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Playing with the PC

Playing with the PC

Listening to tunes, viewing photos, streaming video content and playing action-packed lifelike games have all become easier and more enjoyable experiences thanks to advancements in multimedia technology.

The once humble PC has been transformed into a digital entertainment unit that lets users play, record and pause live television, watch and control DVDs, listen and store music, share digital photos or movies and access computer games or music on demand. And that's just the beginning.

Helping make it all a reality is the Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE) generation of PCs. It's now a year since the operating system was launched and hardware vendors are taking stock, preparing for Microsoft's MCE platform update.

The latest software update for MCE includes performance enhancers and added digital entertainment features.

New Magic managing director, Mark Harwood, said the main developments would address TV issues by supporting analogue and digital output.

Time to tune in
The multimedia distributor has seen huge uptake of its TV tuner cards during the past six months, particularly the MCE version, and is gearing up for the latest enhancements with a batch of new and improved releases, he said.

In the next six weeks, the company is set to launch an all-in-one digital receiver card, dubbed the NovaT500.

"This means consumers can watch one program while recording another with one card - this has required two cards until now," Harwood said. Other changes were also afoot, he said, such as the introduction of its HVR1100 tuner card.

"With the updates it means there's the ability for MCE to support digital TV and FM radio," Harwood said.

"It's FM radio support with digital tuning."

New cards would support both analogue and digital all-in-one, which means full digital TV support in Australia, he said.

"We have been able to use digital with MCE in the past, but it was a bit of a hack to make it work," Harwood explained.

"The dual digital card has been asked about the most."

Meanwhile, market acceptance was also bound to pick up now that countless add-ons (third-party shareware and freeware) have been written by an army of developers, he said.

"Plug-ins including DVD library management and weather information packages are being developed, as well as better Net radio services," Harwood said.

And this hive of activity was piquing interest.

"Consumers are seeing the development, and are now interested by the groundswell of support for the Media Center," Harwood said.

"It is starting to shape up as being the dominant platform on a PC for home entertainment. The technology is crossing into the home automation arena, he said.

A major concern, however, is that many manufacturers won't have been working in concert with Microsoft to reflect the enhancements: "A lot of the other cards will not work. They haven't bothered to ensure the enhanced functionality."

IDC senior analyst, PC hardware, Mike Sager, said the latest refresh followed in the footsteps of the North American launch, which suffered some teething problems but was now worked out for local digestion.

Lowered specifications
Recapping on the year, Sager said one trend was clear: many consumers were not using the Media Center PC to its full capacity. "People are using it in a different way than expected," he said.

For starters, many consumers want Media Center PCs minus the TV tuner card. The early adopters wanted the full functionality - the highest performing processor, the biggest RAM and swankiest LCD screen - but the mainstream, everyday user doesn't necessarily want the ultimate multimedia unit.

Sager estimated 60-70 per cent of consumers in the US didn't use the MCE machines to full capacity.

Microsoft Windows group director, Jeff Putt, said TV tuner machines represented the bulk of sales but those without a tuner were the fastest growth area in the US.

As such, expect to see Media Center PCs being shipped this year minus the TV tuner card, which will mean lower cost gear entering the market, and the birth of a new segment for the Media Center, Sager said.

"There is a market for low-end Media Center machines," Sager said. "Expect to see the proliferation of different price points next year."

The latest market strategy may generate more sales, and alleviate ongoing confusion about the Media Center PC - the fact that it no longer needs to be associated with high-end machines priced in the $3000 bracket and above.

Locally, about 7000 Media Center PCs (including desktops and notebooks) were shipped per quarter, Sager said. But this could significantly increase once the low-end machines enter the fray and attract mainstream consumers.

Putt claimed Microsft was seeing strong uptake of the Media Center PC, although he said it got off to a slow start. As a result, there needed to be more education in reaching the mainstream consumer, and in explaining the pivotal role the PC plays in the digital home experience, Putt said.

"Diversity of approach and devices is essential for market development," he said.

Developing different form factors with a variety of price points as well as offering the machine without a TV tuner or as an optional extra would help to expand market reach, Putt said.

"We are seeing strong interest in development of these things by the big names as well as the whitebox players," he said.

Local PC manufacturer, Optima, is hoping its expanded Media Center approach will do the trick.

The company was addressing the market shift towards lower priced gear and had cranked out product catering to this segment, retail and channel desktop product manager, David Choi, said.

Changing focus
The past year had shown that consumers wanted a low-end range of Media Center technology, Choi said.

Sales of Optima's high-end Media Center were disappointing, he said, highlighting the fact that it was not particularly attractive to the mainstream user.

"We had high hopes for the Media Center PC, but we didn't get the big sales," Choi said. "Sales initially were quite good, but they logged off once the buzz disappeared."

So the company wants to take a different approach and develop a new sub-$2000 desktop range targeted at the traditional tower space.

Many vendors catering to the space are offering feature-packed super machines that are popular with the gaming crowd but may not be relevant to the average consumer, he said.

