January 2001 Issue  Volume 2  Number 1

Product Evaluation

How Usable are Internet Appliances That Connect to a TV?

Who wouldn't be interested in a simple and inexpensive Internet appliance to send and receive e-mail and take advantage of the web-a device that is more like a TV set for the Internet? The idea of the Internet appliance has great appeal to anyone for whom learning to use a personal computer (PC) is a hassle or for whom cost is an issue. We checked PC prices and found that a basic PC for Internet access with a 17-inch monitor can range from $600-$1,000. Magnification software can greatly increase the cost, especially for a full-featured program.

Using a TV

Most people own a TV that is big enough to display large letters and images on the screen, and using such a TV can bring down the cost of an Internet appliance to under a few hundred dollars. How well do these devices really work, and will the TV deliver a good enough image for the visually impaired user? Many people own older TVs that are perfectly adequate for their main purpose. The problem is that the telephone-line signal delivered to the TV for accessing the Internet is designed for a computer monitor, and even the newest TVs will not provide resolution that is as good as that of a computer monitor.


We came up with five criteria to consider in a TV-based Internet appliance:

  1. It should be able to send and receive e-mail, provide access to the web, and cost under $250.
  2. It should be relatively easy to set up. Components should connect easily, and connecting to the Internet should be relatively painless.
  3. It should have good screen visibility, even on an older TV. (Buying a new TV would at least double the cost.) Screen resolution should be good enough to provide a crisp image. The size of icons and text should be big and well spaced. By big we mean the following: on a 27-inch TV at least 1/2 inch for an upper case letter and at least 5/16 of an inch for a lower case letter.
  4. It should have a high-contrast feature or foreground and background color control so that you can get a high-contrast image.
  5. It should have a minimum number of controls, which are easy to find and use.

To find out if a TV-based Internet appliance would be usable by people who are visually impaired, we did some research and found three candidates to evaluate: Microsoft's WebTV, Sega's Dreamcast, and AOL's AOLTV. All three meet the criteria for e-mail, web access, and cost. We tried them out on a 27-inch Sony TV that was about 12 years old. We decided to use this TV rather than buy a new one because it is likely that many people own older TVs, and if the appliance worked well on an older TV, it would probably work as well or better on a newer one.

WebTV: The Granddaddy of TV-Internet Appliances

The WebTV console looks like a videocassette recorder (VCR) without control buttons or a place to insert the tape. It comes with a power cord, a telephone wire, and an audio visual (AV) cable and is very easy to connect. All WebTV controls are keys on the wireless QWERTY keyboard. They are black with yellow text in 12-point font. Arrow keys are used to move the cursor from link to link. As an arrow key is hit, a yellow box around the previous link jumps to the next link. That is the easy part. There is much more to consider.

The top row is made up of function keys (F1 to F7), which act as shortcuts to web sites and nine WebTV keys (Favorites, Home, Search, Mail, Find, Info, Go To, Save, and Send). There is also a column of four WebTV keys on the right side of the keyboard (Edit, Back, Scroll Up, and Scroll Down). There are also two WebTV keys located next to the space bar (Recent and Option). With a total of 15 WebTV command keys, learning all the commands and where they are located can be a hassle. Although the instruction manual is not really needed to set up WebTV, it is helpful for learning commands. The manual is in 12-point font with many illustrations.

Signing up to WebTV's proprietary Internet service provider (ISP) is easy. When WebTV is turned on for the first time, it automatically calls WebTV to set up a new account. Text on the sign-up screen meets our criteria for being large. However, contrast is poor because it uses a light gray background with dark gray letters. Typed-in text is yellow and is much more visible, but the edges of the letters are fuzzy as a result of moving scan lines.

After dialing in, you are taken to WebTV's home page, which provides most of the options available on the keyboard as icon buttons and text buttons. The text and images meet our criteria for being large, but contrast is poor and WebTV provides no foreground or background control. We did not encounter the problem of blurry letters that we saw in the sign-on screen.

E-mail and basic text on web pages can be set to small, medium, or large. When set to large, e-mail text meets our criteria for size and resolution but not for contrast. It uses light blue letters on a dark blue background. Resolution was poor for viewing web sites because of the same fuzziness that appeared on the sign-on screen.

Dreamcast: It's Not Just for Games

The Dreamcast console is about half the size of a VCR with a CD player on top for inserting CD-based games or the Dreamcast web browser, which is used whenever you want to go online. It comes with the standard cables, but Dreamcast's QWERTY keyboard is not wireless and must be plugged into the console. It is easy to connect the components. The arrow keys are used to move the cursor around but not from link to link.

