Dell grapples with Apple in Mini arena

Pocket DJ 5 undercuts price of iPod Mini music player. Consumer push also includes plasma-screen TVs.

Dell is challenging Apple Computer's iPod Mini music player, as part of a plan to expand its brand name in the consumer electronics market.

As expected, the PC maker on Thursday launched a diminutive Dell Digital Jukebox portable music player, dubbed the Pocket DJ 5, along with a new line of plasma-screen televisions, a portable photo printer and an updated Dell DJ 20 music player.

The Pocket DJ 5, which will sell for $199 and offer 5GB of storage, will compete with Apple's 4GB iPod Mini, which sells for $249. The updated 20GB Dell DJ will sell for $249, a drop of $30 from the price of Dell's existing 20GB model. Dell plans to begin shipping them in November. Its current DJ 15 and DJ 20 models are likely to be phased out.

Dell believes that its relatively low prices on the music players and also on its plasma TVs, which start at $2,299, will help win over consumers.

The new DJ music players and the plasma TVs are only one aspect of a broader effort begun last year by Dell, which aims to gain a position in the so-called digital home market. Such consumers are beginning to use technology to share multimedia such as music and movies between PCs and more traditional electronic devices such as televisions and stereos. PC makers such as Dell aim to compete with traditional consumer electronics brands, such as Sony, for a piece of the digital home.

Since beginning its latest consumer electronics effort last year, Dell has introduced a number of televisions, printers and PCs. Yet Dell isn't aiming to deliver products just for the sake of becoming a consumer electronics brand, Mike George, general manager of Dell's U.S. consumer business, said Thursday at a trade show in New York.

"We don't believe in invention for the sake of invention," he said. "What we want a consumer to feel comfortable about when we intro a product is that this is a product, a technology and a usage model that's ready for primetime."

Instead, most of Dell's consumer electronics products, including the DJs, center on the PC. The company believes that the PC will be at the center of the digital home, acting as the brains and the storehouse of data. To that end, Dell has been touting easy-to-use multimedia software, including Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 and its own Dell Media Experience. It hopes the software will become the linchpin for getting consumers more involved in sharing files between PCs and other more traditional consumer electronics devices, such as televisions. On Tuesday, Dell unveiled plans for a new Dimension line of Media Center PCs based on Microsoft's Media Center operating system. Over time, Dell will offer the software across the range of its Dimension consumer desktops and Media Center versions of the machines will start at about $600, George said. Dell will charge $39 to cover the upgrade from Microsoft's Windows XP Home Edition operating system to Windows XP Media Center 2005.

Dell is also offering a $275 Windows Media Extender, a device that allows its Media Center PCs to share content with other devices throughout a person's house. The extender will allow people to, among other things, watch video stored on their PC on one of its new plasma televisions.

TVs and printers Given their extensive relationships with both consumers and suppliers of screens, hard drives and other components used to build electronics, PC makers including Dell and Hewlett-Packard have been eyeing consumer electronics as an area of potential growth for some time. Despite a mixed track record, the success of some products, particularly the iPod, have shown it's possible for computer makers to compete with established consumer brands such as Sony.

To that end, Dell has also extended its television line with two aggressively priced plasma-screen models.

Its W4200HD, a 42-inch plasma high-definition plasma TV is priced at $3,499, while its W4200ED enhanced definition, 42-inch plasma TV will sell for $2,299. The company will also offer installation services for the sets.

Dell's plasma TV prices are lower than many of the other brands on the market, the company said, because it sells huge numbers of computer monitors and can use relationships with suppliers to gain favorable prices. It also sells the sets directly to customers, eliminating retail mark-ups.

"We take that supply chain and design equity and we extend it" to TVs, George said. "Most other companies go through consumer channels and the consumer pays the mark-up." Dell also added two models to its printer line on Thursday. Its Photo Printer 540, priced at $189, is portable and creates 4-by-6-inch prints without a PC. The printer contains a 2.5-inch LCD screen, along with USB input, a PictBridge port for connecting cameras and a memory card reader that can download files from five different types of cards.

The company also updated its all-in-one inkjet printer line with the Dell 942 All-in-one Photo Printer, which will sell for $149. The printer adds features such as a 2.5-inch LCD screen for viewing photos.

Dell's new printers are available now, and the company plans to ship the televisions next month.

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