Set-top Internet surfing still far from the crest of popular wave

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 April, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 April, 2001, 12:00am

An Internet television set-top box could be the most direct way to bring the Internet to the masses.

This uninspiring name loosely describes a device that sits on top of the television set and, through phone lines and a connected keyboard magically transforms the television into a Web surfing device.

Although I had heard of the popularity of set-top boxes, I had never actually seen one in practice - until I stepped into the Landmark Hotel in Beijing last week.

The hotel's system is the i-Guest, distributed by, an Internet service provider and portal company based in Shenzhen.

No more fiddling with the software on my laptop as I tried to dial into my online e-mail - instead, I could sit on the bed and tap away on the wireless keyboard, while watching television on the other half of the screen.

At 90 yuan (about HK$84.33) an hour, it would be much cheaper than using long-distance dial-in numbers at five yuan a minute plus tax. And everyone, not just executives, would be tempted to try the devices. I mentally applauded the hotel for such far-sighted thinking.

Although it was a wonderful dream, it never materialised.

Switching the television to set-top box mode, or AV, was simple enough - there was a button on my remote control.

But when I looked at the instructions, there were heaps of buttons to choose from. The keyboard had 'esc' to stop the software, 'e-mail' for an e-mail menu, 'favs' for favourites, 'goto' to get a Web site, and a 'modem' button to connect or disconnect the phone line, along with other buttons too numerous to mention, several of which did not seem to work.

In my first hotel room, the green toggle button, which replaced a mouse on my keyboard, did not work. Try as I might, I could not move it, therefore I could not dial in.

This review might have ended here, had I not been forced to move to another room down the hall.

On the next keyboard, the toggle worked and I could move it to the Internet, e-mail or set-up functions. I chose 'Internet' and tapped on the 'select' button that replaced the mouse click.

The set-top box connected via the phone line, with that old-fashioned handshake squeal I have come to love because it means success.

Unfortunately, that noise also meant I had a modem-based unit, instead of one using high-speed xDSL lines, which other hotels offer.

Once I got in, I found that the Internet connection, for whatever reason, was limited. The first thing that popped up was the i-ChinaNet portal, with a search function, weather and other information. I attempted to enter my handy Hotmail account, but no go. The note on the screen said Microsoft Passport did not support the browser version under use.

I easily accessed Yahoo! If I had had a Yahoo! mail account, I might have been able to get my messages - but once I tried searching, I got disconnected.

At some point, I called housekeeping and received a house call from cleaning staff, doubling as impromptu technical support. One unplugged the phone line - the exact action I had attempted moments earlier in an effort to disconnect - and it worked.

Suddenly the temporary position of tech support had conferred some of the tech powers as well - the magic that means the computer will respond to their touch, instead of ours.

After that failed effort, I gave up. The buttons would occasionally freeze for no known reason. Although the company Web site ( says the units can be configured for local area network usage, or speedy ADSL and DSL lines, my box used a 56 Kbps modem from Lucent which made the connection comparatively slow.

The i-Guest runs on an Intel, Pentium 166 MHz processor, which i-Chinanet promises will provide 'a blazing Internet surfing experience' but that was a little off the mark, in my case.

Low TV resolution gave me a rather poor picture, and I could not get into the Web sites I needed, though this could have had more to do with official restrictions than with the box itself.

The set-top box has yet to take off in China, experts say. The market needs some underlying components to mature, such as high-quality television displays, and good underlying infrastructure which most of China lacks.

I appreciate the idea of set-top boxes, but this trial convinced me they are not ready for mass consumption.

I am looking forward to trying out the next one in my new hotel room down the road a little way.