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The multimedia set-top box handles the Web, E-mail, games, and more--inexpertly

On paper, the Pippin @World looks like a winner. This $500 set-top box, based on technology from Apple Computer and designed by Bandai Digital Entertainment, lets you surf the Web, do E-mail, play games, even write letters and draw on your TV. Alas, Pippin pays a high price for all that versatility: It doesn't do anything well.

Pippin is plenty powerful, and it gets you out on the Web easily. It uses a version of the Macintosh operating system together with the PowerPC 603e chip used in Mac Performas. The unit hooks up to your television set without hassles, and its external 28.8-kbps modem does a decent job of converting your set into a Web browser. (An Internet connection selected by Pippin costs $20 a month for unlimited service over a phone line.)

TAKES TWO HANDS. The problems with Pippin begin as soon as you turn it on. The image quality, especially for graphics, is far inferior to that of WebTV (BW--Aug. 26), the standard by which set-top Web cruisers must be judged.

Controls are another troublesome issue. Instead of a mouse or modified TV remote, Pippin uses a game controller that incorporates a trackball, two mouse buttons, and seven other unlabeled buttons. I had a lot of trouble remembering which button did what. A special keyboard is available as a $70 option. Using the controller requires two hands, although small children may find it easier to manipulate than a one-hand remote. But if you want to switch between Pippin and broadcast or cable TV, you'll need to use a separate TV remote. By contrast, WebTV's remote can control both the browser and a TV or VCR.

Pippin can run a variety of software because it loads each program off a CD-ROM, unlike the less versatile WebTV, which holds all its software in semipermanent ''flash'' memory. This is a mixed blessing. Pippin, like a computer, takes a couple of minutes to boot up. And if you're browsing the Web and want to send E-mail, you have to replace the @World Browser disk with something called TV Works, then wait a couple of minutes for a new program to load.

CRUDE GRAPHICS. The TV Works disk also contains word processing and drawing software, but having tried them, I'm not sure why it does. The drawing program is very primitive, but it might amuse a small child. When writing text, the TV's limited resolution and the fact that you're sitting across the room force you to use large fonts. That means that you can't fit very many words on the screen. And what do you do with the document once it's written? You can attach one of several Apple inkjet printers and a floppy drive to Pippin. You can even add a high-resolution monitor or connect over a network to a Macintosh. But if you wanted to do all that, you would be much better off with a real computer.

Oddly enough, Pippin isn't even a very good game machine. The graphics in the games, which are made just for Pippin, are crude, especially compared with the knockout 3-D animation of the hot new Nintendo 64.

Even Apple sees the problem with Pippin. After promising to create its own Pippin-based device, the company is now holding off while it rethinks the market. No wonder. The Pippin designers apparently felt that since they had a multipurpose processor available, they had to use all its abilities. By contrast, consider the Nintendo 64 and WebTV. Both are built around processors that were originally designed for Silicon Graphics workstations, but each product is optimized to do one thing really well. For the price of Pippin, you could buy one of each and get both a better browser and a better game console.



TABLE: Pippin Basics

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Updated June 15, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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