Microsoft's MSN TV2 easy to use, a bit pricey

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November 17, 2005|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

Nine years ago, a tiny startup began selling a simple set-top box designed to let Grandma and Grandpa surf the Web and check e-mail from their living room TV, without the angst of a real computer.

WebTV never became a blockbuster, but it was simple to operate, and the service corraled a million subscribers before Microsoft bought the company in 1997. Truth be told, I'd forgotten all about it until Microsoft offered a peek at the latest version of the gadget and its specialized Internet service.

The MSN TV2 Internet & Media Player (the new name for the updated WebTV) still provides an easy, though somewhat pricey, introduction to Web newbies using a dial-up phone line.

But this gadget isn't just for granny any more. Get past the training wheels and the box has some remarkably cool features for home networkers with broadband connections.

It not only puts the Web on the family TV without the cost or bulk of a full-fledged PC, but it also displays photos and plays music and video stored on computers across the network.

I've tried a variety of network media players over the years, and none is as easy to get working as this one - if you accept its limitations and you're willing to pay a monthly fee for it.

Made by RCA, the MSN TV2 has a 9-by-12-inch footprint and stands just over 2 inches high. Inside, there's a 733 MHz Intel Celeron processor running a stripped-down version of Windows, including Internet Explorer 6. It has 128 megabytes of RAM, plus 64 megs of flash memory, but no hard drive, which keeps the price down but limits its usefulness.

The package includes a wireless keyboard designed for couch potatoes, with a surprisingly comfortable touch and more than a dozen well-marked cursor and function keys for navigating the Web without a mouse.

There's also a remote control for basic navigation when you don't need a keyboard.

To hook it up, you connect the MSN TV2's video and audio outputs to the corresponding inputs on the back of a TV or stereo.

Then it's time to select your Internet connection.

I chose broadband first, which meant running a network cable to my router. If you have a wireless network, you can plug a wireless network adapter into one of two USB ports. Dial-up customers run a phone cord from the back of the box to the nearest wall jack.

When I powered up the MSN TV2, it immediately recognized my broadband connection and walked me through a setup that took about 5 minutes. Switching to dial-up later was almost as simple; I don't know how I could make it any easier. Still, if you're setting one up one for a friend or relative with little or no computer experience, it's a good idea to have someone around who's familiar with a keyboard and screen.

Now the cost. The MSN TV2 carries a list price of $199 and is available from most big-box retailers and online outlets. Amazon.com was offering a $100 rebate when I checked last week, so you can probably match it elsewhere.

MSN charges $21.95 a month for dial-up Internet service, which is at the high end of today's market. If you have an ISP - dial-up or broadband - the cost of adding MSN service is $9.95 a month (or $99.95 a year in advance. That's not unreasonable if you like its convenience and features. The alternative, a cheap PC with a TV output and wireless keyboard or remote, will cost at least $400 to $500.

The experience: The MSN TV2 is designed for the low resolution of most standard TV screens and so is the visual implementation of the MSN network it connects to. The service complements the cursor and function keys on the keyboard, which makes it easier for beginners than mastering the Windows interface.

The home page displays the latest news and video offerings, with a menu underneath that makes it easy to choose e-mail, Web searching, shopping, photos, music video, stocks and other offerings. The default text font is readable and is adjustable for those who need larger or smaller print.

If you're used to normal Web browsing, you'll be put off by a relatively awkward screen display, particularly on non-MSN sites.

The e-mail interface, on the other hand, is clean and easy to use, enhanced by a keyboard that I liked but did generate complaints among early users for skipping keystrokes. If e-mail is the main attraction for an older relative, it works nicely.

To attach photos to e-mail or display them on the screen as a slide show, you'll need a memory card reader that can plug into one of the machine's USB ports.

If you have a broadband connection, you can access MSN's collection of videos, mostly entertainment or news clips from the MSNBC news service. I wasn't impressed by either the speed or quality. On the plus side, MSN provides a gateway to scores of Internet radio stations. That alone could be worth the price of admission to music fans.

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