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Microsoft WebTV User's Log

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This page last updated on or about 12-30-2000


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EDITOR'S NOTE: Certain items like embedded web links and documented costs/prices for certain wares discussed may be out-of-date. This is Real World usage rather than a syrupy evangelistic exercise, so you'll find both good and bad things about WebTV here.

Microsoft WebTV User's Log Table of Contents

8-26-2000: Sorry WebTV fans: The WebTV account covered in this log has gone kaput. We've canceled our account

For reasons why just peruse the log entries below.

Microsoft WebTV User's Log Contents

8-15-2000: Why is Microsoft encouraging WebTV subscribers to quit?

Evidence is piling up that I should ditch my WebTV service. Microsoft seems to just be running it into the ground. Every new 'update' from Microsoft just makes it worse. MS seems to have especially squandered the WebTV box's memory somehow, since nowadays it runs out of memory every few minutes, saying that a given web page is too big for it to show. Note that these same web pages worked fine before Microsoft 'upgraded' the box.

It's also gotten slower. And buggier in other ways. Apparently Microsoft simply can't program as well as the original WebTV developers could. Or is subtlely trying to force all WebTV users onto PCs. Well, I believe I'll meet them halfway-- I'll leave WebTV, but still try my darnedest to stay out of Windows.

Microsoft WebTV User's Log Contents

6-5-2000: Microsoft 'upgrades' (or downgrades?) WebTV again; the iMac gets a modem speed boost to 50k; a decision regarding broadband access is made at WebFLUX Central

Well, in light of the comparison between iMac and WebTV below, this new advantage for the iMac might shift the balance, right? After all, my WebTV remains stuck at 33.6k, while the iMac now cruises at roughly 50k.

We had to install a special heavy duty phone line directly from the iMac to the main phone line junction in the basement to achieve this. I also had to change back some modem settings on the iMac too, since I'd previously been forced to slow it down to 33.6 just so it would stay online.

Microsoft was really insistent on the WebTV upgrade this time around. Everytime I logged on, they were trying to force me to take the upgrade. After maybe the fourth or fifth log on I finally relented.

Over the next day or so I thought the upgrade might have sped up WebTV a bit. But no, it was just a random fluctuation in connection speeds. Because it slowed back down again afterwards.

The latest 'upgrade' from MS has increased my WebTV's sensitivity to line noise apparently, causing it to drop the connection much more frequently than before. I reduced the settings for sensitivity as low as I could, but it's still dropping connections, sometimes as frequently as several times in five or ten minutes. But then it'll also go for stretches of a couple hours or more too without disconnect at times-- all of which makes it about as reliable as the 50k iMac line now available in my office.

The upgrade added chat functions to WebTV. Just what I didn't want and don't need. Instead, I could have used WebTV updating their browser compatibility to at least MSIE 3.x or so. I'm increasingly encountering sites WebTV's antiquated browser compatibility won't work with, these days.

Our local TV cable company has lowered broadband (256k is the claimed speed) net access costs to around $26 a month before taxes. That compares to the $20 a month we're presently paying for 33.6k WebTV, $22 a month for 56k AOL, and maybe another $40 a month to make much of east Tennessee a local calling zone for us (this last is necessary because both AOL and WebTV access numbers would be expensive long distance for us otherwise). Having a second phone also incurs a charge which might should be added to the total-- but the uncertainty is high enough on that matter that I'm not adding it at the moment.

So theoretically we could drop both AOL and WebTV and even the extra fee to save long distance charges too (a total of around $82 a month), to get access maybe 4 times faster or better than at present, and free up two phone lines. Heck, that would more than pay for the extra cable charge, while also quadrupling our connection speeds. Plus, the connection would always be 'live'. That is, no dial up delay necessary. The net would just always be there.

But of course it's not as simple as that. My cousin Edwin has been using the same cable modem service for maybe a year, and suffered a total lockout for two solid weeks, due to problems at the cable company's end. It was so bad the cable folks had to add a 56k dial up service too as a backup.

By contrast, the worse denial of access I've suffered on either AOL or WebTV may have been a couple days at a time. That's a far cry from TWO SOLID WEEKS.

So the need for a backup ISP to the cable modem might be pretty strong.

I emailed Edwin for an update, and he told me he's presently paying $26-$28 per month including taxes, for 500k access. He said the cable company is now installing modems set for only 256k, but since he (Edwin) was an early signup he got a faster unit than later folks. However, he says the reliability of the connection has been getting steadily worse (apparently as more people sign up around him; cable modem users share bandwidth with the neighbors). He said 4-6 PM seems especially difficult times for him to use the service (peak net hours).

Edwin told me we'd likely not notice much difference between typical page loads at 50k and 256k. But if we tried to download video, photos, and large software packages that's where the difference would be big.

Edwin said lately there'd been billing problems/administrative snafus with the company, resulting in his email going out for a while. He says pure speed-wise cable modems at present are better than dialup, but he plans to switch to DSL as soon as he can.

Then there's the issue of my long time web site on AOL. I'm in process of moving it all to Tripod, but I still lack a considerable number of pages. And URL transitions/redirect pages should remain in place for my linking associates for as long as possible, even after all the pages have moved. That means I'll need to retain some form of my AOL account for maybe one to two years at least. Thankfully, there may be a couple of lower tiers for me to choose from: something like $5 and $10 a month. I forget the particulars, but those were some of the options available last time I checked.

WebTV began offering its users their own web page maybe a year ago or more. I tried it out, constructing a very basic page from the most straightforward options available to me. I wasn't satisfied. For example, I apparently couldn't have a plain white background, but had to pick a background graphic. Yuck. It was also like getting teeth pulled to create a real page. Things that took seconds on a full-fledged computer could take 10-15 minutes on the WebTV. Finally, after I'd created the page, it was inaccessible to anyone else on the web. I tried everything I could think of to reach its URL from other (non-WebTV clients), and couldn't. This was despite reading all the info I could find on WebTV's site concerning the creation of and access to such pages, and being a bonafide networking expert for at least some portions of my past. So I gave up on it. What good is a web page if other web users can't see it?

Of course, all that took place quite a while back. Hopefully WebTV has improved their page-building service since then. I just don't know.

But getting back to decisions regarding broadband, we only recently upgraded here to 56k (50k actually), and there's all those free 56k ISPs to consider. Just today I saw announcements that another couple free ISPs were going to officially add Mac compatibility to their offerings.

WebTV itself still retains at least two fairly large positives: the luxurious convenience of web surfing with remote control from a couch, and the minimal maintenance/troubleshooting needs and possibilities of the platform, compared to Macs or PCs. It amazes me that more computer users-- especially older, more experienced users-- haven't noticed and capitalized on this aspect of set top boxes yet.

I guess the main things holding back WebTV in this regard include Microsoft's dismal marketing efforts on its behalf, as well as the platform's inflexibility in many matters compared to full computers, and the still significant cost of maintaining more than one net account. It might also help if one WebTV could service more than one TV at a time in a home, too. Like AOL does computers. Sure, only one AOL user at a time can be logged onto an account, but that account can be installed and accessible on dozens of machines in a home. By contrast, the WebTV would have to be physically disconnected and carried between rooms to achieve a similar versatility-- way too much trouble to be practical.

Also, our 33.6k WebTV connection is now seeming a bit slow compared to the 50k iMacs. And Microsoft continues to downgrade the platform rather than improving it (in my opinion anyway-- and I've been using WebTV regularly, alongside full-fledged computer net clients, for years now).

