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Digital Living Room

Using Laptops to Watch Films? It's an Idea Worth Entertaining

March 01, 2001|JON HEALEY |

Gadget makers love the idea of the Internet "converging" with traditional media and entertainment because it creates another category of products to sell--Net-enabled DVD players, for example, or mini stereo systems that can tune in to Web radio stations.

Most of those products have landed with a thud. But consumers already are equipping themselves, albeit unwittingly, with a convergence device that can bring the Net and a full array of entertainment into their homes.

It's a laptop computer.

The typical notebook computer sold today is equipped to perform many of the functions of the average home entertainment center. With a $100 add-on card, it can do all of them.

Granted, television broadcasts look pretty lousy when blown up to full screen on a laptop. DVD movies, on the other hand, can be seen with crisper, richer detail on a laptop than on a TV set.

So, are millions of consumers replacing their stereos, TVs and VCRs with 8 slim pounds of metal with a folding screen? Uh, no. Nor should they. But the interesting thing is that they could.

Consumers certainly are starting to think of their laptops as entertainment devices. Analyst Stephen Baker of PC Data Inc., a computer-industry research firm, estimated that more than half of the notebook computers sold today have DVD drives.

Because there's almost no software offered on DVD, the only reason consumers are upgrading from a CD drive to a DVD drive is to watch movies.

The main motive for these buyers is the ability to watch movies in the car or on a plane--not in the living room. Otherwise, consumers would be putting DVD drives in their desktop computers too, and Baker said only 20% to 25% of the desktops sold have DVD drives. In fact, analyst Richard Doherty of the Envisioneering Group said DVDs are losing ground among desktop buyers in favor of recordable CD drives.

"People just aren't comfortable watching TV or watching a movie on a desktop computer," said Kurt Kirsch, director of product management for Dell Computer Corp.'s home systems. "But they are more readily watching DVD movies in cars, on planes or even in their house walking around from the bedroom to the kitchen."

To boost picture quality, Dell has equipped its laptops with high-capacity memory chips for video--up to 32 megabytes' worth in the $2,158 Inspiron 8000, which boasts a 15-inch screen. That's at least twice the amount of video memory that most desktop computers have. And three-fourths of the people who buy the 8000 are opting for the maximum video memory, Kirsch said.

Another piece of standard equipment in many laptops is digital jukebox software, which enables a user to copy songs from CDs into the computer's memory, organize them into playlists and play them. When combined with a sizable hard drive--also standard on most computers sold today--the software enables consumers to store much or all of their music collections on their laptops.

Converting a sprawling CD collection into a single 8-pound package is appealing, but the trade-off is in sound quality. The most popular digital music formats, such as MP3 and Windows Media, compress songs in order to consume less space on a hard drive, resulting in a flatter sound. And the hardware used to reproduce sound in a laptop tends to be less advanced than the kind found in desktops, mainly because laptops' speakers aren't very good.

Consumers can improve matters at home by spending $150 or so on high-performance external speakers. That's no help on the road, though, or when they take the laptop out to the patio.

For most people, the cornerstone of home entertainment is the TV set. And with a $100 TV tuner plugged into the Universal Serial Bus slot, a laptop can perform that job too--for people nostalgic for 1970s-era picture quality.

The basic problem for laptops is that analog TV signals aren't terribly rich in data to start with. So without a high-quality graphics chip, TV signals can look blotchy when blown up to full screen. Even on a laptop with top-notch graphics, such as the Inspiron 8000, a full-screen TV picture is fuzzy unless it's watched from across the room, in which case it's sharp but small.

Andrew Morrison of ATI Technologies Inc., one of the companies that makes plug-in TV tuners for computers, puts part of the blame on the USB connection, which isn't fast enough to deliver all the data in a video stream. When more manufacturers equip their computers with faster FireWire slots, Morrison said, ATI will make a FireWire-enabled TV tuner that "should solve all the quality issues."

For consumers who like to watch TV while they surf the Web or work on their computers, the state of the art today probably is good enough. ATI's USB tuner card delivers a sharp quarter-screen picture, leaving plenty of room on the laptop for a Web browser, instant message window or spreadsheet. The setup is particularly well suited for TV shows whose Web sites are part of the entertainment, such as ABC's "Monday Night Football."

With a 10-gigabyte or larger hard drive, a laptop has room to record TV shows as well as watch them. Those recordings take up so much space, however, that you'd still have to buy a VCR to tape the shows you want to keep more than a few days.

On the whole, laptops have reached the point technologically where they can do just about anything in home entertainment. There are lots of trade-offs, though--some of which can't be overcome by faster connectors or more powerful chips. A laptop may never be able to perform the family-gathering function of a TV set simply because its screen just isn't big enough. But for a college student or young city resident with precious little living space, laptops may be the first convergence device that makes sense.


Times staff writer Jon Healey covers the digital living room.

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