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Commentary: HP in your living room

Media-loving consumers will learn to embrace boxes like Hewlett-Packard's new Digital Entertainment Center, especially once the price drops.

Commentary: HP in your living room
By Forrester Research
Special to CNET News.com
October 13, 2004, 11:00AM PT

by Josh Bernoff, Vice President

Media-loving consumers will learn to embrace boxes like Hewlett-Packard's new Digital Entertainment Center, especially once the price drops.

The HP DEC is a new PC based on Microsoft's newly released Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005. But unlike previous Media Center PCs, it's designed more like a TV component than a PC, with lots of video outputs.

For years now, Microsoft has been pushing its Windows XP Media Center Edition PCs--and for years we've been dumping on them. But the HP DEC is different--it's designed to focus exclusively on entertainment functions, not computing, and unlike the Media Center Extenders also announced Tuesday, it centralizes these functions in one box. To see why the HP DEC makes sense, imagine hooking up this set-top box--let's call it what it is--to your TV. Then you can:


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•  Record and play back television programs, DVR style. Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 provides the DEC with an Internet-downloadable program guide and full digital video recorder functions, just like a TiVo but with no monthly fee--and with DVD-recording built in. Only 9 percent of the DVR users in our recent survey used their PCs to do recording, but a box like this will boost that number. And unlike other such recorders, the DEC can download rented movies from Movielink and play them on your television set. By next year, many of these same capabilities will be available for HDTV as well--making the DEC highly competitive with high-priced high-definition DVRs.

•  See photos. With slots for nine kinds of flash media from digital cameras, an HP DEC connected to a big-screen TV is the ideal place to look over, organize and display photos, including slide shows on the big screen in the living room. For serious photo editing, this living-room PC may be a little awkward--manipulating the mouse and keyboard on the couch is uncomfortable. But for display and simple management--culling bad shots, rotating sideways photos--it's ideal.

•  Use an expansive interface to organize your music. HP is now both Microsoft's most powerful hardware partner and Apple Computer's key ally in iPod distribution. As a result, HP's DEC includes an application available nowhere else: HPTunes, which can play music files in MP3, Microsoft and Apple iTunes formats and which can be guided by a remote control. But because it's based on a Windows variant, the DEC remains better-suited to Windows-based portables and music stores than iTunes and iPods.

•  Play games and chat. While most traditional PC applications don't work from the couch--Excel, TurboTax and Expedia just don't fly on a TV--some make sense. Think entertainment: multiplayer games, movie trailers and chat with friends. If sites like Movies.com and portals like Yahoo and America Online create versions of their interfaces that can be worked with a remote control, they will be rewarded with a foothold in a new place--the TV in the living room.

•  Two big flaws remain before the living-room PC takes flight. First, it needs to get cheaper: While one high-end electronics retailer we spoke with was chomping at the bit to sell the HP DEC, the cheapest model is $1,499--three times the price of typical mass-market audiovisual components. And second, to succeed in front of the couch, machines like the DEC must master the next set of living-room applications: HDTV and Internet video on demand.

© 2004, Forrester Research, Inc. All rights reserved. Information is based on best available resources. Opinions reflect judgment at the time and are subject to change.