But the real clincher in the broadband decision for me was this: We presently have four net-enabled clients here at WebFLUX Central: an iMac, an iMac DV, and a Compaq Presario, all running AOL 4.0, and a WebTV. Two different ISPs, three different computer platforms (WebTV, Apple, MS Windows). One cable modem account replacing our AOL account would essentially take two of these clients off-line; because they can't easily share the cable modem. Oh sure, there may be some convoluted networking method to theoretically do it, but from my initial research it appears we'd have to install at least one extra Ethernet card in the Compaq and configure it to network with the iMacs in other locations. The cable modem would likely have to be on the Compaq, and I guess the Compaq would have to be running for the net to work with the remote iMacs. In practical terms this means the Compaq would have to be on 24/7 to make for convenient net access on demand for all three computers. And would the networking be a burden on the Compaq's processing resources? Maybe. Plus the Compaq is already laboring heavily from the CD-RW drive install a few months before. And what about reliability? This set up would mean that instead of being dependent on the fragile reliability of a remote web server and the client OS and browsing app, we'd be adding in the variables of local networking gear and yet another client OS too. So here we got three big problems with the broadband access: (1) complexity of set up, (2) added cost of set up, (3), likely reduced reliability of connection, and (4), likely reduced user convenience.

So nope. Broadband is not for us-- at least not in the form currently available.

My plan is to further explore the free 56k alternatives, as well as keep an eye out for more local options in the broadband field. In the meantime I continue to use both my WebTV and iMac for web surfing/research.

Microsoft WebTV User's Log Contents

4-17-2000: The WebTV log gets excerpted on Epinions.com

Sometime before this date I posted excerpts from this log into a review of WebTV on epinions. Epinions.com - A decent preview of the near future is the link.

Microsoft WebTV User's Log Contents

8-3-99: iMac/WebTV Users' Logs: Web surfing/email station contest: WebTV Classic Versus Apple iMac Revision D

First off, is there any way this contest can be fair? After all, the WebTV used here is the original, least capable and slowest model of the series, now some two years old (or more) and selling for as little as $100 or so including keyboard in some promotions, while the iMac is Apple's latest and greatest consumer wunderkind selling for around $1200.

Plus, the iMac is a full-fledged standalone personal computer system (although ranking as only a very expensive and slow Windows PC system, requiring emulation to run most mainstream software), while a WebTV is wholly dependent on the ISP and online applications for its usefulness, with no compatibility at all with either native Mac or native PC apps.

No, there's no way this comparison can be wholly fair: the WebTV hardware platform here is a middle-aged codger (in computer years) compared to the young child of the iMac hardware (WebTV possessing only a fraction of the circuitry in terms of manufacturing costs too)-- while the case is reversed in terms of operating systems, with the iMac's OS 8.6 practically ancient compared to the young adult of the WebTV OS.

Sufficiently confused yet? That's OK.

Let's greatly simplify matters by throwing out the respective ages/maturity/obsolescence of the hardware and software, the huge differences in costs, the substantial differences in standalone flexibility, options, and software-- and focus only upon the performance, convenience, and flexibility of the two devices in terms of web surfing and email alone. Functions which Apple's own surveys seem to indicate many buyers primarily purchase their iMacs for anyway.

In display prowess, the two stations are nearer than most folks might expect, what with the iMac using a digital display and the WebTV only an old cramped TV screen. WebTV does a great job at formatting the vast majority of web pages to display well on TV-- and what formatting problems do appear often occur on the iMac as well(!)

Of course, WebTV is handicapped where small graphic images-- especially those including text-- are concerned, so that those items can often be illegible. WebTV may re-size and reformat true web page text to larger sizes for viewing but not graphic images containing text. However, I've found after many months that only rarely does this liability prove a real problem with WebTV-- maybe 1% or less of the web pages sporting this particular problem are rendered unusable to the surfer.

Naturally, owing to the resolution differences between digital computer displays and old fashioned TVs, WebTV surfers are limited to an effective screen size maybe a third that of the iMac's-- so there's not as much to see all at once. This means your surfing will by necessity often be a bit slower with WebTV compared to the iMac, since you must scroll more via WebTV to see the same region. But the difference isn't a large one in practice-- and in some circumstances actually works in WebTV's favor. For instance, I've found Yahoo's near pure text 'What's New' listing of new web sites to be almost unreadable on the iMac compared to WebTV, due to Yahoo's particular formatting circa late July 1999. I much prefer using WebTV to access the list nowadays.

Support for various browser plug-ins technology and Javascript/Java is another subject altogether. WebTV closely resembles older Macs/browsers in this respect with little or no support for many of the flashier web technologies. By contrast, the new iMac is much stronger in this area. But how significant is this difference to the user? It probably depends on each person's personality, and what exactly they are after on the web. In my own case I keep the sound turned off, and pretty much hate most web noise/music with my surfing, no matter what the platform-- although I have opted to listen to a bit of RealAudio on WebTV for news purposes (which works very well). WebTV also offers a slow motion presentation of short video clips too, so long as they are available in a somewhat rare format. These too I have used successfully (albeit slowly). Typically however I avoid the kind of animations, video, and other items which might require extra plug-ins or bandwidth, regardless of the platform I use; I simply am not interested in such things (maybe this will change if we get a cable modem?). Perhaps the biggest failings for WebTV in the extra functionality arena regard forms and Java use. There's a handful of extra forms and Java sites I would use with WebTV, if they worked on the system. But again, this pertains to a relatively small percentage of the whole web, with me encountering such a non-functional item I'd like to use perhaps once every couple months. Most forms and functions seem to work well with WebTV, overall.

How do the iMac and WebTV compare performance-wise? For pure web surfing and emailing alone? Well, both use 33.6 modems (we had to downgrade the iMac because at 56k it would disconnect after 5-20 minutes on our noisy rural line). And the iMac has the performance advantage of offering a far bigger display resolution to the user compared to WebTV (as mentioned above)-- so you can eyeball more stuff faster with the iMac.

However, when you go beyond basic surfing/emailing to actually saving stuff for purposes of research like I often do, the iMac suddenly jumps out way ahead of the WebTV-- but of course this is beyond the scope of the activities I said I'd discuss here, isn't it? So strike this from the record...

Beyond the differences mentioned above, the iMac enjoys tremendously more physical RAM and raw CPU speed, as well as a writable hard disk, compared to the WebTV, which may be more comparable to a 386 or 486 diskless PC in hardware terms. But so far as perceptible differences in performance are concerned, all the hardware advantages of the iMac produce a much smaller effect than you might expect. Maybe 25-33% of the time all that extra hardware makes for a big difference in a particular page load-- but the rest of the time it's only a slight speed up.

So, amazing as it may sound, the iMac only presents a modest performance advantage over the WebTV here, on average. Indeed, I find I now use the two devices about the same amount-- 50-50-- partly because the performance difference simply isn't that great.

How do the two compare in convenience? Well, the WebTV usually wins hands-down here, as you can sit comfortably in an easy chair to surf, as compared to having to sit at a desk with the iMac. For folks like me who must spend much of their time tied to a desktop for other computer-related tasks, being able to lounge on a couch to web surf is a welcome luxury. Too, if you get involuntarily disconnected with the WebTV for various reasons, you can usually re-connect and return to the exact web page you left off-- unlike what happens with the iMac's embedded browser in AOL 4. In AOL 4 if you didn't bookmark your last site before disconnect you have to find it again manually from scratch later.

How do the two compare in reliability and troubleshooting? I'd have to give the WebTV the definite edge here-- although probably a big chunk of its advantage stems from its non-existant standalone flexibility and near total lack of desktop software and peripherals compatibility, as compared to the iMac. The rule of thumb for both Mac and Windows PCs is, the more apps and peripherals you install to either, the less reliable and more problem-prone they become. You can install almost nothing yourself on your WebTV-- only WebTV HQ itself has this power, with perhaps bi-annual software updates online.

