I’ve heard about MSN TV years ago and back then I did not really pay attention because I already had a PC. However, we’ve recently had the opportunity to test MSN TV 2, so we went for it. In a nutshell, MSN TV 2 is a paid online service that is accessible via a simple to use box. It is in fact a simple computer that closer to a cable set-top box. The service lets users do things that usually require a computer: web browsing, email, video streaming, and internet radio just to mention a few. How good is it and should you get it?
The MSN TV 2 box is a small computer that doesn’t run Windows or any mainstream Operating System. The users cannot install applications. Fortunately, it comes with a lot of applications. It is very light (4.45lbs) and doesn’t contain any active cooling (it’s silent). The top of the box has holes from which the heat can escape. It gets a bit warm, but not really hot. On the front, there are a few LED (Light Emitting Diode) that signal if the unit is ON, connected to the internet and if there are new messages, In the back, there are audio/video, USB, Ethernet, Modem and power connectors.
Just to let you compare this box with a computer, here’s what’s inside:
CPU: 733Mhz Intel Celeron
System: Windows CE
Browser: IE 6.0
The MSN TV 2 box is meant to be connected to a Standard Definition (SD) TV via an analog signal that can be carried by a composite or S-video cable (just like most VCRs or DVD players). The native resolution is around 640×480 pixels. It will look OK on most CRT TVs but on a large size HDTV, the image won’t look crisp.
It is possible to connect to the internet via an existing connection, or get one via MSN, for a price, of course. Dial-up is an option, but we strongly recommend to use a broadband connection to get a good user experience.
Connecting the unit to the display and to the internet was very easy. It pretty much “just worked”. We used an existing wired broadband connection, although we did try to connect using WiFi as well. Unfortunately, our Microsoft WiFi USB Adapter was not compatible with the MSN TV 2 box, which is unfortunate. Only a few wireless adapters will function with this device (Full list).
Web browsing, Email and Instant Messaging
I would argue that these three basic functions are the reason why people would buy it. MSN TV 2 enables users to access all three without the need for a computer. Email and Instant messaging work without any problems. It’s easy and the experience is very similar to the PC versions of Hotmail and MSN Messenger. The web browsing experience will depend on the sites that you visit. Because MSN TV is using a somewhat low resolution, some websites won’t look the way they were intended to. Problems can go from scaled-down images to missing navigation.
Using multimedia files (streaming video, audio) and connecting to a home network is also possible with MSN TV 2. There are a lot of videos available with the MSN TV service and the streaming works quite well. Videos play smoothly. Audio streaming is obviously not a problem and there are many internet radio stations available. The only downside is that you might have to let your TV ON to listen to radio if the sound is coming from the integrated TV speakers (I have the same issue with my Media Center). Watching photos was not a great experience given the low-resolution of the display.
We’ve noticed that the system was somewhat slow to respond to commands. Each time the user chooses an action, there is a delay (loading time) that can be quite long. For example, to go from listening internet radio to the home page, it takes about 10 seconds. From the home page to the email box, it takes 5 seconds. That’s using a broadband connection, so it might be slower with dial-up.
MSN TV 2 is very easy to setup and use, and depending of what you’re looking for, this could be what you need. There are many more functions and we encourage you to head to the MSN TV demo page to check them out. Although MSN TV was originally designed for non-computer users, MSN TV 2 is also built to be connected to a home network, altough more expensive devices will handle multimedia files better. The price is relatively low (I’ve seen it go for $100 with rebate) but you will have to pay a monthly subscription ($10 to $22 per month). For someone who wants basic email/IM capabilities without a full-blown computer, this might just be perfect. (If you installed MSN TV 2 for you or someone in your family, drop a comment below to share your experience.)
Read more about Hands-On.