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Saturday, January 09, 2010

Need a WebTV Replacement

Some years ago now I set my father up with WebTV. It met his needs perfectly: it gave him email and Web access from his TV (he spends most of his time in front of his TV), it was reliable, it didn't require him to learn how to use a computer generally, and it didn't require any support from me (my father is in Tacoma, Washington and I'm in Austin, Texas, so I can't just pop over to provide hands-on support).

My father is not tech savy--he used a manual typewriter to produce a club newsletter for years until the club finally forced him to upgrade to an electric typewriter. He refuses to carry a mobile phone or use ATMs. You get the idea. However, he depends on email and e-bay so he has to have some sort of Internet access.

Unfortunately, while Microsoft has not completely abandoned WebTV, they have not enhanced it in years and clearly have no intention of doing so--you can't even download the emulator they used to provide.

The problem for my father is that WebTV is simply no longer up to the task of supporting modern Web sites and it's becoming harder and harder for him to use e-bay and other Web sites, like Amazon or Flicker. And forget about Facebook.

My quandry is what to replace WebTV with. So far I haven't been able to identify any obvious good solutions. The Wii's Web browser is close but it's still pretty clunky--even with a keyboard I don't think it would be reliable or simple enough for my dad--it requires a lot of wimote fiddling to scroll and pan around Web sites that don't fit nicely on a screen.

AppleTV would seem likely except that it doesn't come out of the box with a Web browser and I'm not going to support a hack that adds one.

A Mac mini might serve, but that gets us into the having a full computer problem, and I'm not sure my dad's TV takes HDMI input (I need to find out about that).

It seems like the new tablets that are all the buzz of the gadget world might serve, especially the rumored Apple tablet, but I'm not sure my dad would be willing to drop a grand on it, and I'm not keen to have him be an early adopter.

But I feel like I'm missing some obvious technology choice. Anyone out there have any thoughts about how to provide a TV-connected Web browser that is easy to use, works reliably, and will work with modern Web sites?


Blogger Liz Fraley said...

I'd suggest looking at Boxee or putting XBMC on a mac mini.

10:48 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

An interesting conundrum. I have a Logitech keyboard for my Wii that works pretty well but, as you mentioned, the browser takes some getting used to. Still, I think it must be at least as simple to use as the Web TV (again, once you add the keyboard). Also, the iPhone or an iPod Touch could work if the screen isn't too annoying. As a bonus, many sites cater to the form factor and many even have dedicated apps to provide a good experience.
I doubt there's much else out there unless you maybe get a simple Netbook or something.

11:39 PM  
Blogger Eliot Kimber said...

I installed Boxee on my Mac and the Web browser seems comparable to WebTV in terms of look and feel. It seemed to handle eBay well enough. I also like the built-in apps for Flickr and Facebook. The Boxee box looks like an attractive option, once it's available.

The Wii is still a strong contender as well and doesn't require an HDMI connection as the Boxee or AppleTV or Mac Mini would.

9:02 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

So $499 for the Apple tablet. That's the ticket!

1:18 AM  
Blogger Eliot Kimber said...

The iPad, yes that looks quite promising. As soon as it's in stores I plan to have my dad head to the nearest Apple Store[tm] and try one.

5:28 AM  
Blogger John Quillen said...

I would concur on the iPad + keyboard; instant on, low maint. The only issue is that I would assume, as with the iPhone, it needs a computer to sync to for OS upgrades. I suppose that can be done in the Apple store - once the line for iPads dies down(?)

4:05 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Andy Ihnatko at the Chicago Sun-Times explores the pros and cons of the iPad as a sole computer for a relative:,ihnatko-ipad-computer-detractors-033110.article

5:44 AM  
Blogger Eliot Kimber said...

Thanks for the tip, Chris. That article certainly supports my instinct. I had already reserved an iPad at my local Apple store so Saturday I find out for sure, but I'm 99.5% certain I'll buy it (seems pretty low risk).

11:56 AM  
Blogger Phil said...

What did you finally get for your Dad, and how is it working out? I have the same problem: my 90 year old sister has had WebTV for 20 years, what do I get to take it's place. Will no longer work after Sept. 30th.

8:55 AM  
Blogger Eliot Kimber said...

I got an iPad for my father, but unfortunately, he passed away suddenly before he could use it. That's probably what I would do today, although an XBox 360 might not be a bad choice either--it seems to work pretty smoothly and it does provide for an add-on keyboad.

4:06 PM  
Anonymous Nicholas M said...

My parents wanted to use a browser for their TV for netflix and hulu and was considering getting a apple tv. They ended up getting a small inexpensive laptop with HDMI (Toshiba Satellite) and plugged it directly to the TV. Now they're not limited to what apple tv provides but what a computer can provide. Not only can they watch netflix and hulu on the tv, they can also do other things they like to do such as minesweeper and solitaire.

3:59 PM  

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