Hooking up the various cables between the set-top box and the TV, VCR, and cable boxes was pretty simple, thanks to a graphically clear instruction book. However, the included 6-foot phone cord that connects the box's 56kbps modem to the wall was too short--a very poor place to cut corners. We like that the box includes a parallel printer port, a USB port, and audio-in and -out ports for system expansions. However, you're most likely to rely on the bundled wireless keyboard and a remote control similar to others you already own.
You've got headaches
Plugging things in is just the beginning. If you're already an AOL subscriber, you can sign up for AOLTV service for $15 per month. New subscribers will need to shell out $25 each month. Once you've emptied your wallet, the AOLTV service requires more than an hour and a half of mind-numbing setup time to program TV channel lineups and to download AOLTV updates; you'll want to order dinner before it starts hogging your phone line.
At first, the interface seems great: A press of a button brings up a menu of options, including chat, e-mail, instant messaging, and Web browsing. You can chat or send e-mail in a window on the screen while watching TV, but surprisingly, you cannot browse the Web and watch TV simultaneously--something that should come naturally. Other nice touches include a TV program guide that gives synopses of what's playing (a treat if you don't have digital cable); an easier method for programming your VCR using the set-top box's onscreen guide; and AOLTV's special channels, which are like those found on regular AOL but are based on preset TV categories, such as Movies, Family, and News.
Once you finish playing with the new features and want to get back to ordinary channel surfing, you'll find your old TV experience utterly ruined. AOLTV reorganizes your TV channels into categories to match the AOLTV channels. When you press the Channel Up button, you flip from channel 23 to 54, then to 13, based on the preset (and not always accurate) AOLTV channel categories. Spaced between your reorganized TV channels are the AOLTV channels, which take a while to load. You're forced to wait for the page to render before you can zip on to the next channel.
Philips's WebTV set-top boxes, although not a perfect method for accessing the Internet from your TV, at least managed not to ruin the TV part. The $249 Philips AOLTV makes watching TV as slow and cumbersome as surfing the Web with a graphic-intensive, clumsy interface.