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DirecTV's Viiv box almost ready for prime time

Set-top box that works with Viiv-compliant PCs on the way, but Intel still faces hurdles on path to digital living room.

SAN FRANCISCO--Intel and DirecTV are getting ready to release their first joint product, a new set-top box with Intel's Viiv home media technology, the companies announced Tuesday at the Intel Developer Forum here.

First announced at CES in January, the set-top box comes with hardware and software that lets television watchers access Internet-based content when connected to a Viiv PC. The DirecTV Plus HD DVR will be available to subscribers in the fourth quarter, and a software download needed to make everything work is supposed to be available in December from the satellite provider.

The PC industry's

Intel's latest attempt involves a brand called Viiv, which brings together hardware and software designed to let PCs download special content from the Internet and display it on a television. Viiv PCs contain Intel-specified components that the company says guarantee enough performance to make all this digital content flow between devices.

In practice, however, it's a little more complicated. To connect a Viiv PC to a television, users need a digital media adapter that's certified to work with Viiv PCs. Intel and its partners started shipping Viiv PCs around the beginning of the year, but software that actually allowed users to transfer content between PCs and TVs was not made available until June, and only one company, Netgear, is shipping a digital media adapter containing the software and certified to work with Viiv PCs. Other companies are expected to release digital media adapters before the end of the year, Otellini said.

On one hand, integrating the digital media adapter into the set-top box makes life easier for consumers looking to get Internet video on their televisions by eliminating one step from the setup process, said Stephen Baker, an analyst with NPD Techworld. But it's uncertain whether people are ready for these types of devices, and it's far from clear what type of design consumers will prefer when they are fully ready to access content over the Internet, he said.

For example, the DirecTV Plus HD DVR doesn't have wireless networking capability, meaning users would still have to run cables between their PCs and televisions or plug the set-top box into a wireless adapter. A DirecTV representative said there are currently no plans to add wireless networking capability to the set-top box.

Apple Computer recently announced plans for a similar device that would connect a television and a Mac or PC. Details are vague about the iTV device, but it will plug into both regular and high-definition televisions and connect to a PC using the 802.11n standard, allowing users to access the video content they purchase from the iTunes store on their televisions.

Apple's iTV box will also allow users to watch movies purchased from the iTunes store on their television, given Apple's recent announcement that Disney movies will be available through iTunes.

When it launches, DirecTV's set-top box will only allow users to access photos or music stored on their PCs, not movies or television, said Merlin Kister, director of marketing for Intel's Digital Home Division. DirecTV chooses the features it wants to deliver to its customers, Kister said. Allowing DirecTV Plus HD DVR users to watch Internet-purchased movies on their televisions could cut into DirecTV's video-on-demand and pay-per-view revenue.