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-- by Richard Castagna
Technically, they may not be NCs. But there's enough similarity between set-top boxes and NCs to have confused many users. So let's set the record straight. Set-top boxes are simple Plug-and-Play devices that hook up easily and provide network access. They deliver Web access directly to your home-just a click away from Seinfeld and without leaving that comfy spot on your living room sofa.
Set-top boxes-or WebTVs-surfaced last fall in retail outlets nationwide, offering neophyte Web surfers a low-cost alternative to PCs. The boxes are among the first of the touted computing appliances to appear, and they're about as easy to use as a toaster oven. Within minutes of opening the box, you can visit your favorite Web haunts: Just plug in the power cord, connect the unit to your TV or VCR and snap the RJ-11 connector into a phone outlet. For Internet newcomers, it couldn't be easier-press a button and you're online.
Sony and Philips were the first two companies out of the blocks in the set-top sprint. Philips launched its Internet TV Terminal for WebTV ($329) at about the same time Sony introduced its entry, the WebTV Internet Terminal ($349)-just in time for holiday gift giving. And while early sales figures indicate that not everyone found a Web box under the tree, enough were sold to underscore the product category's potential.
The similarity in product names is no coincidence. Both Sony and Philips based their boxes on a design by WebTV Networks (Palo Alto, Calif.), and both units link into WebTV Networks' online service-which costs you $19.95 a month for unlimited access.
The WebTV design calls for a RISC processor and includes a custom ASIC to ensure sharp, flicker-free screen displays. The design also supports JPEG, MPEG I and MPEG II. The built-in 33.6Kb-per-second modem is built around a Rockwell chipset. Growth, and a lucrative upgrade market, are anticipated with a 32-bit bus that will accommodate peripherals in the future.
While Sony and Philips have a lock on the fledgling set-top market, they won't be alone for long. Look for Thomson Consumer Electronics (Indianapolis) to roll out its $300 entry in the coming months. And if the picture on your old Emerson is finally beginning to fade, you'll soon be able to buy an Internet-ready television-a TV and set-top box in one-from companies such as Samsung, Zenith and Mitsubishi. Mitsubishi's Internet TV has been available in Japan since last year and should show up on our shores this spring.