A Web Hookup With Something Extra

THOMSON CONSUMER ELECTRONICS INC., owner of the well-known RCA brand, thinks this is the year consumers will flock to those stripped-down personal computers known as network computers (NCs).

On July 17, Thomson introduced the RCA Network Computer--a set-top box that rivals the offerings from WebTV, Philips, and Sony. The device connects to any TV set and offers access to the World Wide Web using a built-in 33.6-kbps modem and a special Internet service provider called NetChannel. The NetChannel service will also offer E-mail, personal Web pages, and a daily electronic TV-program schedule for a flat $19.95 monthly fee.

The RCA NCs also can connect to most computer monitors and printers--since they are built around software maker Oracle Corp.'s network computer specifications. That's important, considering that Thomson might offer other models with PC-like functionality--a unit for the den that can track finances using a Java program, for example. In September, Thomson will offer two models: the $349 NC1020 (photo) with a wireless keyboard and the $299 NC1010 wired version.