If a WebTV user has problems with their terminal, there's only a very few things they can do about it, short of calling or emailing WebTV Central for help. They can switch WebTV off and back on again; pull WebTV's power plug from the wall; push a reset button present on the back of some units (not all); trick WebTV into calling its second access number when the first isn't working well; or simply stay offline a while and try again later. That's about it.

Things are a LOT different with the iMac. A user could potentially spend the rest of their lives trying to fix it if something goes wrong-- there's that many different things to try. There's at least $thousands worth of commercial diagnosis and repair software/hardware available, untold numbers of freeware/shareware utilities, and hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) of different tips and repair reports available on the web regarding Macs, that you could follow up on and implement.

I've been on Macs since 1988, and am perhaps one of the best general Mac experts in East Tennessee not presently working as an Apple technician (or possessing virtually zero documentation or software utilities aids regarding the machines). I still regularly repair Macs and ocassionally PCs. I don't always succeed-- but mainly that's because of cost-effectiveness judgements; practically anything can be fixed, given enough time and money-- but few things are worth too large an investment of either.

I'm getting to be an OLD Computer Geezer now, and easily lose patience with stuff that's as troublesome and time-wasting as modern PCs and Macs. So I lean heavily towards preferring WebTV's kind of reliability myself. Although I admit for those few times when you have a very pressing need for something only your WebTV box can provide, and you can do nothing but wait on WebTV Central to correct the problem, you might well wish for more of the options available on a PC or Mac for do-it-yourselfing.

About the only time you miss standalone capacity on WebTV is during the writing of lengthy email messages or when all you want to do is examine an old message. WebTV can't tell you're typing during creation of a long message, and may drop your connection on you before you're finished, forcing you to reconnect before you can even continue typing, much less send it. Fortunately, nothing is lost during those events. However, if and when WebTV actually crashes on you for some reason (which it occasionally does for no obvious reason, much like Macs or PCs, only considerably less frequently), you CAN lose an email you're working on. Losing a lengthy and important email message this way is awful. Often you can never again repeat the eloquence or level of detail in a second try from scratch.

So why don't I save incremental versions of my email on WebTV as I writing, to prevent potential loss (like I could on a Mac or PC)? I can't. You can only save email on WebTV after you've sent it, or save email others have sent you....HEY!!!! I just realized I may be able to save incremental email work by sending it to myself on WebTV! Yes, I guess I should have realized this sooner, but like several aspects of the WebTV platform, it can require lengthy experience with the device to realize it's not quite as limited as you thought, and often the solution requires an extra step or two compared to full-blown computer wares (making it easy to forget a new discovery before you find the need to implement it the first time)-- plus, I may be suffering from being an Old Computer Geezer blindsided by new ways of doing things that are simply unlike the old desktop computer methods...

Anyway, other online services too involving PCs and Macs may disconnect you if no action is detected on your end for a certain period of time (e.g., AOL). But since a Mac or PC boasts considerable standalone power, such disconnection not only doesn't blitz your current message, but leaves it open onscreen so you can continue working on it. Like WebTV you still must log on again to send it, but unlike WebTV your stream of thought in writing suffers a bit less disruption. Of course, Macs/PCs can and do crash when online, possibly losing your email-in-process just like WebTV can-- but typically Macs/PCs don't crash if all you're doing is writing email; there usually must be something else going on too at the time, like concurrent web surfing, ICQ, downloading, printing, running other apps, etc. On balance, I'd say I lose an email I was writing on WebTV that was at minimum somewhat important to me, once to several times a year-- with similar emails lost on Macs/PCs at a much lower frequency (often only when I click 'send' without having saved it to disk, and my connection drops out or the computer crashes at that precise moment). But since 80% or more of my email writing has occured on WebTV rather than Macs/PCs the past couple years, normalizing the stats might make both platforms appear similar in reliability regarding this point. So it might be a toss up here which is better.

In fact, I frequently use WebTV as the preferred research station to locate solutions to problems we're having with either our Macs or PCs! And keep in mind that the WebTV is largely immune to most PC or Mac viruses, too (at least at present).

Another relevant area of comparison might be tweaking the devices for purposes of better performance or convenience-- like setting displayed text sizes. Obviously, you're limited in the amount of tweaking you can do with WebTV, while on the iMac you could tweak 'til the grave.

As a matter of fact, BOTH devices pretty much REQUIRE a certain amount of tweaking to achieve optimum usefulness and convenience-- with the iMac needing maybe ten times or more what the WebTV does (excluding initial set up and first log on)

But what if we compare the initial set up and first log ons themselves? In these matters it's a toss up; we had about the same amount of trouble with both machines in initial set up/log on, so far as I can recall (refer to the respective user logs for some documentation of the matters). Yes, WebTV should have done better than a more complex, full-fledged personal computer in this phase-- but it didn't. Which should serve as a warning to novices here. Of course, those reading the WebTV log might point out there were possibly unusual circumstances complicating the WebTV set up-- such as a store selling us a repackaged used WebTV with someone else's ID already burned into the unit, which made first log on much harder, and the fact we had to call a long distance number for access (being rural), and perhaps our TVs/VCRs were a bit too old to be fully compatible with WebTV, and so on and so forth. But hey! If WebTV sells units in areas and demographics like ours, it should properly prepare and market the units for such conditions.

The bottomline: in terms of basic web surfing and email performance alone, totally ignoring costs, standalone capabilities, and extraneous hardware/software matters, the Apple iMac Revision D offers marginally better performance than WebTV in our own experience-- although the WebTV is significantly better in terms of reliability and user convenience. So it's basically a draw, or tie. Note that there's presently one, maybe two newer generations of WebTV available today, compared to the unit used for these tests. But based on what I've read of them I suspect they could only succeed at making it a tighter race with the iMac, rather than outright winning the contest.

Microsoft WebTV User's Log Contents

8-1-99: Lightning strikes WebFLUX HQ

Literally. A strike within a block of WebFLUX HQ apparently raced in via our power lines and phone lines to kill some of our electronics a few days back. It'll likely be a while before we know the full extent of the damage, since not all our electronics gets used every day, and we don't have the time to go around deliberately testing things. But some items were obvious immediately.

My personal answering machine was one casualty. Symptoms were really strange behavior like the power switch not affecting whether the unit was on or off, and while it remained connected to the phone line no calls could come in or go out on that line (I've seen similar phone line symptoms stemming from fried modems too in at least two cases of strikes at other places). The answering machine was in my office, where my Mac Quadra 650 is also housed. My Quadra was switched off, with at least two open switches between it and power sources. But my modem was connected to the phone line. I've not had a chance to test my modem yet, but my Quadra itself seems OK.

One combination TV/VCR was also killed (though a TV repair tech later fixed it for around $50). Other devices suffered glitches in their programming memory and such, but seemed OK after resetting.

I was surfing via WebTV at the exact moment the strike occured. I was prepared to unplug WebTV's phone line when it seemed the storm got close-- but got no more warning than distant thunder before the ground zero blast. Here in East Tennessee the last few years we've had a very high frequency of storms-- so high that sometimes we'd be off-line for days at a time-- so we'd eventually begun waiting to shut down and unplug until the distant thunder got closer. This practice was encouraged by many, many times where we'd hear one distant peal of thunder, shut down/unplug, and realize after an hour or so that no storm was forthcoming after all. Such interruptions are pretty frustrating, and so we'd gotten braver about delaying the shut downs 'til the last moment.

But, as I've recently seen written up in a net article, if you can hear thunder at all, no matter how distant, there's a real potential for a lightning blast right on top of you. So take warning, kiddies.

WebTV blinked off like several other devices during the blast.