Dreamcast's keyboard uses two keys for scrolling. It also uses the numbers 2-9 on the numeric pad for the following commands: stop, options, back, home, forward, reload, mail, and address. Many letter keys also function as shortcut buttons. The most used letter commands are "A," which is the action key to click on a link, the "Y" key, which opens up an on-screen magnifier, and the "G" key, which opens the URL dialog box. It is not hard to find the commands because they are all letter or number keys. However, the manual is in 10-point type with few illustrations.

The on-screen magnifier opens a window that displays the area behind it magnified 2x or 4x. The window is moved with the arrow keys. In the 2x mode, we found that it not only magnifies beyond our size criteria but also makes the image much crisper and makes reading lines of text and viewing icons or graphics much easier. However, when you are using the magnifier, you cannot type or click on links. This is a big drawback, especially for using e-mail.

Dreamcast offers three options for ISPs: a preexisting ISP, its own proprietary ISP (Sega Net) or AT&T's WorldNet. We chose WorldNet. Signing up was more involved than it was for WebTV but was still relatively easy. Contrast on the sign-up screen was tolerable. Dreamcast's web site is cluttered with advertisements and links related to game playing, but the contrast is good, with black letters on a white background. To get to e-mail you either hit a shortcut key on the keyboard or the mail icon on the top of the page. The size of text in e-mail is less than our criteria, and the black letters on a white background are slightly fuzzy, but the on-screen magnifier did a good job magnifying and removing the fuzziness. We found the resolution on web pages to be poor but the on-screen magnifier came to the rescue as it did in email.

AOLTV: The New Kid on the Block

The AOLTV console is just like WebTV's, and it also has a wireless keyboard. Set up was easy. AOLTV's keyboard is the same size as WebTV's, but it has 27 added buttons scattered on the keyboard. These buttons are very small (only a half an inch long and three eighths inch high) and they are also placed very close together. The labeling of the buttons is in 10-point type with poor contrasting colors. The manual is in 12-point type with some illustrations.

AOLTV's ISP is, as you might expect, AOL. To sign up you enter your registration code number. Letter size on the sign-up screen met our criteria, but contrast was poor. For some unknown reason, our registration number was invalid. We called customer support and eventually succeeded in getting connected.

When we turned on AOLTV we were presented with a list of links on the left of the screen that met our size criteria, but contrast was poor because of the use of light blue lettering on a dark blue background. E-mail is also good in terms of size but equally poor in terms of contrast. (The letters are white on a light blue background.) When we composed a letter in e-mail the contrast and resolution was better; with black text on a beige background and crisp letters. When we viewed web pages we had the same problem with resolution as in WebTV and Dreamcast without its on-screen magnifier. Letters and images were fuzzy.

TV or Not TV?: How Usable Are They?

Are these TV-based Internet appliances easy to set up and sign on? Yes, but we encountered some difficulties signing on to AOL.

Is screen visibility good? The only unit that met all our criteria for screen visibility was Dreamcast because of its image-enhancing on-screen magnifier. However, the on-screen magnifier does not work while the user is typing, which is a major drawback.

Is there sufficient contrast or control of contrast? Dreamcast was the only unit that provided decent contrast (black letters on a white background), but it did not offer contrast control.

Are the controls easy to find and use? Dreamcast was slightly better than WebTV and far better than AOLTV, but it still did not meet our expectations. Some people may find Dreamcast difficult to use, and the manual is not accessible.

The bottom line is that these devices were not designed to be used by visually impaired people, and it just might be too much to expect that they have all the features and functions we need, especially with an older TV. Dreamcast met all our criteria, but only barely. Let the visually impaired buyer beware.

Product Information

WebTV: $99.99 plus $49.99 for the keyboard; ISP: WebTV ($24.95 per month). Company: WebTV Networks; phone: 888-469-3288; Web site: www.Webtv.com.

Dreamcast: $149.99 plus $24.99 for the keyboard;, ISP: SegaNet ($21.95 per month); AT&T WorldNet ($14.95 per month); any pre-existing ISP. Company: Sega; phone: 888-345-7342; Web site: www.sega.com.

AOLTV: $249.99 (comes with keyboard), ISP: AOL. Company: AOL; phone: 800-810-4665; Web site: www.aol.com.

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