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With AOLTV, It's Lonely at the Set Top

January 25, 2001|EDMUND SANDERS |

In AOLTV, no one can hear you scream.

About two months ago, I shelled out $250 for a glimpse of interactive television--or more specifically, America Online's first entree into this melding of old-fashioned boob tube with the Internet.

But sluggishness, quirky operations and a steep price ($249.95 for the set-top box, plus $14.95 a month) outweigh the current benefits of AOLTV, which amount to little more than a comprehensive program guide and the ability to chat while watching TV.

In fact, in spite of the much-touted appeal of trading instant messages with soap-opera fans while watching "All My Children" or joining an online discussion about Linda Chavez during CNBC's "Hardball," I found AOLTV to be a pretty cold and lonely place.

Despite numerous attempts to make human contact, I never found anyone else out there. Granted, the service, which launched last summer, is still fairly new. And AOL won't say how many people have signed up, so the number must be embarrassingly small.

No doubt over time AOL will move many of its online subscribers to AOLTV and smooth out the wrinkles. History has proved that this is a company that knows how to develop a product that appeals to the masses.

But for now, there's little reason for consumers to be pioneers. Technology buffs, who hate everything AOL does anyway, predictably will be disappointed by the lack of advanced options and the sluggishness with which the interface moves.

Internet newbies hoping to use AOLTV as a cheaper alternative to a PC also will be frustrated. Even as an add-on for current AOL subscribers, who the company says are the targeted audience for AOLTV, it's hard to make a case for signing up.

Here's a closer look at some of the reasons why.


The first issue users face is one of real estate. AOLTV comes with its own set-top box, wireless keyboard and a bunch of plugs and cables. Amid my DVD, VCR and cable box, there was no space left to stash the box and no free electrical outlets. Second, AOLTV must be plugged into a telephone jack to connect to the Internet. Not having a phone jack in my living room, I had to go to Radio Shack and buy a 20-foot extension cord.

The setup process is straightforward. Even those whose VCR clock perpetually blinks "12:00" should be able to follow the simple instructions and graphics for connecting the cables. Once connected, it takes an hour or so to download all the latest software.

Appearance and program guide

Once set up, AOLTV takes control of the set. A translucent AOL logo appears at the top of the screen at all times.

More disturbingly, the system reorganizes all the TV channels. Rather than numerical order, channels are arranged by topic, such as movies, networks, kids and family, sports, shopping and news.

It also inserts about 22 new AOLTV "channels"--two for each of the preset topics. One channel offers detailed program information. The second is a kind of virtual AOL channel, a place where users can experience some of the interactive features, including Internet access, chat and, sadly, advertisements.

This reorganization can be jarring at first. And though it may seem logical, it causes TV viewers to stop and think about how to navigate around their trusty TV, which could prove to be a fatal flaw. After all, who wants to use his or her brain watching TV?

However, the program guide--which provides summaries of most TV shows for the next week or so--was particularly useful, since my cable operator doesn't offer such data.

I should add that I encountered several problems getting the automatic updates for program data. Apparently, updates are retrieved from the cable company while you are signed on to the Internet or in the middle of the night, when AOLTV automatically signs on to fetch the information. After several complaints and unsuccessful reinstallations, I once again was able to see who would be appearing on Letterman.

Getting around

Similar to AOL's online service, AOLTV relies on a series of pop-up menus and boxes. For example, click Buddy List and a translucent box of buddies is superimposed on the TV screen. Other times, such as when reading e-mail or consulting the program guide, the TV screen is shrunk into a small box in the top right corner.

Perhaps the biggest drawback is that AOLTV is unacceptably slow, even when it isn't connected to the Internet. The culprit seems to be the new AOLTV channels, which are sandwiched between the real channels.

For example, each time users surf past one of the AOL program-guide channels (and they are hard to avoid), the TV screen shrinks to make room for updated data and the whole system gets hung up for 10 to 20 seconds. That's an eternity to a channel surfer just quickly flipping through to see what's on. Invariably, I kept clicking the channel button impatiently during the delay, which only resulted in a subsequent explosion of channels zipping by as AOLTV tried to catch up.

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