When the cast of Survivor began feasting on a bowl of squirming larvae a few weeks ago, the first thing I did--after gagging--was call my friend Daniel to dish about it. But he didn't answer. So I tried a couple other friends, who weren't around either. Finally, I had to settle for reveling in this classic moment of gross-out TV all by myself.
Things might have been different if I had had AOLTV. Scheduled to be introduced this week and available in early July from America Online (which is getting ready to merge with Time Warner, this magazine's parent company), AOLTV lets you send instant messages to friends right from the TV screen as you watch your favorite soap, baseball game or reality-TV show. AOLTV also lets you surf the Net and read e-mail. Best of all, you don't need a computer. Instead, you hook a VCR-like box up to your TV and run a phone cord from the box to the nearest jack. A wireless keyboard lets you lounge as you click.
If all of this sounds familiar, that's because Microsoft's WebTV has been offering a similar service for more than three years. So far, however, only a disappointing 1 million people have signed up for it. I didn't have to use the WebTV Plus service for very long last week to see the shortcomings: set-up instructions are confusing; surfing the Web without a mouse is a drag; and if you only have one phone line in the house, you can't take phone calls when you're online. Unlike AOLTV, WebTV doesn't let you instant-message friends while watching TV.
The only feature I really enjoyed on WebTV was the interactive programming, which lets you do things like play Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune onscreen during the show. You can also enter live polls on Judge Judy and get real-time stats for players as you watch ball games on NBC. AOLTV promises similar interactivity but won't have much at launch.
WebTV's other advantage is its range of choices, from a bare-bones unit for $99 to a souped-up model combining satellite TV, digital recording and Net access for $449. Monthly fees range from $10 to $75. AOLTV, on the other hand, will launch with no digital-recording features (although it promises them later in the year as part of the deal it announced with TiVo last week). And everyone who buys AOLTV will have to pay $250 for the box plus a monthly fee of $14.95 (for existing AOL members) or $24.95 (for new users).
If you're already an AOL member, you might think of AOLTV as a cheap alternative to a second PC, with the added benefit that you can chat while you veg. But you'll probably need a second phone line so you can still get calls while you're online. Also, whether you're using AOLTV or WebTV, surfing the Web on TV is a slow, blurry affair.
If you're not an AOL member but want supercheap Net access, WebTV's $100 classic model plus a $20 monthly fee is a bargain. The price doesn't include the optional (but highly desirable) wireless keyboard or access to the interactive-TV features, but it gives newbies a cheap way to dip their toes in cyberspace.
For everyone else, the best option is to wait until both services offer better interactive features or cable Net access to speed up Web surfing. High-definition TV could make onscreen text more legible. Meanwhile, I'm going to start planning next week's Survivor party--from the comfort of my home.