MSN TV 2 box

Designed mainly for getting grandma and grandpa (GM+GP) online, WebTV never got much respect from early adopters who scoffed at the whole idea of surfing the Net on a TV screen, but it did get a lot of people online who couldn't afford a proper PC (or who didn't want to deal with one), with its subscriber rolls topping out around a million when Microsoft snapped it up in 1997 and renamed it MSN TV a few years later.

Fast forward to 2004 and Microsoft's new MSN TV2 Internet Player can still do dial-up, but they've added an Ethernet port and are positioning it as a way to get online for the 51% of Internet users who do have a broadband connection but don't want to spring for a second PC just so they can check email and read websites. Better still, it can pull double duty as a wireless media adapter that can stream audio and video from the hard drive of your PC to your home entertainment setup.

They're launching it October 5th, so click on to read our hands-on review, Gear Eye-style.

MSN TV 2 front
MSN TV 2 back

The box, which is made by Thomson, retails for $200, and costs $22 a month if you want to use it with MSN's dial-up service, and $10 a month as add-on for a broadband connection. It's pretty simple: power, composite/S-Video outs, USB, Ethernet, and a telephone jack. So yeah, it's safe to say some things haven't really changed when it comes to Web/MSN TV. It's definitely still designed with the non-tech savvy user in mind, but they've definitely given it a lot more meat to make it viable in the battle for the living room.

MSN TV 2 overview
What you get: keyboard (not pictured) with batteries, remote with batteries, phone splitter, phone cable, composite cable, adapter, user and setup guides, and, of course, the box.

Setup

The unit was pretty straight forward setup, not a lot of frills, nothing unnecessary, just like you'd expect from a set-top box. Get your keyboard and mouse batteries goin', plug the unit into your router, cable modem or phone and TV, turn it on, boom, you're on your way.

Creating a user account is also pretty quick, just the typical boring form data entry stuff. Once you're done verifying your credit card info and the like, you log on, and you're free to roam. There's not a whole lot to mess up with this.

Features
The machine functions very smoothly out of box, and is amply equipped with a 733MHz Celeron, 128MB of RAM, 64MB of Flash ROM, and Windows CE, for instant-on access. It streams from out-of-the-box compatible Windows Media Player formats (MPEG2, AVI, MP3, WAV, etc.) and uses IE 6.0. There did not appear to be much lag at all when doing basic browsing and media playback, and everything worked more or less without a hitch. The broadband certainly made the whole experience a whole lot less painless—I think the one-two combo of TV-internet and dialup speeds was really too much for all but the most determined or unwitting users to put up with, so the speed boost is most welcomed and appreciated on this type of device.

Of course, what is missing from the machine is integrated Wireless communications (WiFi, Bluetooth, etc.), a memory card reader, and, dare we say, even a hard drive, but we suppose these were all cut out to keep the machine's costs down. However, even one of them—especially wireless functionality—would have been an immensely useful addition.

Use and ease of use
The system, once logged on, is very simple. If you can understand what the Internet is and does (in broad terms, of course), then you can get how this thing works. Browsing was all pretty decent. There's really no way to get around the extremely low NTSC resolution, so as always, expect a lot of your favorite pages to range between hurtin' and near-unreadable, but usually useable to a good enough degree.

MSN TV 2 homescreen

We think it may have a bit too much screen clutter for GM+GP, but it was all pretty well confined, and the menus and submenus never get too deep.

MSN TV 2 email
Email is easy, and it was very clear that they were trying to make it as simple for GM+GP as possible.

The one aspect I worried about was the complexity of was the network file sharing (for streaming media from network drive shares) for the less networking-friendly audience, but it worked pretty seamlessly. It automatically scans for NetBIOS/SMB-enabled machines, populates a list, and then lets you choose which to connect to. From there, open the media player in question (be it photo, video, or music) and source your files from the drive share.

MSN TV 2 curb
MSN TV 2 didn't like playing all our media, however, but what can you do? One wouldn't exactly expect the MSN TV 2 to try to hook itself up with a DiVX codec or anything. Most of the rest worked alright, though.

MSN TV 2 video
If you don't have any video of your own to stream across the network, there are short clips accessible from MSN TV's networks. We were, however, pretty disappointed the system's lack broadband connection detection, as the video clips offered were extremely small, extremely poor quality, and rather short (read: wonderful for dialup users only).

Everything in interacting with the system was pretty simple and redundant; most buttons on screen had hard key equivalents, which is convenient, because navigating a computer-like interface without a mouse can get tedious at times. The IR pickup of the box was pretty decent—especially for the mouse—but the keyboard had a slight bit of trouble, and didn't always receive keystrokes when typing quickly. This is a spot where Bluetooth would have really come in handy, but it's not really like anyone expected that to show up in MSN TV 2.

MSN TV 2 remote
The mouse could have been a little weightier, and looks a little chinsey and boring against the benchmark TiVo remote, but it did its job well enough. The buttons were distinct to the touch, and had a tactile feel when being pressed, and there weren't too many by any means.

MSN TV 2 keyboard
MSN TV 2 keyboard detail
The keyboard was pretty weighty (a bit more than we'd have expected, even), but felt like pretty much any other keyboard otherwise. The function keys were respectfully replaced with feature keys, and they even blessed users with dedicated page resize, refresh, and print buttons (among others).

As mentioned, it also features two USB ports for such things as memory card readers (for importing your digital photos, naturally) and USB WiFi adapters, in case you don't want or can't get a wired connection. How nice of them. Too bad they didn't incorporate a standard driver set for these things, so when you plug in your device, you must already have a connection established in order to get the proper drivers. However, at least retrieving the drivers was done automatically, but it was a little disheartening for an out-of-box solution.

Conclusion
We're operating on a couple of assumptions here being that you're reading Engadget: first is that overdrive-ease-of-use probably isn't your number one priority, and second is that you're probably not reading from a TV-based browser. That said, the MSN TV 2 a pretty well equipped, very easy to use TV-set top with a solid foundation of multimedia playing capabilities. About this much we can't complain. So if you're thinking about getting it for GM+GP, no worries, it's a pretty dead-lock. If they can learn some rudimentary concepts, this may be easier for them than a Mac.

But if you're thinking about getting this for yourself for the networked multimedia capabilities, move straight on and put your money into something more like Viewsonic's new WMx series. If you want a decent all-around internet-capable machine and you don't want to have to plunk down to buy a proper box (which, admittedly, would only be about $200 more for something pretty decent) then the MSN TV 2 may be for you; just don't get your hopes up, web on the TV isn't due to get really good until we're all running HDTV and have hefty pipes from the Net to the home.

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