Net Cruisers: Surfing The Web From Your Sofa

New gizmos can make cyberspace a family experience

After Maurice Speaks helps his 8-year-old daughter research a history assignment on the Civil War for her third-grade class, the family settles in for an electronic version of the word game Hangman. The Speakses, who have spent three months testing an Internet service called On-TV, are among the first Americans to do what the experts say millions of us will do in a few years: cruise the World Wide Web from the comfort of our living-room couches. "We can all sit and enjoy this as a family," says Speaks.

When it comes to selecting a vehicle for bringing people to the Information Highway, the personal computer is still king of the road. But the PC is an individual tool--not conducive to a family experience. This holiday season, however, retailers will have the first products--hybrid PC/TVs, Internet-ready TVs, and Net-connected game players--that will make it possible for any family to do what the Speakses are doing.

With such a wide variety of products, though, where do you begin? If you'd like to roam the Internet with the family but still want a full-blown personal computer, then you might consider shelling out from $3,000 to $4,500 for a PC/TV setup. So far, Gateway 2000 has one of the few hybrid machines available, but other PC makers are developing similar devices. What you get with Gateway's Destination is a Pentium PC fitted with a 31-inch monitor and a graphics card that doubles as a TV tuner. To watch regular TV programming, you simply hit the TV button on the remote.

If you don't want to invest in a new PC but would like to try cybercruising from the sofa, you have a choice of add-ons: Set-top TV boxes that work with existing TVs, Internet-ready TVs, and game players. Consumer-electronics companies such as Samsung, Zenith, and Mitsubishi plan to market Internet-ready sets over the next few months. They'll be priced $250 to $350 higher than regular televisions.

Sony Corp. and Philips Consumer Electronics are selling Web-cruising set-top boxes developed by startup WebTV Networks. They plug directly into a telephone line and either a TV or a VCR. The Sony box lists for $349, while the Philips' Magnavox unit carries a $329 retail price tag. Analysts expect those prices to quickly drop to below $300.

GAMER GOODIES. On Oct. 31 Sega Enterprises Ltd. plans to introduce its Sega Saturn Net Link, a $199 cartridge that includes a modem and snaps into the back of its Sega Saturn game console. Meanwhile, the Pippin game player, designed by Apple Computer Inc. and built by Japan's Bandai, is expected to become available later this year in the U.S. starting at $599. One thing to be aware of, however: Game players--particularly the Sega unit--are geared toward teenagers. The interface design, while way cool for teens, may be all wrong for junior or grandma.

That's why Sega is discussing with startup ViewCall America a deal to bundle On-TV with the Sega Saturn game machine. Indeed, most Internet TVs and set-top boxes come bundled with such Net services as WebTV or On-TV. These services make cruising the Net as easy as switching TV channels, but they aren't free. WebTV's Internet service, for example, is $19.95 a month for unlimited access.

Remember, if you buy one of these products now, you will be among the pioneers. It's unclear at this point which type of living-room cruiser, if any, will really catch on. But if you're comfortable with being in the vanguard and you're sick of hunching over that PC screen, lean back and enjoy a cybercruise with the family.

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