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Sony focuses on design with new PCs

Upcoming machines include a featherweight laptop and a desktop loaded with multimedia features. Prices, however, could be an issue.

Sony is prepping a featherweight laptop and a speedier multimedia desktop as part of an overhaul of its Vaio PC line for the United States.

The company will roll out its Vaio X505 notebook, which weighs less than 2 pounds, and a Vaio R series desktop that embeds a 3.6GHz Pentium 4 processor into an all-black chassis, accented with a cutout designed in part to help cool the system.

The flashy new models, which will arrive next month, come as Sony attempts to increase interest in its PCs by expanding the number of retail stores it operates in the United States and by boosting its efforts in the business market.

The company has also been working to expand its Vaio brand beyond the PC market, with devices such the Vaio Pocket music player, which will be launched in Japan next month. Additionally, the company this week dropped the price of its PlayStation 2 game system to $150 and discussed plans for a handheld game player.

As previously reported, the Vaio X505 will weigh only 1.85 pounds. The machine, designed for frequent travelers such as business executives, uses lightweight materials such as nickel-carbon in its chassis to help make it lighter. It also uses a tiny motherboard, which is about the size of one of Sony's minidiscs. It will be fitted with a 1.1GHz Intel Pentium M processor, a 10.4-inch screen, 512MB of RAM, a 20GB hard drive and a universal serial bus mouse. An external USB drive will be required for it to read a floppy disk or play a CD.

"Small notebooks haven't sold really well. But there's enough of a market there for (Sony). Its ability lies in targeting the niches."
--Steve Baker, analyst
NPD Techworld

The machine, which is already available in Japan, will sell for about $3,000 in the United States, Sony said in a statement. By comparison, IBM's latest lightweight ThinkPad, the X40, is 2.7 pounds. That machine comes with a larger, 12.1-inch screen.

Meanwhile, Sony will also introduce a new multimedia and gaming-oriented Vaio R series desktop designed for PC enthusiasts next month. Sony's top-of-the-line VGC-RA810G model will come with hardware such as the soon-to-be-released 3.6GHz Pentium 4 processor from Intel, 1GB of RAM, an ATI Radeon X600 Pro graphics board with 128MB of its own video memory, a DVD burner, and a 250GB, 7,200-rpm hard drive, according to Sony's Web site. It will cost about $2,400, Sony said.

A less expensive VGC-RA710G model will come with a different processor, memory and graphics. It will include a 3.2GHz Pentium 4, 512MB of RAM and Nvidia's GeForce FX 5200 graphics board, selling for about $1,700.

The company said Vaio R series PCs will all come with Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 operating system and Sony's Gigapocket personal video recorder. Additionally, all the PCs will come with software for recording and editig videos and working with music.

The Vaio R's cutout, located about two-thirds of the way up on both sides of the desktop, is designed to enhance the PC's looks. But it also serves as its air intake, thus limiting noise produced at the front of the PC, Sony said.

What's in store for Sony? Sony PCs often sell for higher prices than those from competitors such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard. That is, while average retail prices have hovered around $700 to $750 for desktops and $1,300 to $1,400 for notebooks, according to NPD Techworld data, many of Sony's PCs are well over those prices.

Still, the company has carved out a niche in the United States' PC market, analysts say. Over the last few months, the company has battled with Toshiba for the third spot in market share among retail PC sellers in the United States, according to data from NPD Techworld. During March, Sony won that spot, with 16 percent of retail PC unit sales, making it the No. 3 seller for the month, behind HP and eMachines.

PC design, which has become Sony's trademark, could help it in its plans to expand, particularly in notebooks, one analyst said.

"I think Sony still has some opportunity where there hasn't been a lot of (product) design work done--especially on the retail shelf, where most of the notebooks tend to be basic boxes," said Steve Baker, an analyst with NPD Techworld. Traditionally, "small notebooks haven't sold really well. But there's enough of a market there for (Sony). Its ability lies in targeting the niches...categories where the product isn't just a box."

To that end, the company also plans to release a new Vaio A notebook line later this month. The Vaio A series will include the VGN-A190, a notebook that combines a high-resolution 17-inch wide-angle display featuring 1,920-by-1,200-pixel resolution with ATI's top notebook graphics chip, the Mobility Radeon 9700, and a DVD burner for multimedia enthusiasts. The machine also comes with Intel's latest 1.7GHz Pentium M 735, 512MB of RAM and an 80GB, 4,200-rpm hard drive, as well as Wi-Fi. It will go on sale later this month for about $2,800, Sony said.

A similar VGN-A160 model will offer a 15.4-inch wide-screen display and sell for about $2,300, the company added. The machines also include Gigapocket and an audio-video dock, which allows them to work with external speakers.