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Visual experience of Gateway 2000's Destination goes nowhere

"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!"

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"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."

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"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 off.

As a television, 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 television. Since the computer has to be on for the television to work, letting the baby sitter watch it may allow her to rifle through your e-mail.

The television has other failings, in part because it is controlled by puzzling Windows 95 software prone to crashing and adversely affecting other programs. The television 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 television (but not your VCR) from an on-screen grid.

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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 illegible.

The remote control includes a track-ball. The keyboard has its hard-to-control track-pad 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 10-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 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.

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.

Stephen Manes is a columnist for the New York Times.

Pub Date: 5/20/96


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