"It's here, Bart! It's our new Destination Big Screen PC, the Pentium computer that's also a TV! We'll be processing words! Spreadsheeting! Databasing! Joysticking! Coasting on the cobwebs!"
"That's `surfing the Web,' Dad. More likely you'll be channel-surfing for `Baywatch.' ""Son, this is your on-ramp to the video-game highway. Lisa, it'll help you earn a scholarship so I won't have to pay for college. And I can relax with my favorite shows on that nice big screen."
"I can see it now. I research my experiment in genetic mapping in a tiny little window while you snicker at unwed transvestite fathers on `Ricki Lake!' "
"Lisa, that's precisely why you get both a wireless keyboard and a remote control. Research and sleaze on the same screen at the same time! It'll encourage togetherness. We'll be a family again. And all for a starting price of just $3,500 plus $150 shipping charges. Whoopee! It even comes with a Monopoly game!"
"Homer, our regular Monopoly game cost a lot less than that."
"But, Marge, with that one, the baby kept swallowing those little houses. And don't forget what Bart did with the dice. Now, kids, help your old man lift this 137-pound monitor into the home entertainment center. Oops ..."
Someday a computer/TV hybrid may become the hub of family entertainment and information. On the evidence of the Destination from Gateway 2000 Inc., that day is far in the future.
As a TV, the machine is not as good as a traditional model, and it is also compromised as a computer. And in an era when users can barely program their VCRs, this unit is unfortunately not a simple consumer device, but a complicated Windows machine with a confusing television built in.
"Doh! Looks like we'll have to reboot the TV!" Right. The Destination's 31-inch monitor has no TV circuitry, so incoming signals must be processed within the computer. The resulting TV pictures are dimmer, fuzzier and subtly blockier than those on a standard TV and sometimes include extraneous material on top. Since the computer has to be on for the TV to work, letting the babysitter watch it may allow her to rifle through your E-mail.
The TV has other failings, in part because it is controlled by puzzling Windows 95 software prone to crashing and adversely affecting other programs. The TV lets you choose to see closed captions; it does not let you monitor two channels at once or reduce the TV window to postage-stamp size. And you cannot even make this TV ignore channels you never watch unless you are willing to pay $6 a month for a service called Harman Smart TV, which lets you download schedules through your modem so you can program your TV (but not your VCR) from an on-screen grid.
The images on the monitor I tested were distorted at the bottom of the screen, grainy and dim toward the edges. Lacking an anti-reflective coating, it picked up reflections from around the room, and its black-on-black control icons were virtually illegible.
The unit can display 640 by 480 pixels at millions of colors at an acceptable 72-hertz vertical refresh rate, but its only other graphics mode is 800 by 600 at a flickery 56 hertz, a potential problem as programs begin to demand higher resolutions.
The remote control includes a trackball. The keyboard puts its hard-to-control trackpad at the lower right, all but inaccessible to left-handers. Both devices are wireless and use radio frequencies rather than the typical infrared. That sounds like a good idea, but in practice, both were finicky, particularly as their range increased to the ten-foot distance recommended for this size screen. And when connections were broken, the computer often continued to repeat the last key pressed. I watched dumbfounded as this engineering mistake backspaced away a goodly portion of my notes.
At the center of its little universe, the computer ends up wired to AC power, the monitor, a TV cable, a phone jack, the keyboard's base station and perhaps a joystick or two. Since no speakers are built in or supplied, to hear anything at all you must add powered speakers or connect the computer to a sound system, which must be turned on merely to get audible feedback from programs. For about $700, Gateway offers a surround-sound system with six speakers and a receiver. By the time you are done, you may want to design your room around the cabling rather than try to hide it.
Other design features deserve a Simpsonian "Doh!" Although ostensibly designed for multimedia, this machine lacks common MPEG hardware decoding circuitry. And though all laptop machines and many desktop units routinely perform complex power management, the Destination's "suspend mode" dims the monitor but leaves the computer running full tilt.
The hardware instructions are divided into four slim and hopelessly incomplete booklets that cross-reference each other infuriatingly, plus random individual sheets tossed into the box as afterthoughts.
A decent collection of software is included, with lots of separate manuals.
Newcomers to the world of computers are certain to find all this a wee bit more confusing than programming a mere VCR.
Since the Destination is sold directly by the manufacturer, you have to buy it before you can try it. You can return it for a refund within 30 days, but then you must pay the freight both ways, which amounts to at least $300. That is a lot of money for a screen test that is not quite ready for prime time.