The circuit breaker for our primary computer room tripped during the blast. The primary houses the Performa 6400, NEC laptop, and iMac, as well as all the printers, scanners, monitors, external drives, etc., that go with them. All the computers were switched off and their phone lines unplugged from the wall at the time.

Though WebTV enjoyed power surge protection, it had no such protection for its phone line. WebTV acted strangely for several days after the blast, often abruptly switching off without warning, etc., and forgetting its dial up number. But after pushing the reset button it was back to normal.

Only a few months before the blast WebFLUX HQ had gotten a substantial revamp of its main breaker boxes; that revamp may have helped limit the damage. But still HQ consists of a pretty old house, with antiquated wiring throughout-- which means mostly two prong non-grounded outlets throughout the structure, rendering surge protectors useless, except in the few places we'd retrofitted things ourselves.

After the blast we began adding more grounded three prong outlets everywhere to better guard against mishaps. But this can be problematic in many locations, as an extra ground wire must be run to each outlet from the mains.

The revamp has gone well so far. Now the only computerized place in the building left ungrounded is my own office(!?). Hopefully I'll get this corrected soon. But as busy as I've been lately my office machines haven't gotten much use and so been protected somewhat by the circumstance of being mostly shut down at any given moment.

Microsoft WebTV User's Log Contents

3-6-99: WebTV: The best net bargain of the past several years?

Folks, although I've done my share of angry venting about WebTV here in Newz&Viewz, I also must admit that over the past couple years WebTV has become my first choice by far for web surfing and email client, compared to more general purpose personal computers.

WebTV crashes on average maybe once or twice a year, compared to our Macs crashing often that frequently per day.

You can also be up and running on WebTV typically much faster than you can on a Mac (once you're beyond the initial installation anyway). So if you log on as often as I do, that makes for a substantial amount of time saved.

Sure, WebTV doesn't offer the vast potential of our Macs to do other things besides surfing or email-- but that same constraint also means WebTV isn't vulnerable to as many different ills as our Macs either-- you know, like software installs gone wrong, and hard disks getting corrupted, etc.

Recently I happened upon a way to perhaps lessen one annoyance I've faced from WebTV-- its tendency to get knocked off-line by erroneous call waiting or other signals on the phone line. I.e., often when it says it has 'disconnected to allow an incoming call' or whatever, no such call comes in. From discussions with a local ISP, I've come to believe this is partly due to us using a phone line to connect to a faraway WebTV access number like it was local, when it isn't; we're using a special regional calling plan you see, to save on long distance tolls. Unfortunately, the regional calling plan works better for voice than data, as your call is being routed thru extra switching stations compared to local calls, and this creates extra noise on the line at times, which might sometimes be construed by WebTV as a signal that there's another call trying to get through-- or simply as a noisy line that disrupts your connection.

Completely turning off Call Waiting for the WebTV might help, but we don't want to do that. Plus, we now have the same regional calling plan on our Mac's phone line too, and use it to access an AOL number that's equally far from us as the WebTV number-- and the Mac seems to lose its connection too at least as often as the WebTV. But there's several differences between the Mac and WebTV in this. One, the Mac often crashes when this happens, while the WebTV doesn't. Two, the Mac line actually does enjoy the advantage of not even having Call Waiting enabled on the line, unlike WebTV's case (so the Mac should have an easier time of it). Three, the Mac can easily require several times longer to recover from the spontaneous disconnect than the WebTV-- sometimes even a day or more if disk repair work is called for.

Anyway, I've found I can go into Set Up on WebTV and adjust its 'sensitivity' to things like Call Waiting signals, as opposed to simply disabling Call Waiting altogether, which I don't wish to do.

I've now been using WebTV for a couple days with a lessened sensitivity to disconnect signals (I set it to one notch higher than the minimum sensitivity), and been interrupted far less in my surfing sessions than I was experiencing before. So far the WebTV has spontaneously disconnected only a single time since the adjustment-- although no call came in during that disconnect either.

I'm hoping I haven't lowered the sensitivity too much-- because so far not a single incoming call has actually made it through since the adjustment. Is this because no calls were attempted, or because the sensitivity is now too low? Only time will tell.

Don't misunderstand me: I couldn't get by with only a WebTV. I fully require a PC or a Mac too for everything beyond basic web surfing and email-- for instance, editing this web site is done on a Mac. I could likely 'get by' with ONLY a PC or Mac (without any WebTV at all) for both web surfing and authoring and everything else-- but it'd be more difficult and a much bigger hassle, and I'd surf much less often, learn much less, and collect far fewer great links and ideas than I do now.

So yes, my WebTV is darn near indispensable to me so far, as a great complement to my personal computing resources.

Microsoft WebTV User's Log Contents

7-22-98: WebFLUX Alert: Microsoft has DOWNGRADED WebTV

Well, a few weeks ago our WebTV box got an official "upgrade" from Microsoft over the net-- which actually seemed to DOWNGRADE the unit in terms of service reliability and convenience.

Oh sure-- Microsoft 'added' some new features like cut/copy/paste for email, and alternative keyboard characters, but the core functionality of WebTV (plain old web surfing) seemed to suffer a grievous blow.

Now the WebTV service comes far closer to matching the UN-reliability of other local internet service providers, virtually 24 hours a day. Now I 'fall off' the WebTV service and have to log on again (it looks like I'm still online, but I can't visit any web sites), just like I frequently do on my rural ISP/Mac connection.

I also now experience true, repeatable, undeniable CRASHES on WebTV, where I never did before! Where the screen freezes, and WebTV locks up, and even turning it off and back on again doesn't fix it-- YOU HAVE TO ACTUALLY PULL THE POWER PLUG TO RESET THE UNIT!

The bug above was repeatable on demand a couple weeks back when I tried it (I haven't tried it since because I have this strange dislike of pain...). It seemed to involve the 'caching' WebTV does on its central servers of often accessed web pages. You see, my AOL web site went down. I KNEW it was down because users were telephoning me about it, and when I tried logging on via my rural ISP/Mac connection, I too got a 'File Not Found' message. Yet, on my WebTV, the site seemed still to be up and running.

Well, I had WebTV try to do a forced 'Reload' of the page I knew wasn't there....and BINGO! Crashtime.

Let me make it clear that WebTV NEVER EVER crashed like this before the recent 'update' from Microsoft.

But there's still other new annoyances in the update. For example, the 'old' WebTV software would first try one access number for log on, and then try a second if the first didn't work. This happened pretty quickly, even in worst case scenarios where the first number wasn't working. NOW however, WebTV keeps on trying that first non-working number repeatedly (like an idiot!), and WAITS AROUND for that obviously non-functional number to work for a terribly long time, before it finally gives up and finally goes to the 'good' second access number.

Before the recent 'upgrade', WebTV NEVER acted this way!

Then there's the seeming huge increase in spurious 'incoming call' disconnections with WebTV. Maybe our Bellsouth telephone service is at least partly responsible for false signals (we've experienced strange phone activity occasionally even where WebTV wasn't in use at all), and rising net traffic overall may be causing more of this-- but our WebTV seems much more prone to go 'off-line' blaming such signals now, than it did before the 'upgrade' from Microsoft.

Theoretically I could rid myself of at least this one annoyance by turning off Call Waiting in WebTV's preferences box-- but for complex reasons here at WebFLUX Central, that's not a viable option.

I've heard that since Microsoft bought WebTV, they've been trying to convert the service from its original pretty darn good software over to maybe a combination of Windows NT servers and Windows CE for the boxes.

So this seems to explain WebTV's worsening service.

It's difficult to cope with a service that starts out pretty good and then suddenly deteriorates substantially in quality. But that's what I'm doing at present with WebTV.

However, the seemingly worsening reliability of BOTH WebTV and our local ISP/Mac connection may soon force me to try out other services/clients.

