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Microsoft Takes Another Stab at Web on TV

Microsoft's MSN instant messaging is built in as well -- not AOL's far more popular service. As with Web and e-mail use, IM works much as it does on a computer, but simpler. Only those smiley-face emoticons fail to translate, looking like yellow smears from across the room.

The only area where MSN TV 2 takes a step back from WebTV's capabilities is Web radio; it plays only Windows Media streams, not RealAudio as it once did.

Microsoft's new MSN TV 2 puts the Web on your TV, along with your home network's digital photos and music. (Courtesy Microsoft)

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MSN TV 2 includes two USB ports to accommodate printers and memory-card readers; it supports a decent variety of current models.

If you plug MSN TV 2 into a home network -- by Ethernet cable, or by adding an extra-cost WiFi adapter to one of its USB ports -- this device acquires a second set of capabilities. Most of its online use remains the same, but faster, and you gain access to a selection of short news video clips and Microsoft's "Radio Plus" Web broadcasts.

And if you can master the finer points of Windows file-sharing, you can also view the pictures and listen to (some of) the music on other computers at home.

This is a sensible idea done badly -- it dumps you into whatever arrangement of files and folders exists on your PC's hard drive, without access to any photo albums or playlists you might have created in such programs as Adobe's Photoshop Album or Microsoft's Windows Media Player. You also can't search for a photo, song, artist or album.

MSN TV 2 played only standard Windows Media Audio files with any reliability, balking at some MP3 files that work fine in Windows Media Player. It can't play iTunes Music Store downloads at all -- nor can it play the special Windows Media downloads sold at such stores as Microsoft's own MSN Music.

Once you've drilled down to a particular set of photos or music, things get a bit more straightforward. You can rotate a picture, send it in e-mail and set up playlists and slideshows with a few taps of the remote.

Overall, though, this is a sadly simplistic solution -- as if the MSN TV team was looking for one last feature to get the product okayed by Microsoft's gatekeepers, and so threw this in.

The biggest flaw of MSN TV 2 is its operating cost. The $21.95 dial-up plan offers no discount from the standard MSN offering, even though it omits most of that service's extras -- for instance, a Web-acceleration feature to speed dial-up use and live audio coverage of baseball games. The same goes for the $9.95 fee required if you use another Internet connection, either dial-up or broadband.

Discounts available to customers who pay for a year's service upfront don't change this troublesome fact: In two years at the most -- or as little as 10 months -- you will have spent more on service charges than on the MSN TV box itself. That alone may keep this from faring any better than its WebTV predecessors.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at rob@twp.com.

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