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Computer Makers Hope to Turn Up the Volume on Entertainment PCs

More companies are betting on the all-in-one media centers to revive slumping sales.

September 27, 2003|Terril Yue Jones | Times Staff Writer

Daniel Sterling rarely uses his computer for computing.

Sterling depends on his Hewlett-Packard Co. Media Center Edition PC to record television shows, manage music playlists and organize digital photos. Hooked to a 53-inch projection TV, Sterling's PC effectively replaced his VCR, CD player and slide projector.

"I don't use the computer functions at all," said Sterling, a 32-year-old Web designer who lives in Seattle. "I just want to use the remote control and click through my music."

Sterling's habits are part of a trend computer makers hope to exploit with PCs that look and act more like living room entertainment devices than office tools. Less than a year after Microsoft Corp. and a handful of computer makers rolled out the first Media Center PCs, computers that blur the line with traditional consumer electronics are poised for wider distribution as Microsoft updates the software and more PC manufacturers see a market for all-in-one devices.

On Tuesday, Microsoft will introduce the second generation of its Media Center operating system, a specialized version of Windows that makes it easier to watch and record TV and play music through a PC. And by the end of the year, PC giant Dell Inc. is expected to start selling PCs that run the Media Center software.

Multimedia PC use "is going to go mainstream; it's just a question of when," said Ted Waitt, founder and chief executive of computer maker Gateway Inc. "You're going to continue to see ease of use come together. People are going to want content stored on a variety of places around the home."

For years, convergence of PCs and consumer electronics devices was one of those technological dreams that seemed just out of reach. Previous efforts were either too expensive or too complicated to attract customers who wanted gear as cheap and easy to use as a television set.

Things are different this time. As the PC industry continues to slog through a sales slump, manufacturers are eager to entice customers with new reasons to upgrade. Falling component prices make PCs with DVD burners and TV tuners cheaper than ever. And the popularity of digital entertainment -- particularly DVDs and online music -- has increased the willingness of people to play music and movies on their PCs.

Only a few hundred thousand media-based PCs have been sold in the last year. But some analysts predict that entertainment-oriented computers could become the dominant format for consumer PCs within two years, particularly if prices drop below $1,000.

"Participation by Dell would be a strong indication that the [media PC] market has matured to a point where it could have mass-market appeal," said Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg.

Dell this week announced plans to launch an online music service and start selling flat-panel televisions and digital music players -- another sign that PC makers are looking beyond their traditional markets for customers.

"This in not a niche, enthusiast base," said Brad Brooks, director of marketing for Microsoft's Windows eHome Division. Microsoft conducts quarterly surveys of its users, and after analyzing data from the latest, the company "realized that we had a much bigger product with much bigger appeal than a niche."

The average age of Media Center users is 43, and 40% are women, according to Microsoft.

Although Microsoft won't discuss details of the Media Center upgrade due Tuesday, people who have seen the software say it incorporates an FM tuner and the ability to zoom in on the screen of a television broadcast. Most of the software is accessed by remote control, making the experience more like watching TV than using a computer.

Microsoft and its partners envision Media Center PCs as the center of a home's entertainment system -- able to play DVDs, CDs, digital music and other entertainment files through a TV or stereo. Technically, plugging a PC into an entertainment system is easy. Tougher to overcome has been that "people have a perception of a computer with all those wires not being a living room product," said Gartner Research analyst Michael Silver.

Gateway, based in Poway in San Diego County, believes it has solved that with an all-in-one media computer that looks more like a television than a PC. The company's 610 Media Center has a 17-inch wide-aspect screen for DVD viewing and built-in stereo speakers, with a wireless keyboard and remote. The guts of the computer are hidden behind the screen.

Palo Alto-based HP, which sells the most Media Center PCs, is integrating a digital camera docking station into the top of its system. Users can attach the camera to load photos directly into the computer and then edit and sort them.

Toshiba Corp., which has two Media Center laptops on the market, is introducing at least one more, counting on people who want to take their media libraries on the road.

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