New Sony PCs focus on digital media

The company unveils 11 new Vaio desktops and, in a surprise, sticks with DVD-R/RW rather than a rival format for recording.

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Sony served up 11 new Vaio PCs on Monday, expanding its focus on DVD recording and digital media.

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But in a surprise move, the company is sticking with DVD-R/RW for recording rather than switching to DVD+R/RW as widely rumored. The two formats are contestants in a bitter struggle for dominance in the burgeoning DVD recording market. Separately, Sony sells DVD+R/RW drives that consumers can add to existing PCs.

Many of the new Vaios sport faster Pentium 4 processors and other hardware upgrades such as more memory and beefier hard drives. Sony also brought back Advanced Micro Devices processors, which will be available on three Vaio models. That move follows a recent resurgence for AMD after a number of PC makers stopped carrying its microprocessors last year.

The new Vaio models range in price from about $850 to $2,500. In a departure from other PC makers' bundles, all the new Sony systems come with either Corel's WordPerfect 2002 or WordPerfect Office 2002 software, rather than the more typical Microsoft Works 2002 or Office XP Small Business.

With the refreshing of its PC line, Sony has greatly increased its focus on the Vaio as a computer and consumer electronics entertainment hub. Although only one existing and three new Vaio PCs record DVDs, Sony has increased its emphasis on amateur movie-making across its PC line.

"Sony is drawing a straight line from the camcorder to the Vaio desktop PC," Mark Hanson, Sony's vice president for Vaio PC marketing, said in a statement. "The software is so straightforward that not only can I burn DVDs, but so can anyone in my family."

But the company's loyalty to DVD-R/RW surprised some analysts, which had expected Sony to move to the competing DVD+R/RW. Early last year, Apple Computer and Compaq Computer kicked off the DVD recording trend by incorporating Pioneer Electronics' DVD-R/RW drive into their computers.

The rival standard surged onto the market in late 2001, with Dell Computer and Hewlett-Packard adding DVD+RW drives to their PCs. Earlier this year, HP and Sony bolstered that standard when they brought to market second-generation drives that could write DVD+R and DVD+RW discs. Then in April, DVD+R/RW received a critical endorsement from Microsoft, which is integrating support for the format into future versions of Windows.

"It does appear to be a disconnect, given that Sony does make the DVD+RW drives for the add-on market and sells DVD-RW on desktops," said NPD Techworld analyst Stephen Baker. But Baker believes the DVD format wars may be over quicker than most people think. "Going forward, the market for recordable DVDs will merge, with one standard format in the near future."

Manufacturers sold 628,000 DVD recording drives last year, according to Gartner. The market researcher estimated the number of DVD recording drives shipped would swell to 3.9 million in 2003 and 55.7 million in 2006.

Shades of TiVo
But DVD recording isn't the only area in which Sony is bringing together computing and consumer electronics. Only Apple bundles as many company-branded digital media applications--for music, photos and movies--with its consumer PCs. But many of Sony's applications are tightly tied to unique hardware features. For example, Sony's SonicStage software for managing and listening to MP3s also can record music from FM radio stations on models that come with a built-in FM receiver.

Sony's GigaPocket Personal Video Recorder software offers TiVo-like features for models packing TV tuners. Consumers can use the software for scheduling programs that can be recorded to the PC's hard drive. Sony also provides software that can be used for, among other things, editing out commercials. The consumer could then convert the show to MPEG2 and burn it to a DVD.

"One of the things Sony is going to do, being it's Sony, is to add extra value to its products to set them apart from the commodity PC market," Baker said. "Emphasizing specialized software or style gets them out of the speeds-and-feeds area and focuses the market on what Sony does best."

Sony did not update its top-of-the-line Vaio MX PC, which currently is at model S20. That system sports a front-access panel that more resembles a consumer electronics product than a PC. From this panel, consumers can access TV and radio tuners, a DVD drive, and a built-in MiniDisc player/recorder.

The $850 Vaio PCV-RX730 and $950 PCV-RX740 kick off the refreshed models:

• The RX730 packs a 1.7GHz Intel Celeron processor, 256MB of DDR SDRAM, a 40GB hard drive, DVD and CD-rewritable drives, a 56k modem, 10/100 Ethernet networking, and Windows XP Home Edition.

• The RX740 is nearly identical, but with a 1.53GHz AMD Athlon XP 1800+ processor and a 60GB hard drive.

• The $1,100 RX741 is essentially the same as the RX740, but with 512MB of RAM instead of 256MB.

• The RX742, at $1,850, serves up the 1.4GHz AMD Athlon XP 1600+ processor, 256MB of DDR SDRAM, a 60GB hard drive, DVD and CD-rewritable drives, a 56k modem, 10/100 networking, and Windows XP Home Edition.

The other models all pack Intel Pentium 4 processors:

• The PCV-RX750 and RX752 come with 2GHz chips, DVD and CD-rewritable drives, a 56k modem, 10/100 networking, and Windows XP Home Edition. The $1,150 RX750 has 256MB of DDR SDRAM and a 60GB hard drive, while the $1,550 RX752 has double the memory and an 80GB hard drive.

• The $1,250 RX755 falls in between with the same processor but a 60GB hard drive and 512MB of DDR SDRAM.

• The RX760, priced at $1,400, bumps the processor to 2.2GHz but is otherwise nearly identical to the RX752.

Sony's three top-of-the line models all come with DVD-R/RW drives, which are capable of recording DVDs or CDs:

• The PVC-RX770 and RX780G both pack a 2.2GHz Pentium 4 processor, 512MB of DDR SDRAM, a 120GB hard drive, a 56k modem, 10/100 networking, and Windows XP Home Edition for, respectively, $1,700 and $2,500.

• The RX780G comes with a 64MB graphics card (compared with 32MB for the other model), TV and radio tuner, and Sony's GigaPocket software.

• The PCV-790G, at $2,500, is nearly identical to the RX780G but with a faster 2.4GHz processor.