WebTV on Steroids

Surfing the Web on a TV has never had much appeal for anyone who's comfortable with a computer. Even mighty Microsoft did little to increase the set-top browser market after it purchased WebTV and renamed it MSN TV. Now the company, through hardware partner RCA (Thomson), is trying again with the introduction of the MSN TV 2 Internet and Media Player. This latest version includes an Ethernet port for a broadband connection (as an alternative to its built-in modem) and doubles as a media receiver for playing music, photos, or video stored on a networked PC.

The Short Form

DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 11 3/4 x 2 3/8 x 9 inches PRICE $200 MANUFACTURER RCA (Thomson), msntv.com, 800-706-4403

KEY FEATURES • Set-top Internet browser for TV • Broadband connection • Plays media from networked PC • outputs composite- and S-video; stereo; Ethernet, phone line, and 2 USB ports

PLUS • Easy to operate • Video clips from MSNBC • MSN Radio lets you skip to next song

MINUS • Requires subscription • Lacks digital audio and video outputs • Video format support is anemic

SETUP AND BASIC OPERATION Included in the box are a wireless keyboard and remote (both with batteries), an A/V cable, and a telephone cable with a jack splitter. I bypassed the phone accoutrements and used my own Ethernet cable to connect the player to a router near my TV. Vents cover the lid of the receiver, so it has to go on top of your component stack. Later, to confirm the MSN TV 2 player's compatibility with my Wi-Fi network, I used a wireless network adapter that attached to one of the player's two USB ports. I plugged a multiformat memory-card reader into the other port.

Unlike most media receivers, the MSN TV 2 is useless without a subscription. After entering my credit card to complete installation, I was greeted with the local temperature and a menu that included video clips from MSNBC and music streams from MSN Radio. Music, Photograph, and Video buttons on the keyboard (duplicated onscreen as icons) let you access content from the Internet, a PC on your home network, or a card reader.

You'll have to set up your computer to share files on a network (via Windows) before the player will recognize them. Unlike most other media receivers I've used, this one includes no software to search for content on your PC.

PERFORMANCE Internet access was snappy thanks to my cable modem. I was impressed by the sound quality and TV-like frame rate of news stories served up from MSNBC and clips from NBC programs like The Tonight Show. Picture resolution, though, was VHS quality at best. And dozens of MSN radio streams in different genres sounded like FM at best. But thanks to MSN's Radio Plus service, I could skip to the next tune, which took only a few seconds.

Using music and photographs stored on my PC, I started playing "Season of Love" from the musical Rent and then pulled up a slideshow of fall foliage that I'd photographed the previous weekend. The player nicely faded one image into the next. You can transfer up to 100 images into the player's internal memory so you can play a slide-show even if your computer is off. rca msn tv 2 back

For music stored on your computer, the MSN TV 2 lets you access MP3 and WMA files, though you can only scan through a WMA track. I was able to view MPEG-1 (Video CD-quality) clips stored on my computer but was frustrated that the player didn't support the MPEG-2, MPEG-4, DivX, QuickTime, or DVR-MS (Windows Media Center) video formats.

BOTTOM LINE Broadband or dial-up access is $10 a month (or $100 a year) if you already have an Internet service provider. Since paying Microsoft to access your own home network seems kind of silly, the MSN TV 2 makes sense only if you like the premium content from the MSN TV service. The video clips (which aren't available for dial-up users) are updated regularly, and they provide quick access to repeats of recent news stories. Unfortunately, there isn't any breadth or depth to the clip selection. The MSN Radio Plus channels let you skip to the next song, and that's worthwhile if, say, you love country but hate George Strait . Still, with all the free Internet radio out there, a listener is just as likely to switch stations.

The MSN TV 2 actually makes most sense for people who don't own a computer - so have neither a home network nor broadband access - and are willing to pay at least $22 a month for the dial-up plan. It's a dwindling audience for sure.