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WebTV updates set-top boxes

The company introduces its new TV set-top boxes, and the next generation marks a significant departure from hardware the company has previously released.

WebTV today introduced its new TV set-top boxes, and the next generation marks a significant departure from hardware the company has previously released.

As previously reported, television set-top box maker WebTV today relaunched its WebTV Classic and Plus products, as well as the complementary Internet service. The new boxes will be the first from the Microsoft subsidiary optimized for Windows CE operating system, although the hardware does not fully run on the Microsoft platform yet.

Despite the spate of new features, the new class of WebTV devices may be significant more for what they lack: namely, a hard drive.

WebTV today introduced new Classic and Plus boxes from manufacturing partners Sony and Philips. The Classic has been upgraded to include a 56-kbps modem, rather than the 36-kbps modem of the original, and a 150MHz MIPS processor. The Classic also sports a much smaller design, and is now about the size of a portable CD player, according to WebTV.

The new Plus box has been more significantly revamped. Along with the 56-kbps modem of the first Plus device, the new model includes a 167MHz processor. In addition, WebTV has done away with the hard drive, and beefed up the Plus box's memory capacity in its place. The new device offers 16MB of RAM, in addition to about 10MB of various flavors of ROM.

"We really decided from the consumer standpoint, that we are able to deliver the same features without a hard drive," said Sharon Frainks, group product marketing manager for WebTV. Losing the hard drive makes the set-top box quieter and faster, she said.

WebTV is revamping the look and functionality of its set-top boxes based on input from parent company Microsoft, its manufacturing partners such as Sony, and user feedback, according to Sean Kaldor, an analyst with International Data Corporation.

The decision to drop the hard drive was probably motivated by several factors. Manufacturers like Sony and Philips are still charging $99 and $199 for the Classic and Plus boxes respectively, but are now free from installing the costly component. The decision will probably allow manufacturers some extra room for profit.

In addition, the hard drives included with the original boxes were never put to much use, Kaldor said. "They know it, and I know it, and it's a fact, even if WebTV won't say it: The hard drives were not getting used," he said. WebTV's initial vision of multimedia advertisements and short videos that would be downloaded to the hard drive never materialized, he said.

"This shows what happens when a product reaches a new generation," he said, adding that the hard drive is among the largest contributors to manufacturing costs and system crashes.

The hard drive was primarily being used to store seven days of TV listings, Frainks said, a role which is now being fulfilled by memory. "Users won't really notice the difference," she said.