If a reputable company sold a dirt-cheap machine that provided blissfully simple and virus-free Internet access, you might expect to see crowds of customers rushing into stores, credit cards in hand.
That was the hope eight years ago, when WebTV arrived on the market. And at first, things looked bright. This Silicon Valley start-up's set-top boxes, which provided dial-up Web access on any TV set, worked well enough to draw tens of thousands of subscribers in the first half-year or so -- and the attention of Microsoft, which agreed to buy the company in April 1997.
Microsoft's new MSN TV 2 puts the Web on your TV, along with your home network's digital photos and music.
But Microsoft then let its $425 million purchase collect dust, issuing only minor maintenance upgrades while failing to deliver the major upgrade it had touted when it bought WebTV.
Now Microsoft is giving the concept another try with the new MSN TV 2 (www.msntv.com). This $200 RCA box, like older WebTV units, plugs into any TV and phone jack for a slow but simple dial-up connection that can be used from the couch with an included wireless keyboard and remote control. But if you have broadband and a home network, it can connect to that to allow faster browsing on your TV as well as access to music and photos stored on your other computers.
A subscription fee applies in both cases: $21.95 a month for dial-up access or $9.95 a month if you use an existing dial-up or broadband connection.
As a Web access device, MSN TV 2 does remarkably well at reproducing the Web on a TV's duller screen. Pages look and work much as they would on any computer running Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser, except that pop-up ads are blocked and smaller text will require multiple taps of the keyboard's "enlarge text" button.
At worst, pages with multiple columns of text, such as washingtonpost.com, ESPN.com or Evite, looked awfully cluttered. You can also expect to spend plenty of time scrolling up and down within a page, since even though the screen itself may be bigger than a computer's, the characters on it must be displayed larger to stay legible, and that means less text fits.
All of this is easy to control with just the tab and cursor keys on the keyboard, which smoothly move you from link to link. But you'll need to hammer the keys to make sure it doesn't miss any characters you type.
Microsoft includes 11 Web mail accounts with any MSN TV subscription. You can also use an existing Hotmail or MSN account; your old messages and address book appear automatically on the device once you log in.
Somewhat to my surprise, I had more trouble reading e-mail than Web pages. Some Web-formatted messages lost details -- for example, a blue pattern in one disappeared, leaving me with off-white text on a white background. A separate viewer program displays any attached Word or Portable Document Format (PDF) files. A virus I sent to myself, however, arrived inert, incapable of even being opened.