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COMDEX SPECIAL

Sega Enters the Race to Bring Internet to TV

Games: With Net Link you can cruise the Web from your sofa. It works--up to a point.

November 18, 1996|AARON CURTISS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What Volkswagen did for cars, Sega wants to do for the Internet.

With this month's release of its $200 Internet box called Net Link, the video game giant is betting big that thumb-sore kids and parents tired of twitch-and-flinch games want to slow down and cruise the World Wide Web from their sofas.

Sega executives hope Net Link's 28.8-kilobit-per-second modem and custom interface will lure enough buyers to prop up lackluster sales of the company's flagship 32-bit game machine, Saturn. At the same time, Net Link gives Sega an early entry into the heavily hyped race to bring the Internet to living room televisions through cheap stand-alone boxes rather than expensive multimedia computers.

Net Link is actually a peripheral that plugs into Saturn's expansion port. For those without a Saturn, Sega offers a package deal that includes the Saturn unit, the Net Link attachment, a keyboard and a game for $450--just $50 more than the Saturn alone was selling for just over a year ago.

Although Saturn sales have suffered against competing game machines from Sony and Nintendo, the unit hosts some top-notch arcade-style titles such as "Virtua Fighter" and "Nights." With the Net Link attachment, Sega allows the system to grow beyond pure gaming to function more like a simple network computer.

Though longtime Netizens will likely turn up their noses at Net Link's proprietary browser, neophytes should find it easy to use. Designed to work with either Saturn's joypad or the optional keyboard and mouse, the PlanetWeb browser uses "anti-aliasing" technology to reduce the flicker that results when high-resolution computer images are translated for display on more primitive television screens.

For the most part, it works. Occasionally, though, the screen was slow to refresh, particularly on Web pages laden with graphics and type. And after trying out several pages that look great on Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Explorer, the limitations of the PlanetWeb browser became apparent. Animated GIFs, for instance, don't translate well at all.

In addition, the limited memory of the Saturn core system and the operating requirements of the PlanetWeb browser don't allow much room for cached pages. So backing out of a long series of jumps takes longer than it should. The browser does allow users to connect to new links before a page has drawn completely, but only in between loads. On occasion, the system simply stopped responding.

Overall control of the browser is easier than expected. When users without a keyboard want to type in a uniform resource locater, for instance, a digital keyboard pops up on the screen and letters can be punched one by one. It's awkward but effective. Most navigation, though, doesn't require anything more than a couple of clicks of the joypad.

Right now, Net Link offers access only to the World Wide Web and to e-mail, with a range of membership plans through Concentric Networks. In the future, Sega hopes to add newsgroups and chat, with upgrades to the software either available online or on additional CD-ROMs. In addition, Net Link promises the opportunity to play Saturn games online. The first: Sega Rally Championship.

Online veterans won't find much on Net Link that would make them abandon their PC or their current browser, but it does open the Internet to a new market and proves that the World Wide Web can translate fairly well from the den to the living room.

But technical can-do only goes so far. Whether families really want to sit on the sofa waiting five minutes for grainy pictures of the space shuttle to load onto their television is the real question that so far has gone unanswered.

Aaron Curtiss can be reached via e-mail at aaron.curtiss@latimes.com

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