problem on a software bug that is being corrected and told me how to avoid it the next time.

But will there be a next time at my house? I won't give up my cable modem for surfing, which eliminates the Web part.

But I've dropped hints that the digital recorder and remote control would be great birthday presents.

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