First Look: Surfing on Your MSN TV
At a Glance
Microsoft's new MSN TV 2 Internet & Media Player just doesn't know what it wants to be. On one hand, it's a television-based Internet appliance that lets PC-less folks surf the Internet; on the other, it's a home networking device that lets savvy users use their television to access digital content (like music and photos) stored on their PC. At the first task, it works reasonably well. But as a networking tool, MSN TV 2 leaves plenty to be desired.
MSN TV 2 is the latest incarnation of the product formerly known as WebTV. It's a silver box, slightly smaller than a typical big-city yellow pages, measuring 11.8 inches wide by 9 inches deep by 2.4 inches tall. For some reason, though it's significantly smaller than the average desktop PC, it's larger than earlier WebTV versions. The package includes a wireless keyboard and remote control.
You connect the $200 MSN TV box to your TV via standard composite audio/video (right/left/video) jacks or an S-Video jack. The box includes a phone jack for dialing in to the Internet, as well as an ethernet jack for connecting to an existing network or broadband connection. The box also contains two USB ports, which let you add USB peripherals--including wireless network adapters.
As a dial-up Web and e-mail device for newbies, MSN TV 2 works well enough. I tested a shipping version, and setup was not difficult. You plug the phone jack in, and the device handles most of the installation work for you with minimal input. MSN dial-up service requires a subscription, priced at $22 per month.
Every time you connect, MSN TV 2 sends you to its customized home page, which has been optimized for viewing on a television, but which will look very familiar to anyone who has ever visited MSN.com. The screen has small toolbars along the top (for accessing your account information, help, and more), and along the bottom (for accessing e-mail and multimedia), but the majority of the screen offers Web content. The page lists top stories from MSN, local weather information, and additional MSN Web highlights.
The home page also provides an address bar for typing in Web addresses, but visiting sites outside MSN TV 2's realm can be an unpleasant experience. When you visit a nonoptimized Web site, only a small portion of most pages are viewable on the screen. And even pages that do appear in their entirety often appear disjointed. For example, when I viewed a news story headline on Boston.com on my PC, it fit neatly in two lines; but when viewed through MSN TV 2, the headline broke into multiple lines of awkward size.
MSN TV notifies you when you have new e-mail messages, and the Web-based e-mail client interface is simple to use, even for first-time e-mail users. The e-mail pages tended to be a bit slow to load, and there's no spelling checker, but overall it's a decent setup for users who haven't grown accustomed to speedier desktop-client-based e-mail programs.
One recurring problem I encountered while typing e-mail messages had to do with the wireless keyboard. Often it seemed to lose its connection to the box--even when I was sitting right in front of the TV. More than once, this forced me to retype passages, which gets old quickly.
Like most broadband users, I've become spoiled by fast Internet access, so I found using MSN TV 2 over dial-up a frustrating experience. It's always annoying to watch Web pages load slowly, but it's even worse on a big-screen television.
Microsoft knows that more people are moving to broadband Internet, so MSN TV 2 works with a high-speed connection, too. When you connect the unit to your home network, besides obtaining all of the features mentioned above, you gain access to music, photos, and video stored on your PC.
Connecting the unit to an existing wired network is fairly straightforward, but adding it to an existing wireless 802.11b network proved more troublesome. To prepare the unit for wireless operation, you must first connect it to the network using a standard ethernet cable. After that, you plug in a third-party USB-based Wi-Fi adapter (sold separately).
Once you've connected MSN TV 2 to a network, it searches the other computers on the network for multimedia content to share. It can also search flash memory cards and USB thumb drives attached to its USB ports. I had numerous problems getting the device to recognize folders on my home PC, even though I had enabled file sharing.
After many calls to tech support, I was able to view my PC's collection of digital photos through my TV. Sure, it was great to see the photos from my recent vacation on the big screen of my TV, but I found the features somewhat limited. For example, I could select certain photos to view as a slideshow, but I couldn't change the order of the photos when they came from two different sources (such as my home PC and my laptop). Plus, I couldn't set a slideshow to music.
I wasn't particularly impressed with MSN TV 2's Web access through broadband, either. It seemed to load Web pages more slowly than my PC. Also, the streaming video offered through the MSN Video site looked like, well, streaming video. The selection was good (choices included sports highlights, entertainment clips, news, and more), but the quality was not impressive. For example, excerpts from a Red Sox postgame press conference had slightly murky video, with the smeared look of streamed video. An hour later, my local news showed the same clips--and viewed them on the same TV, they were of noticeably superior quality.
So, if I am advanced enough as a PC user to want to share my multimedia content over my home network, do I want to get those features from such a basic Internet device? And am I willing to pay the additional $10 per month that MSN TV 2 charges on top of my existing broadband service? The answer for me is no.
The only practical use I see for MSN TV 2 is for the few people who have yet to take their first step onto the Internet. Somebody who has never experienced the Web on a high-speed broadband-connected PC might find that this appliance is just the ticket. But if you're interested in a home networking device, you can get more for your money.
Microsoft MSN TV 2 Internet & Media Player
Acceptable as a dial-up Internet device for some, but its broadband networking features will leave savvy users unimpressed.