More on TV/Web divergence

My WI#65 on Web/TV convergence brought lots of comments, and I wanted to share one email in particular that I got from Colleague Eric Hall. I first met Eric when I was working at PC Week about eight years ago, and hired him to come work for me when I was editor-in-chief at Network Computing Magazine. Eric is now an independent networking consultant and still contributes a few freelance articles for the trades. Take it away Eric.

David. Your last Web Informant was very timely for me as I have been heavily researching this subject of late. I'm at a point where I want to move my existing stereo and TV into the bedroom, and am looking at building a single system capable of handling all my entertainment needs. I thought you might want to hear of my findings.

First of all, attempting to turn a TV into a multimedia device is a dead-end effort for most consumers. This especially applies to WebTV and other set-top boxes that attempt to lower the technical barriers to adopting high-tech devices. While they may be successfully marketed to my grandmother as lo-tech, they are of no value to my little brother. In the end, neither will buy them, as grandma is so anti-tech that she wouldn't want it in the house in the first place, while my brother would simply scoff at the idea of paying that much money for a single-function device that doesn't play his legacy Nintendo software.

In terms of successfully selling these systems to techno- philes like us, there are again just too many issues with them for me to go that route. First of all, you end up having to deal with TV's extremely poor resolution when compared to that of a PC. Unless the vendors do a tremendous amount of custom engineering (like WebTV had to do with fonts in order to make web pages readable), they simply don't provide me with the resolution I am accustomed to. Anybody who has played Doom on a PC will tell you that the Nintendo counterparts just don't compare. Another major issue is the dependency on ONE vendor to provide you with the tools and toys that YOU want to run on these devices. Will Microsoft support JavaScript with their port of IE for WebTV? Will they support Apple's QuickTime plug-ins? While they may squeal positively, I am not so sure. In any case, there will never be as many options as I have with my Pentium running Windows.

Furthermore, if I want to integrate audio CDs, video tapes, DVD and other components into this sort of entity, I will need IO ports, slots and controllers. In order for Microsoft to enable the WebTV box with these capabilities, they would have to port the ENTIRE WINDOWS OS to the set-top box, put PCMCIA slots into, and effectively make it a PC. Why wait? Just get the PC now and skip the hassles of a new version of a less-capable brand new OS. Granted, there appear to be many limitations when you first look at this type of setup, but almost all of these issues can be overcome with a little bit of research.

For example, as you pointed out, most of the video cards currently on the market do not leverage the VGA-or-better monitors effectively, turning otherwise useful NTSC video into chunky PC video by way of MPEG conversion. This is not the right approach to the home market at all. If you look at Gateway's Destination line of systems, they avoid this specific problem altogether by using a Mitsubishi monitor that is capable of handling NTSC and VGA simultaneously. Rather than converting NTSC to MPEG, the Mitsubishi monitor simply handles the NTSC video natively. It also handles the VGA signal natively, allowing you to run Netscape and Office at VGA (and higher) resolution.

Besides the Mitsubishi monitor -- which is the real hero in Gateway's Destination story -- Gateway also provides other options which make their product an excellent starting point for technically-savvy home-theater consumers. They also include an infra-red keyboard and mouse for example, allowing you to control your TV tuner and other functions from the comfort of your couch, as easily as if you had a regular remote control.

For the true technophiles however, the Destination is only a starting point. I'm looking at replacing the standard CD-ROM drive with a recordable DVD drive when they become available, allowing me to play and record both audio and video cleanly. Also, since the system runs standard Windows 95 (not a set-top version of Windows CE thank-you-very- much), you can also buy AM/FM receivers, video editing tools for the VCR and camcorder, etc, all off-the-shelf at Frys and other superstores. Essentially, the WinTel platform already offers all of the tools I need -- hardware AND software -- in order to build something that's better than what WebTV or it's cousins will ever hope to be.

There are some cautionary notes here of course. Make sure that the CD-ROM drives you use are of the absolute highest quality; not all of them are as reliable as the name brands such as Sony, especially when it comes to dirty or scuffed CDs. Another issue is sound quality in general. I have found that Sound Blasters and the like work well for PC-based games, but aren't of the quality one would expect from a home theater. You will need to get external amplifiers and equalizers in order to get the sound quality you may be used to from your existing home stereo setup.

As for the issues you raised regarding HDTV and Digital TV, I'm of the mind that it will be at least three years before there's a mature enough market to warrant my investigation of those components. By that time, I should be ready to upgrade my cobbled-together system with a series of other newly-available components. Hope things are well. Eric.

David Strom
+1 (516) 944-3407
back issues
entire contents copyright 1997 by David Strom, Inc.