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Intel's Viiv-talking pitch for PCs

Future digital home is supposedly called Viiv--but you wouldn't know it from first Viiv PCs.

Early adopters of PCs based on Intel's Viiv technology are having as much trouble understanding what's so different about their new computers as they are pronouncing "Viiv."

Viiv (rhymes with "hive") is the heart of Intel's vision for a digital home, with videos and music that seamlessly move between a PC and a television or a portable device. If a PC carries the Viiv brand, as Intel's marketing has put it, that PC was expected to be a sleek package at the center of the consumer digital media universe, downloading and sending movies to televisions around the home. The company formally unveiled its Viiv strategy at an Intel Developer Forum in 2005 and put some glitz on the pitch with a star-studded unveiling in January.

Unfortunately, the with Intel's Viiv brand over the last few weeks have been incremental improvements to existing Windows Media Center PCs, updated with dual-core processors, a sophisticated pause button and a colorful sticker. That won't change much until Intel releases a software update sometime in the second half of this year.

"No one wants to over-promise anything, but there is this momentum building," said Todd Titera, senior manager of desktop products for Gateway. "Would it be nice if everything was delivered in the first version? Yes, but maybe that's not reality."

For now, reality is that some consumers and reviewers are wondering what comes with Viiv PCs that can't be found elsewhere.

Intel's main promise for Viiv-branded products is that they will allow home entertainment buffs to stream downloaded video files from a PC's hard drive to a television in another room of the house, or move those files to a handheld personal media player. These capabilities won't be introduced until later this year, when Intel releases a software update that current Viiv PC owners can install to enable the new features, said Kari Skoog, an Intel spokeswoman. Intel hasn't determined how it plans to release this update, version 1.5, but promises it will be easy to implement, she said.

That software will also enable a technology called Intel Hub Connect, which is designed to make it easy to set up a home network with a Viiv PC, a Viiv-certified wireless networking router, and other consumer electronics gear like a Viiv-certified wireless TV or set-top box. DirecTV announced plans at CES to release a set-top box that works with Viiv devices.

"They certainly have a more ambitious vision with routers and digital media adapters and streaming media around your home," said David Galvin, HP's worldwide director of product marketing for desktops. "When these future capabilities become available, your PC can work with them."

Viiv has been a while in the making. It's the second major thrust of Intel's platform marketing strategy, following the Centrino brand for notebooks. Like Centrino, PC makers receive marketing support from Intel if they build Viiv PCs with certain specifications, such as an Intel dual-core processor, Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition, Intel's networking chips, support for high-definition audio and other components.

The idea is to create a brand that guarantees a level of PC performance needed to run sophisticated digital entertainment software, Skoog said. Intel is also working with content providers to develop applications that work well on large screens and with remote controls. Many early versions of software meant for digital entertainment are designed to receive information through a keyboard or mouse, and not a remote control as envisioned for the digital home PC.

Like it did with the Centrino brand, Intel also plans to certify that other devices like networking gear, portable players and televisions will work with Viiv PCs and content, helping take the pain out of setting up a home entertainment system that uses a PC at its center.

"What we're delivering is more than just hardware," Skoog said. "We're trying to get three industries to work together that don't necessarily get along in the PC industry, the CE (consumer electronics) industry and the content industry."

The Viiv PCs already shipping do have that noteworthy new feature--Intel's Quick Resume technology, which allows users to "turn off" a PC like they would a television. Actually, the PC doesn't fully turn off, but goes into a quiet suspend mode while the system is still active. On the content side, current Viiv PCs come with links to content from companies like MTV, ESPN and AOL highlighted in the "Online Spotlight" window of Windows Media Center's interface, although non-Viiv Windows Media Center PCs also have access to that content.

"We're not going to have brand traction within three months," said Don McDonald, vice president and general manager of Intel's Digital Home group, with CNET News.com. "Building a brand takes many years."