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Philips helps PCs become TVs

The company unveils a design for digital TV circuit boards that allows PC manufacturers to ship what are, in essence, digital TVs.

Philips Semiconductors unveiled a design for digital TV circuit boards that allows PC manufacturers to ship what are, in essence, "low cost" digital televisions.

Philips is offering PC makers a design called the "Coney" board which takes digital TV signals sent by broadcasters and helps convert the signals for display on a PC. The cards are used in conjunction with a Pentium II-based computer, which does the bulk of the translating of the digital TV signal into formats understood by PCs.

Broadcasters are just starting to send out high-definition digital TV (HDTV) signals, which offer significantly greater picture clarity and sound quality than current analog TVs allow. But with the cost of a stand-alone HDTV costing anywhere from $5,000 on up, Intel, for one, is holding out the hope that the market for DTV receiver cards will expand the role of PCs as a point of technological convergence.

"PCs will play a significant role as a key platform for DTV," asserted Mike Richmond, business unit manager, Intel's Broadcast Products Division, in a statement. "The Philips reference design gives PC [PC makers] and after-market suppliers an early entry into the emerging DTV market and makes low-cost DTV on PCs a practical reality for consumers."

While less expensive than a stand-alone HDTV, PC-based DTV receivers still won't be mass-market items. Users need a PC with at least a 400-MHz Pentium II, which start at around $1,400 for a system without monitor.

Other factors inhibiting the growth of DTV on the PC platform--consumers' history of indifference toward traditional PCs with TV tuner circuit boards or "cards." Users have not been drawn to watching TV on a PC.

But they may be drawn to getting access to information via DTV signals.

"We believe the U.S. market is between 700,000 to 800,000 units for add-in cards. Even if you just take slice of that...that's still a considerably higher number than the number of HDTVs that are expected to be sold, so that's already interesting market," for PC makers, said Simon Wegerif, international product marketing manager for consumer systems at Philips Semiconductor.

"If digital TV takes off as slowly as everybody is saying, then the broadcasters will be looking for more features so that more people will be attracted to getting digital TV," said Mark Snowden, senior analyst, Inteco, with datacasting being a key feature they are looking to add.

Broadcasters could charge companies to either have information sent to customers, or they could send information to PCs within a corporate network, analysts have suggested. In fact, Intel and PBS have teamed up to send data to DTV-enabled PCs in conjunction with video (see related story), but such efforts are still emphasizing the viewing of TV on a PC, which analysts say isn't a workable plan.

"Most people don't watch TV from 2 feet away. There may be a lot of technological convergence between the [PC and TV], but from a usability standpoint, they are still miles apart," Snowden remarked.

Philips said a license for the board's schematics is available, royalty free. It said it expects the boards will cost about $199 at retail locations by the end of 1999.

Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network, publisher of News.com.