September 29, 2003 12:47 PM PDT

Microsoft buffs up its Media Center

After years of being relegated to the office, the PC is making a new case for why it should be allowed to stay in the living room.

A key proponent in recent months has been Microsoft, whose Media Center edition of Windows XP turns a PC into a device that can play music or movies, record TV shows and display photos, with commands being issued from a remote control. On Tuesday, Microsoft will try to bolster its position, offering an updated version of the software and new services, accompanied by a broader array of desktops and laptops that use the operating system.

As previously reported, Microsoft is making the debut of the new software and announcing the new partners at events in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Redmond, Wash. Dell and Sony are expected to announce their first Media Center models, with Hewlett-Packard and Gateway among those announcing new editions of Media Center products.

With the software upgrade, code-named Harmony, Microsoft has tried to address some of the critiques from its earliest customers and improve the overall stability of the operating system. Also, the software, which had been confined to North America and Korea, is expanding into Europe and further into Asia.

Gateway's 610 Media Center Gateway has already offered a glimpse of its key new product--the Gateway 610 Media Center, an all-in-one device that combines a 17-inch wide-screen LCD monitor with a Media Center PC neatly tucked away in the back. The device, which was jointly developed by Gateway and Intel, was shown off at Intel's recent developer forum.

"Clearly it's a huge product for the holiday season," said Mike Flanary, vice president of desktops for Gateway.

HP, meanwhile, plans to announce on Tuesday a Photosmart PC that combines a Media Center desktop into a case designed with digital shutterbugs in mind. HP had already announced plans for a photography-centric PC and plans to announce on Tuesday that its first Photosmart PC for the U.S. market will use the Media Center operating system, according to sources familiar with the company's plans.

The Photosmart PC has room at the top to hold a digital camera, with the spot specifically designed to dock with a recent HP model, though other cameras can be connected via cable. In Europe, HP opted to make the Photosmart PC part of its standard Pavilion desktop line, rather than a Media Center model.

HP also plans to introduce its first Media Center laptops, which are likely to be cheaper than existing models from Toshiba, which often sell for near $3,000. Toshiba began selling Media Center notebooks in June. Dell is also planning to sell notebooks with the Media Center operating system, while Toshiba is planning updated models with it. Also Taiwanese manufacturer Acer recently showed off a Media Center laptop geared for the European market.

Toshiba is expected to introduce two wide-screen Satellite notebook models--the P25-S609, with a 17-inch screen, and the P15-S479, with a 15.4-inch version. Both feature a drive that can burn both CDs and DVDs. They will sell for $2,799 and $2,199, respectively.

Sony declined to comment on the launch.

IDC analyst Roger Kay said that the crop of Media Center laptops will help accelerate a move by consumers to purchase notebook computers that are really too big to be used as notebooks, but are ideally suited to small spaces and can be transported when necessary.

"Media Center plays right into that trend," Kay said.

In addition to the new hardware making a debut on Tuesday, companies are also expected to offer services that sit on top of the Media Center's remote-controlled interface. Expected to be on the market soon are services that allow customers to download music and movies from within the Media Center interface.

Among the partners that will be announced Tuesday is Movielink, which will "rent" movies that can be downloaded onto a Media Center PC for a limited time and can be played back on a TV connected to the PC, Movielink CTO John Godwin said Monday.

Microsoft's new software is the first major upgrade to the Windows XP Media Center Edition software that first landed in HP systems last fall. Gateway and games PC specialist Alienware--among others--followed suit with their own Media Center models.

Microsoft has not said how many Media Center PCs have sold, but IDC's Kay recently estimated that it is in the high tens of thousands.

While the product has so far been more of a niche player, PC makers are hoping that there are now enough reasons for more than just geeks to put a PC in their living room.

The challenge, Kay says is that Media Center PCs are by nature complex computers rather than streamlined consumer electronics devices. Although they are "pretty good" at doing the tasks they do, Kay said, a computer running Windows is still different from a DVD player.

"You never quite get the (consumer electronics) experience," Kay said. "That's always my critique of media center. It's still ultimately a Swiss Army knife, rather than a katana (a Japanese sword)."

No computer maker knows the challenges of selling a living room PC better than Gateway, which for years sold the Destination PC. The device had a few fans, but never really caught on, although it lingered in the company's lineup until 2000.

Flanary said that Gateway learned some valuable lessons from its less than successful initial foray into the living room.

"Consumers won't compromise watching TV," Flanary said. "It has to work flawlessly."

CNET News.com's John Spooner and Stefanie Olsen contributed to this report.

 

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