internet hardwar: Who needs a computer when you can surf from your sofa?

All it takes is a TV, a CD-i player - and Philips' new Internet connection kit, writes Charles Arthur

If you've ever sat in front of the TV and thought, "I wish I was surfing the World Wide Web now", then Philips has just the product for you. Called CD-Online, and launched this month, it uses the handset and facilities of the CD-i interactive compact disc player to offer access to the Internet. For the would-be Internet user unwilling to shell out pounds 1,000 for a PC and modem, but who already has a pounds 300 CD-i player, it could be the ideal choice.

The lingering question, though, is whether this is the masterstroke to retrieve the CD-i's rather battered reputation as a product launched a few years ahead of its time that has never quite caught on.

The CD-Online system incorporates an Internet connection kit, consisting of CD-based software and a 14,400 baud modem that plugs into the phone socket. The kits will cost pounds 99 and include a month's free access to CD- Online, an Internet service provided on Philips's behalf by Pipex. After the first month, access costs for unlimited use are pounds 11.99 per month (but remember you still have to pay your phone bills). The Pipex connection means that more than 80 per cent of the UK population is only a local phone call away from the Internet.

The software for the CD-i comes, naturally enough, in compact disc form. It includes a specially developed Web browser, newsgroup reader and e- mail program that can send and receive messages. In order to cope with the limited nature of the CD-i controls, which consist of a handheld joystick and some buttons, the on-screen menus allow you to "compose" e-mail from menus of words, letters and numbers. In this way, you will be able to send messages to anyone else who also has an e-mail address, and type in any Web address, no matter how complex. Besides the basic software, there will also be quarterly update discs, with "a wealth of information about Web sites and services."

CD-Online has its own homepage on the Web, at http://www.cd-online.co.uk/. It includes a useful starter's guide to the Net, which is worth a visit even if you don't own a CD-i player but want a quick, clear online briefing about the Net. And the system is reputedly easy to set up and use.

However, the shift from computer to TV does mean some of the functionality of conventional systems is lost. The CD-i has no connection for hard or floppy disks, so e-mail cannot be stored (unless it is left on the Pipex mailserver) and any files that you download, or are sent, cannot be stored or transferred. This means, for example, that you wouldn't be able to grab fun items such as the Guinness screensaver (which is now spreading, virus-like, around so many companies) that one can pick up at the Web site listed at the end of its adverts.

Philips is keen to present CD-Online as an innovative product that is just what people want - a means of avoiding having to squint at a PC's screen in order to browse the global network of networks.

CD-i has always been slightly ahead of its time, however, which has hit sales, and it seems possible that once again Philips has come up with a winner, but a few years too soon. The original product was a case in point: you only have to compare the sales of CD-i with those of Sega, Nintendo and, more recently, Sony CD-Rom-based games machines to see that Philips had the right idea too early. And at the moment, the Internet is such a dull medium - in terms of visual excitement - that when viewed on a TV screen, the comparison with TV programmes may pall. But when there are real-time videos on the Net (a development that remains a few years off, no matter what anyone tells you), it could be just the ticket.

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