I sure do wish all those alternative online services, technologies, and boxes of the near future would show up soon....

Microsoft WebTV User's Log Contents

4-1-98: Although a limited device compared to today's PCs and Macs, WebTV does boast a few tantalyzing glimpses of the business and consumer NCs (Network Computers) to come...

...like vastly increased reliability over PCs and Macs in regards to local problems. Sure, the proprietary WebTV ISP still performs about the same as any ISP you might have a Mac or PC connected to these days (that is, pretty poorly about 20-30% of the time)-- but at least you don't have the horrific local machine problems with WebTV like you do with Macs and PCs. You know, those extension and DLL conflicts, for example? Once you successfully get a WebTV box connected to power, a TV, and the phone line, your local box problems are over (short of a hammer attack on the box, or the remote being smashed against the floor-- oh yeah, you DO need to replace batteries occasionally, too). By comparison, our Mac 6400 here has been acting up pretty bad the past several weeks, wasting many hours of my time with efforts to repair it, over and over again. Every time the repair appears successful-- for a few days. Then the 6400 goes on the blink again.

WebTV is also LOTS more stable on the net than our Macs. It seems the mainframe or whatever they use at WebTV central takes the brunt of the injuries from flaky web sites you might visit, protecting your own WebTV client from the crashes and other problems that can result. A lone PC or Mac by contrast, with no remote machine running interference for them this way, will CRASH, CRASH, CRASH as reliably as clockwork on the net, when you go visiting web sites not a part of your normal routine.

The greater reliability of WebTV compared to Macs/PCs online really becomes significant when you're doing something like visiting dozens of different search engines and net directories to add your URL to them. Many of these places will crash a Mac or PC, if not immediately, then almost definitely a dozen or so into the process. The reasons are many and complex, but basically boil down to wild experimentation on the part of some sites, server problems with some sites, and instability of the software itself on your local system, and/or ISP. Using WebTV you usually can continue doggedly on in your task, until finally you are physically exhausted. On a Mac or PC, you'll rarely be able to work long enough to match this performance, before the whole system crashes down around your ears. So in some net-related tasks a WebTV can actually be MORE productive than a modern PC or Mac(!) (hear that ominous 'net music in the background? That's what's been scaring Bill Gates for a couple years now)

Sure, WebTV has plenty of limitations and flaws-- there's not even basic productivity applications built-into the system yet, and even if there were, your options for Input/Output are pretty heavily constrained too. Embedded text in graphic images are often impossible to decipher, due to poor TV screen resolution, as well. An expensive upgrade of the system might enable printing of web pages and email, and a bit more, but at a cost comparable to a full blown and much more capable PC system. So it's not cost-effective to try replacing a PC/Mac system with a WebTV by a long shot (unless you need absolutely NOTHING more than light duty web surfing and email, AND/OR are willing to give up a LOT of extra functionality from a PC/Mac system to get the much better reliability and fewer problems of the WebTV, AND/OR are severely constrained budget-wise).

However, WebTV has proven steadily more versatile than I expected over past weeks. Only yesterday I realized it offered a "Send" command to email web page addresses to another email address. EUREKA! There's been several occasions I wished for a convenient way to connect my WebTV use with my Mac use, as sometimes I find great stuff WebTV surfing instead of on the Mac, and then must refind it on the Mac later to incorporate it into my notes, etc. Now I just 'send' it to myself on the Mac. YAY!

There's also other ways to get around some of WebTV's apparent restrictions as well, such as in the 'Favorites', or bookmark department. WebTV only allows you around 32 links in a bookmark page-- but you can have a second, third, and probably more such pages in which to deposit them, and may readily edit the collections at any time. I'm a pretty heavy user, and have so far found myself not very constrained at all by this element on WebTV.

As noted in the Signposts Timeline, the internet itself is also creating new products and services which will automatically expand the utility and power of almost any device that's compliant with basic net protocols-- like multiple free email addresses, and even free web page space-- as well as the means to edit that web page online(!) The possibilities here are growing almost daily, thereby expanding the potential power of anything like a NC, such as WebTV.

Although I can't edit/update my web site via WebTV in any way I'm aware of today, much of the work related to my site is actually surfing and email, for reasons of finding interesting news and tips, and contacting various folks. So for those duties WebTV works pretty well-- especially now that I can easily send myself interesting URLs I find via WebTV too.

I also LOVE the lesser hassles involved in using WebTV compared to my Mac. Yeah, both take about the same amount of time to log on-- but with the Mac you also have to wait for the thing to boot too, which can quadruple the wait time. This adds up substantially when you log on as often as I do.

And speaking of lesser hassles, I LOVE being able at times to simply IGNORE current Mac problems and bypass them with the WebTV. I hate the regular troubleshooting sessions today's personal computers force upon you.

The ISP redundancy WebTV gives me to supplement my Mac ISP is also great, roughly doubling or tripling the amount of time I can usually access the net. For example, my Mac ISP usually just gives me a busy signal between 6 PM and 11 PM. But almost never does WebTV fail me during this period. At worst, WebTV runs awful slow occasionally during that period-- but slow access is often a thousand times better than no access at all.

Yeah, having two separate ISP accounts can be somewhat expensive (running around $40 a month, if not more). But with the low reliability/access rate of many local ISPs these days, as well as the low reliability of modern PCs/Macs too, anyone with a strong preference for web access over TV and other items almost MUST have a couple such accounts-- and one might best be a NC or set top box of some kind, as of April 1, 1998.

Microsoft WebTV User's Log Contents

1-15-98: Another WebTV Update

Well folks, it appears the only advantage WebTV has over the more typical personal computer/internet account is the initial buy-in price ($300 versus $800). WebTV service isn't significantly more reliable, faster, or easier to set up than a regular ISP account on a full-blown computer. And when you add in WebTV's many negatives (rigid inflexibility compared to a computer, often illegible display of graphics, and more), the gap narrows still further.

Consider too the falling prices for full powered computer systems today (with $500 and $600 systems apparently on-the-way), as well as the raft of even cheaper new NC/set top boxes that should be appearing practically quarterly, then monthly, in 1998 and through 2000, and the present WebTV looks to have a pretty short lifespan in the market.

Sure, there's a new WebTV Plus model shipping now, but it offers only slight improvements on the first generation, from all reports I've seen. And besides, the central issue here is the online service itself. If the WebTV network can't adequately support the first generation 33.6 kbps WebTVs (as seems apparent from my own regular tests), it appears buyers of the 56k WebTV Plus with added capacities for downloading video, etc., will be hurting even worse. From mid-December 97 through mid-January 98, the WebTV online service has been terrible-- actually at least slightly worse than a regular ISP account. Often horrifically slow, and tending to randomly and frequently disconnect during prime time hours, claiming to do so for incoming phone calls (but often no such call existed). Now I suspect WebTV is programmed to automatically disconnect users whenever it's over taxxed, and try to blame it on incoming phone calls instead.

Folks, it's difficult to even edit email on these things-- you have precious little control of the cursor, among other things. The other day I just gave up in frustration and sent a WebTV email in a much cruder form than I preferred, because I just couldn't reposition the cursor for more editing. And we have the optional keyboard(!) Imagine the poor folks who have only the standard remote...

I recommend everyone AVOID purchases of WebTV if at all possible. Though for some terrible web addicts a WebTV might serve as a redundant internet account for times when their primary account is down, keep in mind WebTV's shortcomings make it only perhaps 30%-50% as useful as a more conventional account. Its browser emulation is surprisingly obsolete, making many web sites inaccessible to you, it's not suitable for reading at length on the web due to its poor display quality, email editing is difficult, and email management too falls short of competing systems, and there's no way you can use WebTV to download software fixes for your primary terminal in times of trouble there.

