Dell pitches Media Center alternative

The PC maker has an alternative in mind for those who choose not to pay extra for Microsoft's Media Center operating system.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
4 min read
Dell has an alternative in mind for consumers who choose not to pay extra for Microsoft's Media Center operating system.

The Round Rock, Texas-based PC maker said Tuesday it would offer its Dell Media Experience, a multimedia user interface that it designed in-house, in desktop computers that do not contain Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center 2004 operating system.

The Media Experience software, which Dell will begin installing on Dimension desktops at no extra charge on Oct. 17, offers a special interface for quickly accessing and playing music, viewing photos or watching movies. The software, which was first unveiled last week as part of Dell's digital-home effort, is also meant to simplify the sharing of files between devices such as Dell's Axim handheld and a PC, the company said.

On PC models that don't have the new Microsoft operating system, Dell will load the Media Experience software to avoid creating a rift among its customers, said Mark Vena, director of Dimension product marketing for Dell.

"We view (offering both) Media Experience and Media Center as an approach we can apply to the entire product line...and provide (customers) that intuitiveness and access to multimedia very quickly," Vena said. "We didn't want to create a class of have and have-not users."

The Media Experience software may help Dell compete with the likes of Hewlett-Packard. HP's latest Pavilion a300 desktops come with software such as HP ImageZone, which is designed to help consumers download, edit and archive digital photos on a PC.

Dell plans to install the software first on its Dimension desktops and later on its Inspiron notebooks. Thus, the software will help manage multimedia for customers who buy even a basic Dimension, which could cost as little as $400.

Dell Media Center PCs start at $1,069 before rebates, according to the company's Web site.

The Media Experience software will offer Dell customers many of the same features as Microsoft's Media Center on a less-expensive desktop. But not all such features--it lacks the ability to view or record television programs, for example, which is a major element of Media Center.

Analysts approved of the move to offer customers a choice. One of them described the offering of two similar multimedia software packages as an experiment of sorts on what the market will bear.

"I think this represents an interesting compromise with Microsoft, because, in theory, it puts Microsoft in the catbird seat. (Microsoft) is the upgrade," said Roger Kay, an analyst with IDC.

In this arrangement, Microsoft's Media Center operating system is for customers who want to wring the highest performance possible out of their PCs.

"If people say, 'I don't want to pay the premium,' Dell can split the (lower price) differential with the end user and they both get a pretty good deal. Ultimately, the marketplace decides," he said.

Keith Laepple, an executive in Microsoft's eHome unit, said Dell's effort could be either good or bad. If customers get a taste of a better experience listening to music and watching DVDs, then they may later buy a Media Center PC. Dell's media software can go on lower-priced computers, a class of products Laepple said could benefit from a better media-playing program.

However, Laepple acknowledged that there could be some confusion, and if consumers are not impressed by what Dell does, there is the potential they could be turned off to Media Center.

Laepple said that the fact Dell's design is so similar to Microsoft's shows that his company is on the right track. "There's a lot of companies copycatting the design," he said. "That tells us we are on to something."

Inspired in China
Dell, which started down the road to what would become Media Experience six or seven months ago, was looking for software that would provide a simple method for accessing multimedia files across a range of devices--including PCs and handhelds--and also data storage cards, Dell's Vena said.

"We think there's a need and an opportunity," he said, "for Dell to provide software that provides the glue to make the products work well together."

The idea for the software came from Dell's subsidiary in China, where the company's competitors offer PCs that can switch on almost instantly and play music.

Similarly, the Media Experience software will let Dell PCs automatically wake from sleep mode and start playing music as soon as a CD is inserted into a drive, he said.

The software is not turned on from the factory. Instead, it appears first as an icon on the Windows desktop, and consumers must choose to launch the application and set it up.

Dell will also offer a $30 remote control for use with the software.

While it will start with PCs, the Media Experience software might eventually help Dell establish itself in the digital home, a market which Dell announced last week that it's planning to target.

Later this year Dell plans to offer a host of new products, such as an LCD television and a portable music player, and services such as a music store for consumers

"We think it's a good first step into this category," Vena said.

Media Experience will likely have to grow into a role at the center of the digital home. The software does not yet offer built-in support for automatically sharing files via wireless home networks, for example.

Wireless networks, which can link PCs, handhelds, printers and even devices like televisions and DVD players, are expected to play a large role in the digital home.

Such features may show up in the future, however, Vena said.

CNET News.com's Ina Fried contributed to this report.