"We'll continue to sell product at the top end, but we have extended the range to include Media Centers without the TV tuner installed," Choi said.

The company would push prices even lower, he said, by offering a $1500 machine with a Celeron processor instead of the Pentium 4.

"We are looking at some other options in addition to our traditional tower desktop range," Choi said.

"We are looking at bringing out an AV form factor Media Center PC, a central digital hub that's ideal for the lounge room rather than the study."

The options were growing in this space, he said. "There used to be ugly tower cases, no support for digital TV, no support for the electronic programming guide, but the issues are starting to be worked out."

Bundling up
The company is also hoping its bundled plasma TV and Media Center packages will generate some heat.

"The LCD screen is okay for general use in the home, but many consumers want a 42-inch plasma so they can have a home theatre system."

Meanwhile, Toshiba is also evaluating its Media Center strategy in light of the Microsoft enhancements.

Its product manager, Matt Codrington, said consumers didn't mind paying top dollar for premium devices, which offered a host of bells and whistles.

"We have gone out to the market with a new brand, a different offering: a PC, a TV a DVD and an audio player," Codrington said.

"The cost goes up when you provide a premium experience."

He said the company would consider bringing out lower priced gear but said nothing was confirmed.

"The market will move in that direction, but whether we do is still not decided," he said.

For now, Toshiba will rely on its Qosmio mobile entertainment systems - including the recently refreshed G20 and the F20.

"We are seeing 18-20 per cent of total Media Center sales from Qosmio," Codrington said. "Over the next 12 months we believe the Media Center will play an expanded role."

And while Microsoft's latest enhancements will mean having digital right in the box, Toshiba expects the changes to be reflected next year. Other changes are likely.

Prices are expected to plummet simply because of changing market dynamics and more form factor development, according to New Magic's Harwood. In particular, Intel's forthcoming Viiv technology, slated for launch early next year, would drive more mainstream acceptance of consumer entertainment PCs, and would fuel price drops of the Media Center experience, Sager said.

The two technologies would be integrated, Harwood said.

Viiv technology-based PCs, a platform designed for digital entertainment in the living, will ship with a remote control, the Media Windows Center operating systems and media software, which lets consumers interact with their PC in the same way they operate a TV.

Sager said Intel's work with developing embedded devices and different form factors would generate a buzz in the market, and bring prices down as a myriad of form factors are developed.

"There's a push for the development of AV form factors, which addresses the convergence trend," he said.

Microsoft's Putt said the Intel alliance was a match made in heaven.

"The Viiv is almost custom-built for the Media Center OS," he said. "It is reinforcing the MCE message and is a strong endorsement of the PC as the digital hub of the home."

Ahead of the game
But Plus Corporation managing director, Nigel Fernandes, said Intel had been pushing the convergence button for a while, however, he saw no real value in it - not just yet anyway. The Media Center PC represented less than one per cent of his sales.

"We have sold a handful," he said. "Convergence has been pushed for a long time, but I don't know anyone who has a Media Center PC. If it was that common, you'd have relatives with one."

The market action these days, Fernandes said, was for high-end gaming, a market segment with finicky, selective consumers when it comes to PC entertainment requirements.

Often, this didn't involve a Media Center decision, he said.

Gaming accounted for the lion's share of the company business, along with servers sold into the corporate and government arena.

"Users want the latest AMD Opteron and dual-core processors, and new graphics cards including Nvidia's SLI and ATI's cross-fire technology," Fernandes said.

While consumers, and some dealers, had been slow to adopt the Media Center PC concept, change is in the air as more and more resellers look to the digital home and convergence market.

The fact it was a crossover product had struck a chord with partners, the typically AV centric players as well as the traditional IT resellers, Microsoft's Putt said.

"It offers a step into the AV world for the IT resellers," Putt said. "Convergence is happening and offering partners cross-sell and up-sell opportunities. They can package and bundle a host of peripherals in order to differentiate."

Microsoft Rollup 2 updates experience for digital living
Microsoft has released the latest software update for Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005. The update includes new performance enhancers and digital entertainment features.

Update Rollup 2 for Media Center Edition 2005 will let users stream digital music, video, photos, and standard and high-definition TV and movies from Media Center PCs to any television in the home via Xbox 360 gaming system.

Software improvements include:

  • DVD changer support
    New integrated support for external DVD changers will let consumers watch movies and manage up to 200 DVD selections from the Media Center interface.
  • Away mode
    This mode improves upon current PC-power management systems by enabling the system to silently perform unattended tasks such as recording TV shows and streaming content to Media Center Extenders in a low power mode that makes the PC appear off.
  • DVD-burning improvements
    Updates to the Sonic Solutions DVD burning engine will improve the performance and capabilities of DVD burning in Media Center Edition.
  • Additional HDTV tuner support
    The update adds support for one more HDTV tuner, meaning it will support up to four tuners: two analogue and two ATSC high definition.

Users can obtain Rollup 2 free of charge via the Windows Update download site. The software update is also available on new Media Center PCs.

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