If Microsoft can't radically improve WebTV's capabilities and online service, or else reduce the price substantially, by 2000 I don't think WebTV will even be on anyone's radar screen any longer.

Microsoft WebTV User's Log Contents

12-3-97: WebTV turns out to be a bust for anything but web access for the financially desperate, or as a secondary/backup web account.

No wonder they've had problems selling these things (and maybe had a high return rate too)!

Folks, I know I said we originally meant the WebTV to be an xmas gift for my sister, but my mom sort of became infatuated with it after the purchase, and decided she wanted it herself, as an auxiliary to the web access she already enjoys (theoretically you can surf the web in an easy chair or even from bed, with WebTV, which is a far cry from the typical computer desktop).

Plus, we were both curious as to just exactly what we'd be giving my sister for xmas, in the little box. How good was it, really? If it was good enough, we'd buy a second one for my sister.

PROBLEM ONE: WebTV will NOT work with just any TV. It will NOT connect to the cable TV connector virtually all new TVs and VCRs now sport. It also will NOT directly connect to the TV antenna screws of older TVs. No, for direct connections you require either an S-video jack on your TV or attached VCR, or RCA video and audio jacks. Fortunately, there are quite a few so-equipped TVs and VCRs in circulation now-- but anyone thinking of buying a WebTV should check to make certain their own TV/VCR has such connections first. There's also a special adapter cable for TVs/VCRs that don't have the jacks described above, but it appears you'd have to special order those gadgets, and they might be fairly expensive for what they do.

For many of us wealthier folks this connection problem may seem irrelevant. But as WebTV's prime potential customer would seem to be low income families who can't afford a full scale computer system for web access, and so likely have old TVs lacking the required jacks, and maybe no VCR at all (to offer an alternate set of jacks to connect to), this seems a significant drawback.

PROBLEM TWO: We're all rural here in Newport TN, so normally there's no local access number for WebTV here. However, we've now reconfigured the long distance phone accounts for several residences among the family, which theoretically gives those homes local access to WebTV access numbers in the "Big City", among other things (Bellsouth's "Area Plus" program, as decribed in last month's newz). Given that, we tried to sign on with WebTV at one of the "Area Plus"-enabled homes.

OK, after several false starts, WebTV seemed to finally wake up and realize that its Knoxville Tennessee access numbers were no longer long distance from the Newport house as they'd normally be. But WebTV tried several times to add "1-423" to the other 7 digits anyway, and for a time worried me that it would simply keep trying various Knoxville numbers until it found one that WAS long distance (requiring "1-423" prefix), before it would connect (and thereby cost us a bundle in long distance charges). But it finally seemed to catch on and drop the long distance prefix from a number we were supposed to obtain locally now (at least I hope so-- somebody could still get a terrible surprise next month if I'm wrong!). Unlike a regular computer, there appears no way to randomly access and verify what number WebTV is using in a certain control panel or whatever-- instead, you must closely watch WebTV's log on procedure to see (and listen to) the number being dialed (Listening? Am I crazy? No. In touch-tone dialing you can count the tones used in a dial up to confirm how many numbers are being used; 7 numbers are local, 11 would be long distance).

OK, so folks living in a big city might not have the same problem above as we did. But there's more.

PROBLEM THREE: WebTV wouldn't let us sign up like it was supposed to-- i.e., enter a credit card number, a name, address, etc. Instead, it informed us we'd have a couple weeks or whatever grace period before it'd cut us off the service, and that was it. Huh?

We refered to the manual, and online problem lists, etc., and just couldn't find any indication that this was how stuff was supposed to go.

Luckily, I'm an Old Computer Geezer, so after a moderate amount of cursing and pulling of hair I finally seemed to find a back-way into signing up for the service, that should get the new WebTV owner past the two week warning (I hope anyway..like the long distance mess though, I could be wrong).

This third problem, again, may not be typical. Why? Because although the unit we bought appeared to be brand new and all its packaging intact, when we tried to use it to sign on it seemed SOMEONE ELSE had already been using this box ahead of us!

Yes, so far as I can tell, someone else had already hooked this particular WebTV up and signed on, bookmarked about a half-dozen pornographic sites, and then decided they didn't like the unit and returned it-- whereupon the retailer returned it to Sony, and Sony ran the box back through the packaging process to make it appear unused, and then re-sold it, this time through Service Merchandise, as a NEW UNUSED WebTV box! Folks, I kid you not. This is the only thing I can figure out from the condition of the thing once we got it, with somebody else already signed on with it, and several porno bookmarks left on it.

If this is indeed what happened, THERE WAS NO WAY TO DETECT IT FROM THE PACKAGING, which looked pristine.

But surely we can replace that original account ID, right? Well, we're trying everything we can to do so. But so far that previous account's screen name remains stubbornly burned into the WebTV's memory, no matter what we do-- though it does seem WebTV central did accept our new credit card info via the back door way we were forced to use to sign on.

PROBLEM FOUR: Though WebTV usually does a great job of producng legible text onscreen, users will often run across web graphics sporting text that WebTV can't do much with-- i.e., you'll be unable to read small text that are part of images on web sites, rather than plain text WebTV zooms for you automatically. This can pose a significant problem for you at many web sites folks.

PROBLEM FIVE: Though you have the option of adjusting the size of displayed text on your TV screen, this may not provide the flexibility you expect, due to the limited resolution of a TV screen. I've seen several web pages displayed through WebTV that contained highly annoying effects in and about the text, especially where that text was in some color other than black on white. I think these effects may be called "artifacts"? Anyway, it can make WebTV surfing something hard on the eyes if you stay at it too long-- it's much easier to spend hours viewing a computer display for this than a TV.

PROBLEM SIX: WebTV's remote must be programmed to work most TVs (unless you just happen to be using a TV made by the WebTV maker in question, which in this case was Sony). So here again you run into more configuration annoyances and problems. In our case, even after we got the WebTV remote to turn our Emerson TV on and off and change channels and set volume, it still didn't do us any good-- BECAUSE SO LONG AS THE WEBTV BOX WAS CONNECTED TO THE TV THE TV WOULD NOT SHOW ANYTHING BUT WEBTV-- IE., NO SEINFELD, FOLKS. We tried EVERYTHING. But it appears we have to entirely disconnect WebTV in order to watch TV, every time, and then re-connect everything again to use the internet (^%$#!@!@#!).

There's probably another item or two worth mentioning, but I'm working without notes on this subject (off the top of my head)

Can't I say anything good about WebTV? Well....my mom likes it (but remember, she had a computer expert (me) to get her past the surprisingly difficult set up procedure). So far it seems more stable online than our Macs-- I guess because the WebTV central servers are pre-digesting all the wild web sites out there for us, and chewing up anything that might knock us off-line, before it gets to us. If you can ever succeed at getting signed on in the first place, WebTV thereafter seems to run pretty decently. WebTV isn't as difficult to bookmark "favorite" web sites with as was my earlier impression. Mom also likes how by default WebTV logs off instantly to allow incoming phone calls to get through normally-- and I like how it lets you log back on again after the call without losing your previous place on the web-- you take up where you left off, sort of like how you read a book. Though both the hand remote and keyboard take some getting used to (and a long-time mouse user will really notice the mouse's absence), they all work reasonably well-- and folks who've never used a computer before won't even notice that much difference.

