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Gateway, others unveil media PCs

Several manufacturers are releasing computers bundled with the entertainment-centric version of Windows XP, an important step in Microsoft's assault on the living room.

Gateway, gamer PC specialist Alienware and two smaller manufacturers are releasing computers bundled with the entertainment-centric version of Windows XP, an important step in Microsoft's latest attempt to colonize the living room.

The new machines will be released at the Comdex Fall 2002 trade show in Las Vegas this week, or soon afterward.

The products will substantially expand the availability of PCs with Windows XP Media Center, a specialized version of Microsoft's flagship desktop OS that allows users to store, record or retrieve music, photos or video.

"We're very happy we can provide consumers a greater amount of choice," said Murari Narayan, director of eHome Marketing for Microsoft.

Right now, Hewlett-Packard is the only manufacturer selling computers equipped with Media Center in the United States. The PCs are fairly expensive, according to analysts, and not easy to find in stores.

By contrast, some of the new machines will start for around $1,000, said Narayan, while Gateway will bundle one with a 42-inch plasma screen TV, which alone sells for $2,999. Korean giant Samsung is also expected to ship Media Center PCs soon.

A computer loaded with Media Center can be hooked up to a TV so the PC's hard drive functions as a digital video recorder. Conversely, digital pictures stored on the PC's hard drive can be viewed on the TV screen.

Sony also offers software on some of its PCs that lets the computers record television programs.

Alienware's Media Center PC Most of the new Media Center computers come with 2.5GHz or faster Pentium 4 processors, 512MB of memory, massive hard drives and built-in DVD recorders. All feature a remote control.

Although PC-TV hybrids have failed in the past, computer executives and some analysts predict that consumers may finally be ready to accept them. The rise of digital music and DVR services like TiVo have demonstrated that consumers are willing to use PC technologies (for example, hard drives) to manage their entertainment centers.

Inexpensive home networking equipment will also make it easier to hook these disparate devices together.

Still, price remains a barrier, said Toni Duboise, an analyst at market research company ARS. HP's midrange Media Center PC, the Pavilion 873, costs $1,699 without a monitor. A $1,349 version, the Pavilion 863, doesn't come with a DVD burner.

"The sweet spot right now is between $800 to $900" without a monitor, Duboise said. Because it lacks a DVD burner, HP's low-end Media Center model can't rightly be classified as a 'media'-centric machine, she said.

Even compared with high-end PCs, the Media Center models tip the price scales. Similarly configured HP Pavilions containing plain old Windows XP sell for around $300 or more less than their Media Center counterparts. Of course, these simpler machines can't be used to record TV shows out of the box.

"Sony is doing a better job of promoting it," Duboise added.

Gateway's Media Center PCs will be offered in several new configurations and will all come out by Nov. 22. The Poway, Calif.-based manufacturer will bundle them with LCD monitors and, in some cases, with plasma screen TVs.

Alienware, which specializes in high-end machines in unusual cases and colors, will offer the operating system in its compact Navigator line. The other two new manufacturers are CyberPower and ABS Media Center.