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Sony slims down

The company is introducing new desktop and notebook PCs emphasizing slim lines and futuristic looks, but analysts wonder if the moves will regain market share.

Declaring that design and ease-of-use now influence PC buying decisions, Sony is introducing new desktop and notebook PCs emphasizing slim lines and futuristic looks.

At the Technology Entertainment Design conference in Monterey, California, Sony today announced the Vaio Slimtop LCD, a desktop PC with integrated flat panel display, offering a much smaller design than traditional desktops, according to the company. Sony also launched today the Vaio PictureBook Micronotebook, with integrated digital imaging features.

It is unclear whether cool looks alone will aid the

EOS-DCS 5 digital camera
consumer electronics giant's retail strategy for its computers. Over the last year, Sony has steadily lost shelf space to PC companies like Hewlett-Packard, Compaq Computer, and IBM, even though Sony's computers generally have featured more elegant finishing touches.

These other companies refresh their product lines and prices several times per quarter, according to Cameron Duncan, a PC analyst with ARS. By contrast, Sony, like other consumer electronics manufacturers, tends to release new systems on a quarterly basis.

"They have been slipping," Duncan said, noting that Circuit City recently opted to stop carrying Sony computers, and CompUSA is exhibiting signs of waning enthusiasm for Vaio products. "Compaq, HP, and IBM are always rotating pricing, getting to price points that attract buyers and retailers. Sony will come out with a new product every 4-to-5 months that will stay at that price level the whole time."

Sony also sells its products directly through its Web site, but is more closely associated with the retail channel, according to Duncan.

Instead of speeding up its product refresh cycles, Sony seems to be trying to differentiate itself with eye-catching designs and fancy integration features. The new PCV-L400 and PCVL-600 Vaio Slimtop LCD is a 12-pound desktop that borrows slim notebook CD-ROMs and disk drives to create a footprint 75 percent smaller than the standard desktop PC, according to Sony.

The high-end desktops will feature high-speed Pentium II and Pentium III processors, up to 128MB of memory and a 10.8GB hard drive. The Pentium II system will be priced at $2,299. The price has yet to be determined on the Pentium III system.

Sony's new Vaio C1 PictureBook Micronotebook weighs under 3 pounds and measures 1.5-inches thick, while offering a built-in swivel camera which can capture up to 60 seconds of video. The notebook, running on a 266-MHz Pentium MMX processor is priced at $2,299.99.

Both systems will be available in March.

Sony's decision to offer digital imaging in its new notebook is consistent with its strategy of using its successful consumer electronics devices to sell computers. The strategy has had mixed results thus far, according to Duncan.

"It's a continuation of their former strategy, trying to differentiate themselves from HP and IBM," he said. Unlike bundling PCs with printers or scanners, bundling or integrating computers with consumer electronics products is an unproven strategy, he added.

"When people buy a computer bundle, they believe that the HP printer will work better with the HP computer. [Digital cameras] are a niche product that doesn't have much penetration in the market--they may have picked the wrong opportunity."

Sony also said today it would begin selling new photo printers and digital photo frames with Memory Stick slots later this month. The Memory Stick is not much bigger than a stick of gum and can store hundreds of images.