The Bottomline: WebTV is NOT necessarily any easier or faster to set up for the web than a new, full blown personal computer system(!), and yet if you ever do manage to get it online, WebTV will only offer you a fraction of the choices and capabilities of a complete computer system. On the flip side of that fact, you could also argue that many folks will not often want/need more than the web surfing/email of WebTV's functionality. WebTV will NOT work seamlessly with your TV in many cases-- and OFTEN WILL NOT WORK AT ALL with most older TV sets (except possibly with the purchase of an expensive add-on adapter). WebTV may not be too bad as a low cost 2nd web access account/appliance in your home-- a backup access device/account, for times when your primary access desktop /ISP is off-line, or you'd like to have two web devices at once going simultaneously for guests, etc. (the latter requires two or more phone lines however, and both options would likely mean TWO separate $20 bills each month). WebTV might also be OK even as a primary web access tool for folks on really tight budgets, who don't require more than web surfing and email, and don't need to keep much records of such things. But keep in mind folks you can get a real Windows PC brand new, including monitor, for $800 now-- $1000 includes a printer as well. And if you are computer savvy or have a friend who is (and willing to help you), you can even beat those new PC prices with an older PC or old Mac-- further reducing any cost advantage of a WebTV in its place.

Microsoft WebTV User's Log Contents

11-25-97: There might be a few WebTV Plus boxes available before Christmas 1997-- but it's doubtful most folks will be able to find anything but the same WebTV boxes we did. However, there ARE alternatives...

If you want WebTV+, you'll probably have to wait until at least January 1998 to get it.

Microsoft/WebTV folks promise that WebTV+ will be faster, have clearer displays, and more features than the plain WebTV on today's shelves.

There will soon (another six to eighteen months or so) possibly be dozens of competitors to WebTV widely available. But for today, there's only a handful, which may (or may not at this early stage) include Newcom's $350 WebPal, Thomson's $200 RCA/Oracle NC, 8x8 Inc.'s $400 ViaTV VC55, the Curtis Mathis $400 UniView, and various $250 machines from Zilog and Batra...

The trick is finding WebTV's competitors. They mostly seem invisible and unheard of in many places so far.

Folks, beginning maybe 10-25 years from now, much more advanced boxes and affiliated online services than these will be fiercely competing for our membership with features and capabilities that would astonish us today. The net boxes/services of tomorrow will be building de facto nation-states on the web, that eventually will be competing not only amongst themselves, but with national governments like that of the USA and world governments like the United Nations too. To see more about this wild future, check out the Signposts Timeline.

-- J.R. Mooneyham and New York Times Syndicate/Bloomberg News

Microsoft WebTV User's Log Contents

11-24-97: It looks like my youngest sister and her husband are going to get a WebTV for Christmas.....

I played around with a WebTV at a Circuit City today. It seemed pretty decent. I checked to see if it could access a random web site like my own WebWork Page, and sure enough, it could! I also went to my WebFLUX Page to check the graphics, since I'm so familiar with how both my main pages display in Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Explorer on Macs. Surprisingly, to my cursory inspection my pages appeared to look better on WebTV than they do on all our Macs! Of course, it helped that we were viewing on a big screen TV too at the time. WebTV's default search engine seemed to be Excite, which is OK-- especially since I saw nothing to prevent you using a different search engine if you wished.

NOTE: Folks, some of this piece is based on my personal experience of just a few minutes playing with WebTV, and some is based on an examination of the WebTV manual at leisure, and some is based on earlier reports I read from EE Times and other spots too. Some of this info may seem to conflict with other parts, because I couldn't resolve some issues with a hands on test. Why? Where I live there's no local access number for WebTV to test it, and even if there were, I don't want to take the chance of screwing up my sister's initial sign up for the service at her house 50 miles away-- so at home I didn't attempt to use the box myself.

WebTV strongly discourages you from making "bookmarks" or "favorites" of sites outside its own domain, and may well not allow you to change your "Home" page at all, so far as I could tell. In the major web browsers on Macs and PCs a single selection in a menu 'grabs' a link so you can easily visit it again later, or do other things like post it into your own web page. Now imagine entirely losing your menu for bookmarks or favorites in your browser, having them replaced with a single button on your Home page. Now, whenever you want to bookmark a site, you have to write down the address while you'e there (hey! I don't recall seeing the address displayed anywhere?! But surely it was), and then you must click to go to your webtv bookmark page (yes, an entirely separate page that has to load), where you are presented with folders that seem to represent bookmarks. Here you click another button to create another 'folder', and then type in the URL you wrote down before....see how difficult webtv makes it for you to bookmark a site outside its own little bunch of chosen favorites? Why do they do this? To insure you'll mostly visit only webtv's own sites on a regular basis, getting all or most of your news, info, and entertainment from webtv sites exclusively, and thereby seeing mostly only webtv sold web ads, as opposed to web ads on non-webtv sites. This will theoretically allow webtv (owned by Microsoft) to eventually make tons of money off its users in ways other than sales of the webtv boxes and internet subscriptions themselves-- selling ads you often must watch, similar to the ads NBC shows you during Seinfeld.

Apparently (and theoretically) you can access pretty much the same large group of web sites most any average Mac or PC can (via search or manually typing in addresses, anyway, which get around the artificial bookmark restrictions etc. in webtv)-- but keep in mind NO Mac or PC can satisfactorily access 100% of publically accessible web sites, so far as I know-- often you require a newer browser, or must download and install an exotic browser plug-in for many things, and both Macs and PCs apparently will crash pretty often when encountering sites with java errors or strange format files or hiccupping servers. So do WebTVs crash on the net too? YEP! seems to be the answer, because about two seconds after I asked the Circuit City salesman if they ever crash, it apparently DID-- with the screen going suddenly blank, like the TV switched off or something. Of course, this was a demo in a store, and you gotta expect worse than average performance there for many reasons. BUT...there happened to be a bonafide webtv user standing nearby and she informed us that YES her webtv crashes, but reboots automatically when it does (NOTE: the manual says WebTV automatically logs off if you don't interact with it "for several minutes". So I suspect you might be knocked off unexpectedly at times by this 'feature'-- if this is what really happened during our demo, the "several minute' period is way too brief for my tastes...)

WebTV comes standard with a tv-like remote control, with the keyboard an extra cost option. This is the worse aspect of the device-- since you DESPERATELY need a keyboard to use this thing. With only the remote control you can only type stuff into search engines or email messages by laboriously maneuvering the remote's pointer over a virtual keyboard on-screen to painfully pick out one letter at a time. THIS IS TORTURE, and so if you DON'T plan on getting the keyboard along with the WebTV box itself, DON'T BUY a WebTV. Not for yourself, not for others.

Pressing an "Options" button on your WebTV remote brings up an "Options" control panel allowing you to do several things, including search the text of the present web page, see the URL (web address) of the current web page you're visiting, type in the URL of a page you wish to visit, and save the current page to your "Favorites" list (this last I saw only in the manual, and couldn't test to see if laborious typing was still required).

It appears you must manually save any email you wish to keep onhand (there's no preference for automatically saving it)

The WebTV box itself runs around $200, and the keyboard about another $100 (though there's a temporary rebate thingie of some kind which may or may not reduce your total cost by $100? It's unclear). You gotta have either S-Video or RCA video and audio jacks on your TV or VCR to connect WebTV 'out-of-the-box'...

Luckily many TVs and VCRs these days have RCA jacks, etc.; but for those that don't, something called an "RFU Adapter"(?) is mentioned in the WebTV manual-- the RFU Adapter illustration looks like some sort of proprietary gear available only from WebTV companies, so it might be expensive, like $20-$40, I'm guessing. So how about possibly lower cost alternatives? Well, here's what the WebTV end of an RFU Adapter does: plugs into the WebTV box left audio (mono) port PLUS an "RFU DC OUT" port PLUS a video out port (which offers a signal headed for the "Line In" Video jack on a VCR under different circumstances). The other end of the RFU Adapter has two connectors: one for a TV antenna or TV cable, and the other for your TV's VHF/UHF/antenna/cable connector. Folks, if all this sounds confusing, that's because it is-- it looks odd in the WebTV manual, too. But some of you geeks out there may be able to decipher this into something meaningful...


