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Cover Story
TV Tunes In to the Web

-- 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.


Windows Magazine, April 1997, page 200.

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