January 6, 2004 11:42 AM PST

Companies stack PC games in console boxes

An unusual conglomeration of technology companies hopes to challenge Sony and Microsoft with a hybrid PC and game console.

Fast-growing consumer electronics company Apex Digital is scheduled to unveil plans for a merged console on Wednesday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The company is the first manufacturing partner of Digital Interactive Systems Corp. (DISC), which announced plans last year for the Discover PC game console, a device that will run popular PC games and display them on a TV set.

DISC, a Long Beach, Calif.-based start-up, sells BIOS (basic input/output system) chips, which are system chips that contain the software that makes the console work, DISC spokesman Curtis Kaiser said. PC and electronics manufacturers buy the BIOS chips from DISC and use them in their own configuration of a Discover console.

Apex's ApeXtreme console essentially will combine a DVD player with a limited-function PC, said Richard Brown, associate vice president for marketing for Taiwan chipmaker Via Technologies, which is supplying the major components for the console.

The device will sport a 1.4GHz Via processor, a 40GB hard drive and a Via DeltaChrome graphics processor, Brown said. It will run on Windows XP Embedded, Microsoft's operating systems for limited-function computing devices. In addition to running Windows-based PC games, the console will be able play digital music files and DVD movie discs and to display digital photos.

DISC's Drop & Play software will automatically configure PC games to run on the machine, according to Kaiser, eliminating the often complex set-up routines usually associated with installing a new game on a computer.

The software will initially support about 2,000 games, with more titles to be added through regular software updates that the console will automatically download from DISC. "Our software makes sure that when people drop a disc in the drawer, it starts playing automatically," he said.

Kaiser said the console should appeal to video gamers looking to experience new types of games and to dedicated PC game players interested in extending their hobby. "We see a couple of markets, and one of them is the PC gamer who would like to get out of the office and their 15- or 17-inch monitor and have a big-screen TV experience," he said.

The ApeXtreme is set to go on sale in the first quarter of this year, priced at $400--double the cost of Microsoft's Xbox and Sony's PlayStation 2 game consoles. Other manufacturers working on Discover consoles include specialty PC maker Alienware, which will offer a higher-priced console with more advanced components, Kaiser said.

Price is likely to be just one of the obstacles DISC and its partners face in popularizing the new console design, according to analysts.

"It's extremely difficult to compete against the Sony brand in the living room, as Microsoft has found out," said P.J. McNealy, an analyst for American Technology Research. "Having a high entry price point won't help."

PC gamers are typically very dedicated to their hobby and concerned with running games on the latest and most powerful hardware, added Schelley Olhava, an analyst at research firm IDC. Getting them interested in playing the same games on a comparatively low-powered living room machine will be a challenge, she said.

"The issue is going to be getting PC gamers to go into the living room," Olhava said. "When you play a PC game, it's a totally different experience from a console...I have concerns about whether more than a small number of gamers are going to be interested."

Several other companies have tried to break into the game market with similar PC-based consoles. These include Indrema, whose plans for a Linux-based game console fizzled two years ago.

 

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