....And you gotta be in or near a major metropolitan area too in order to get a WebTV local access phone number. Otherwise every time you use your webtv your long distance phone company will show up the following month demanding one of your children in payment for the bill (1-800-GO-WEBTV might offer info on whether a WebTV local access number is available in your area).

It seems a WebTV box requires entry of a credit card number too, the first time you crank it up.

Future expansion/option possibilities in the WebTV box include a "smart card"-related slot, and "WebTV port". The WebTV port probably will accept things like WebTV compatible printers. Both slots have few options available at the moment.

WebTVs seem to be in short supply at the moment in our vicinity; Circuit City and Sears both were out, leaving us to resort to Service Merchandise. The past year or so WebTVs haven't sold very well, but maybe sales are picking up for Christmas now (and in general) as the word gets out about the web. We bought a Sony WebTV, which seems a smaller, sleeker set top unit (and different hand remote) than the Magnavox version (and I think in months past I saw a c|net review saying they preferred the Sony to the Magnavox, but I can't recall why exactly).

There's an HP printer I believe that's compatible with WebTVs, but everybody seemed out of those too.

I believe I've seen reports that a new model WebTV is due out sometime called WebTV Plus, which will sport a 56k modem compared to today's 33.6, as well as some nicer telephone and TV channel sharing features.

Is a WebTV a replacement for a Mac or PC? NO! But they cost $300 or less, offer optional printing, should be easier to set up and maintain than a Mac or PC, and provide basic web surfing and email features, which would likely be almost all a great many folks would want.

In our own case, my sister and her husband live 50 miles one way from me, so it'd be difficult for me to make many trips to her house to troubleshoot a Mac (or PC). Both of them have access to PCs at work for things like word processing (and at times the internet too). Both spend much time at work and sometimes traveling, so a full computer in their home might get little use but for occasional web surfing and email-- and it's hard to justify a $1000-$1500 complete computer just for that. Ergo, the WebTV choice. Plus, I'm a bit pressed for time, and already plan to configure a used Mac for a brother's family, as well as move myself to a different Mac too, in the next few weeks (in addition to many other duties). So substituting a WebTV for a 'real computer' in regards to my sister should help reduce my personal workload in coming weeks as well (and possibly prevent me failing to meet a Christmas deadline for having everything ready), as well as be easier on budgets all way around.

Folks, the way I see it, with the explosion in webTV-like choices and NCs that should be appearing over the next couple years, plus the even bigger potential explosion in low cost PC alternatives and changes to the PC platform (which sort of includes radical changes in TVs themselves, ala analog to digital), as well as the enormous risk in new Macs, I see things like used $400 Macs, new low end $800 PCs and new $300 WebTVs as all temporary measures just to get folks by the next year or two, until much better choices come along, prices drop, and many of the coming big technology changes work themselves through the industry. In short, I'd hate to make a BIG investment in new web or computer-related hardware at this time, as it's bound to be woefully obsolete within a year or so. So think small, low cost, and temporary when buying now. Because the only alternative is big, expensive, and temporary. OUCH!

Remember these caveats about WebTV though: WebTV is pretty much USELESS without the optional keyboard. WebTV can't replace a full computer (a new $300 WebTV offers ONLY basic web surfing and email at this time, with related printing optional and extra cost, while a new $800 Acer Aspire 1240 PC gives all that and MUCH more like an included display many times sharper than any TV, access to thousands of optional (if extra cost) Windows games, word processors, web authoring, graphics creation, spreadsheets and other programs), as well as hundreds more optional, (and extra cost) printing (and other alternatives like scanners and storage) than WebTV. But then there's also the flip-side that any $800-$8000 PC you buy between now and 2000 will become effectively and substantially OBSOLETE so rapidly you'll be amazed and maybe angered (reasons include the intro of Windows98, and (finally!) the removal of the awful ISA architecture (that's bedeviled PC Plug'n Play for years) near term (the next 8 months)-- with many similar changes coming beyond that, like writeable DVDs replacing CDs, etc., etc.).

So how does a new Mac compare to the WebTV and PC choices above? Well, Steve Jobs has many old Mac fans like me worried about the Mac's future now, so I can't recommend a new Mac to anyone, since that's a big investment in something so suddenly an apparent big risk over the long term. And even if I wasn't worried that Jobs is killing the Mac, I must admit the quality of new Macs (hardware and OS) has declined in recent years, to where they may not be much better than the quality of average new PCs in many ways.Worse, even as they've declined in quality, they've tended to be at least slightly more expensive than comparable PCs over that time too. Mac clones for a brief time made Macs cost about the same as PCs, but Jobs killed the clone market, so that now a typical new Mac system tends to cost at least several $hundred more than a comparable new PC. Maybe worse than that, the software and peripherals options for Macs have been steadily shrinking for years now relative to PCs, and when Steve Jobs recently killed Mac OS and CHRP licensing he may have killed further new software and peripherals development for the Mac at the same time.

For all the woes listed above though, the Mac OS remains significantly better and easier to use than Windows in some important ways, so that many of us who've used both will feel like we've suffered a major DOWNGRADE in computer power and ease of use if we're forced off the Mac entirely and into Windows altogether. If I'd been on a PC rather than a Mac the past nine years, I'm certain that I couldn't have done more than 25% of the computer-related work my Mac's allowed me to do. Yes, I'd swear this in a court of law today, because I firmly believe it. And as for quality problems, the worst of those on the Macs seem to be on the very newest ones (and in the latest OS releases); i.e., go back a few years in Mac hardware and software and you seem to hit a 'sweet spot' of pretty nifty cost, quality, and features that often seems superior to that offered by newer Macs (and better than many newer PCs, etc., too). Specifically, 25 MHz and faster 68030 and 68040 Macs, and versions 7.1 through 7.5.3 of the OS (and related items) have much to offer to many Mac users, still. The very earliest PowerPCs (601 CPUs) also may be a part of this elite group, though I have little first hand experience with those, and suspect they may share at least a few of the problems their newer PowerMac kin often display.

So for many current Mac users (especially those on the slowest 8-20 MHz 680x0 Macs) 25 MHz and faster 68030/68040 Macs and OS 7.1-7.5.3 may still be worthwhile alternatives to WebTV, new PCs, or new Macs. But try to 'cherry-pick' among used models if buying, focusing on the very best Apple built at the time; for example, the IIci model was just about the perfectly balanced 25 MHz 68030 Mac of its time. The practically experimental 40 MHz IIfx was considerably faster, but used special RAM SIMMs and a SCSI terminator (required for chaining together external SCSI devices) different from all other Macs that might be difficult or costly to locate now. Also avoid Macs without an FPU in general (although the FPU's absence might never be noticed in most software usage). In 68040 Macs, most of the Quadras are relatively safe bets as nice machines (though some tower models have cases that make them a little difficult to access for internal upgrades, and some 'pizza-box' form factor boxes might suffer deficient cooling under some circumstances).

I often write about such older Macs here in Newz&Viewz...so exploring the archives at the bottom of this page and other parts of this site will net you more info on that subject.

-- J.R. Mooneyham

11-29-97 UPDATE: I just found a listing in a J&R Music World/Computer World catalog for an adapter you need to connect a Hewlett-Packard printer to a WebTV-- the adapter alone costs $100! OUCH!

Microsoft WebTV User's Log Contents

The above article(s) come from and make references to a collection copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 by J.R. Mooneyham (except where otherwise noted in the text). Text here explicitly authored by J.R. Mooneyham may be freely copied and distributed for non-commercial purposes in paper and electronic form without charge if this copyright paragraph and link to jmooneyham.com or jrmooneyham.com are included.

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