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TV-Net Works

New hardware aims to combine your boob tube with your shrewder computer

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Want to spice up the Oscar telecast by surfing the Net for John Travolta gossip? Or catch up on Baywatch while downloading stills of Pamela Lee? You may soon get your chance. With a host of devices that bring the Internet to your TV screen scheduled to arrive between now and Christmas, mouse potatoes will soon be growing roots into their sofas. These new appliances, which range from a $350 set-top box to a $3,000 big-screen system, offer the Internet standards (Web access, E-mail, and — in most cases — online chat) and were designed with newbies in mind. ”For people who watch Melrose Place and then get on the computer right after and chat about it, this makes the TV truly interactive,” says Heidi Sinclair, the head of interactive new media for Hollywood agency ICM. ”Then you start to build programming that has that interactive aspect built into it, and it opens a whole new world.” A new world in the future, maybe, but it’s not yet the end of the world as we know it, at least according to William Morris new-media head John Mass. ”I don’t think anyone’s saying ‘I can’t wait till I can access the Internet through my TV,”’ he says. ”Not until there’s some richness beyond the current Internet.”

Whether or not this revolution will be televised, here are some of the options:

WebTV
Coolish: At less than $350, this VCR-size box made by Sony and Philips Magnavox is a surfin’ safari. Just plug in a phone line, attach it to your TV, hit ”power,” and the box logs you on to the Net. With WebTV’s emphasis on regional content, it’s easy to find movie listings, news, and weather. There’s even a message light that lets you know when you have E-mail.
Foolish: It’s proprietary, so after you buy the box, you have to use WebTV’s Internet access and online service. It’s like buying a cool phone that works only with AT&T.

Gateway 2000 Destination Big Screen PC
Coolish: This 31-inch big-screen PC combines a lightning- fast computer and a razor-sharp TV image with built-in channel guides that offer on-screen program descriptions. It fits smartly into your entertainment system, and because you never actually turn it off (it goes into power-saving ”sleep” mode), it’s up and running at the push of a button.
Foolish: It costs $3,000. And this is a computer, not a TV. Better hope Junior’s home for tech support.

Zenith Netvision
Coolish: Built-in picture-in-picture, surround sound, and a trusted brand name give this 27-incher all the comforts of a high-end television. And unlike WebTV, it uses an open system, so you can pick and choose Internet providers and online services.
Foolish: You’ve already got a TV. Eventually, all VCRs, cable boxes, and phones will be wired for Net access, so at $1,099 there’s no rush to junk your current set.

Sega Saturn Net Link
Coolish: Think online games. Though they’re not a new idea, Sega is the only one of the big three to offer them, and engineers are adapting Saturn games for multiplayers and the Net. With this $200 unit (the size of a deck of cards) plugged into the $200 Sega Saturn console, game boys and girls get inexpensive browsing, E-mail, and chat — and some cool noises when they click on things.
Foolish: Through Sega’s browser, detailed Web graphics turn clunky.