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Cyrix chip targets convergence

Cyrix and electronics partners are touting a new all-in-one device that's supposedly more versatile than a set-top box and going to cost $1,000 within a year.

Chipmaker Cyrix and a host of electronics partners are trying to drum up support for a new all-in-one computing and entertainment device that they say will be far more versatile than a set-top box and cost much less than than pricey PC-TVs from the vendors such as Gateway 2000.

If successful, the new device would bring a new level of convergence to the consumer electronics industry as well as give Cyrix another market for its MediaGX processors.

Called the Media Center system, the new convergence device would essentially be a fully functional multimedia PC that can also control any other electronic home entertainment device, according to Steve Tobak, vice president of corporate marketing at Cyrix. The company will be showing off demonstration units at Comdex next week.

Also at Comdex, the company will also be releasing a reference platform for managed PCs to retail for under $500 that has been submitted to major computer manufacturers. To date, Cyrix has not made a stab at corporate America with the MediaGX.

With the Media Center, customers can watch TV, surf the Internet, and send email as with a set-top box, Tobak said. But users can also run movies on a DVD drive, conduct telephone calls via speakerphone, set up a videoconferencing system, run 3D games, control the stereo, and do tasks on spread sheets and other productivity applications.

Media Center will also include intelligence functions, said a spokesperson. If you typically watch a show at a certain time, the system will automatically activate a VCR to record it based on past viewing habits.

The system will be based around Windows 98 and a Media Center interface. Its, at least initially, will be the 200-MHz MediaGX with MMX from Cyrix, which comes out this January.

The projected price is significant. Currently, PC-TVs with similar functions from Gateway 2000 and Compaq cost well over $3,000 and typically closer to $5,000.

Initially, the Media Center will sell for around $1,200, which does not include a monitor or TV, but the price will drop to $999 within a year, he said. Cyrix itself will not manufacture Media Center boxes. Instead, it will try to encourage PC manufacturers and electronics makers to build devices around the reference design.

"It's got far greater functionality than any set-top box," Tobak said. "The idea is to lead the way for PC and consumer electronics OEMs into what can be done in the home."

While concept certainly has appeal, the price point, vis-a-vis the low-cost set-top box market, will make it a difficult proposition initially, said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies.

"The price is a bit high [for the set-top box market], but for what it does it is a good deal," he said. "Gateway 2000 and Compaq have fundamentally done the same thing with PC Theater at three times the price, granted they throw the TV in."

Tobak, however, countered that improvements to the MediaGX family will cut manufacturing costs. The next version of the MediaGX, for example, called the MediaMXi, will include 3D functionality. As a result, OEMs will not have to include a separate graphics processor, which they have to do now. The MXi will also eliminate the need for a separate MPEG-2 decoder processor.

"I can envision a $699, $799 price point for this form factor with higher performance in 18 to 24 months," Tobak said.

Media Center partners include Hitachi, Philips North America, IBM and ESS Technology.

The reference design that will be previewed at Comdex will, if used, allow an OEM to develop a thin, managed PC, said Tobak. The machine supports all of the Net PC protocols.

"We are talking to all of the major OEMs and I would expect to have a 'tier 1' manufacturer by the second quarter 1998," he said.