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Media Centers on parade

Brand-name PC makers debut a host of new PCs that feature Microsoft's Media Center 2005 software.

PC makers, working with Microsoft, set course for consumers' living rooms on Tuesday, launching a slew of new Media Center PCs.

Dell, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, Sony and Toshiba all introduced their latest Media Center PCs, wrapped around Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center 2005 operating system. The latest version of the multimedia-oriented OS features a special user interface for tasks such as playing movies.

While the latest Media Centers are PCs at heart, the manufacturers say the machines will function more like entertainment devices that can record, show TV programs, and play DVD movies or music CDs. However, unlike before, the machines will be more adept at acquiring and sharing files with other devices around the home.

Sony has outfitted its Vaio R series desktop
line to run Windows XP Media Center 2005.
As earlier reported, the updated version of the OS adds a number of new features including support for multiple TV tuners, allowing people to watch one channel while recording another. A new MSN tool lets customers schedule TV recordings over the Internet. Microsoft also announced PlaysForSure, which aims to ensure compatibility between different music players and online music services based on Microsoft Windows Media technology.

Microsoft and the PC makers hope the launch of Media Center 2005 will help drive interest in high-end PCs and spur sales of consumer electronics devices during the 2004 holiday season. However, economic uncertainties such as high oil prices make it difficult to forecast how well the holiday season will fare, analysts have said.

Manufacturers are counting on feature-packed desktops and notebooks, some with two TV tuners, to help lure customers. Most of the new Media Center models are based on high-end desktops and will cost somewhere between $1,000 and $2,000. However, some desktop models will cost less than $1,000 thanks to new licensing terms from Microsoft that allow Media Centers to come without a tuner. Although TV recording continues to be a major focus of Media Center, Microsoft decided to allow computer makers to delete a TV tuner in order to offer lower prices.

This year, Dell, Gateway, HP and other players such as Linksys have introduced companion devices for Media Center PCs, including MP3 players, PDAs (personal digital assistants) and so-called Media Center Extenders, that tie in to Media Center functions. Media Center Extenders can stream content stored on Media Center to other devices, such as a television, using wireless or wired networking.

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Dell started off its Media Center hardware parade by offering the OS as an option on two of its two higher-priced Dimension consumer desktops, the Dimension 8400 and Dimension XPS. A bare-bones Dimension 8400 with the Media Center 2005 software and an Intel Pentium 4 will start at about $1,140, Dell said.

Later in the year, the company plans to begin offering Media Center as an option on its Dimension 3000, Dimension 4700 and Dimension 4700C systems. Customers also will be able to order their Media Center PCs without TV tuners, the company said.

Gateway will offer an 820GM Media Center PC at retail, starting this weekend. The machine includes an Intel Pentium 4 processor, ATI's Radeon X300SE graphics card with 128MB of memory, a multi-format DVD burner, 1GB of RAM, a 250GB hard drive, and an 8-in-1 memory card reader. It will sell for $1,249 without the monitor.

HP has several new Media Center offerings due this month, including its Digital Entertainment Center, a PC that's shaped like a DVD player that can be operated almost exclusively via a remote control, HP has said.

The company will offer two Digital Entertainment Centers, including a model z540 that offers a single TV tuner and a 160GB internal hard drive for $1,499 as well as a model z545-b with dual TV tuners, a 200GB hard drive and a removable 160GB HP Personal Media Drive for $1,999.

HP also will offer a range of more traditional Media Center desktops as part of its HP Media Center m1100 series of Photosmart PCs. After rebates, they will be priced starting at $974. One model, a $999 m1160n, will offer an Advanced Micro Devices Athlon 64 3400+, making it the first brand-name Media Center desktop to offer an AMD chip, according to AMD.

Sony is offering Media Center 2005 software on its Vaio R Series desktop. Machines such as its RA920G, a model that's sold direct to customers, will offer the operating system along with Intel Pentium 4 processors, ATI graphics cards and DVD burners, for prices that start at about $1,300, according to its SonyStyle Web site.

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Toshiba also updated its Qosmio notebook in concert with the Media Center 2005 release. Two Qosimo models, available now, share features such as the Media Center OS, Intel's 1.8GHz Pentium M 745, Nvidia's GeForce FX GO 5700 graphics processor, TV tuners and DVD burners. The Qosmio G15-AV501 incorporates a 17-inch widescreen display and sells for $2,999. The Qosmio F15-AV201 features a 15.4-inch widescreen display for $2,599.

Many brand-name manufacturers also are offering companion devices, such as Media Center Extenders, to work with their new Media Center PCs.

Dell is offering a Media Center Extender, and its Axim X50 will work with Media Center desktops as well. The Axim X50 starts at $299. The company will offer its Media Center Extender with a router for $429 to customers who order its PCs.

Gateway plans to launch later this month a portable MP3 player that supports Microsoft's PlaysForSure, the company said.

HP also introduced a Media Center Extender, dubbed the x5400, which costs $299.

Linksys plans to release a Wireless A/G Media Center Extender, which will sell for $299 in North America by the end of October, the company said.