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Sony notebook sings a new tune

The Vaio PCG-NV170 includes a recordable CD drive and pre-loaded music editing software, as well as a subwoofer small enough to fit into the chassis.

Sony plans to play a different tune for PCs this summer, with the introduction of a notebook that can act as a music studio on the go.

The company's Vaio PCG-NV170 includes a recordable CD drive and pre-loaded music editing and management software, as well as a subwoofer--a device that is designed to enhance tones in the lower range of music--small enough to fit into the floppy drive. The package is geared for music enthusiasts who want to create CDs or listen to music, but are looking for a machine that is less bulky than a typical desktop.

"We think that these units are going to be used as desktop replacements at people's homes," said Mark Hanson, vice president and general manager of VAIO PC marketing for Sony Electronics. "So...why not enhance the audio quality, so they don't have to go out and buy extra speakers?"

Music has been one of the driving forces behind the convergence of entertainment and PC technology. Recordable CD drives, MP3 files and music download sites have effectively made the PC an integral component of home stereo systems. Computer makers are trying to capitalize on the trend in different ways. Gateway, for instance, is promoting legally downloaded music and is talking to recording labels and artists about future collaboration. Sony has been slowly crafting a grand strategy of working its entertainment division into its consumer electronics and PC divisions to create unique products smaller companies can't replicate.

The notebook, slated to hit stories in mid-May and cost $2,200, incorporates a three-spindle design, meaning it comes with a hard drive, an optical drive and a bay that can accommodate either the subwoofer, a small keyboard or a floppy drive. All three of these devices will ship with the notebook.

The base NV170 will include a 15-inch display, a 1.6GHz Intel Pentium 4-M, 256MB of RAM and a 30GB hard drive. Other models, some of which will be available direct from Sony, will offer faster processors, more memory and built-in wireless networking.

Granted, a more powerful desktop fitted with expensive speakers might produce better audio quality. But with the subwoofer, the computer allows customers to get "pretty decent quality audio," Hanson said. At least one other PC maker has offered a notebook with a subwoofer, but Sony appears is the only brand-name vendor offering a subwoofer that fits inside a notebook chassis.

The NV170 "is really the first notebook I've seen or heard before that delivers home stereo quality audio," said Alan Promisel, notebook analyst with IDC. "In theory this is a significant step toward making the notebooks your home personal theater or stereo."

While the NV170 is not exactly the thinnest or lightest notebook available--weighing between 8.2 and 8.6 pounds--it fits in very well with what most consumers are buying right now, Promisel said. While thin notebooks remain the product of choice for the corporate market, larger, all-in-one portables have been surprisingly strong in the retail market.

Making a design statement
With its new look and feel, the NV170 as a design helps set Sony apart from other PC makers, Hanson said.

"People sort of expect this from Sony," he said.

Indeed, the company has gone to great lengths to make its notebooks stand apart from the pack. Last March, the company introduced the Vaio GRX, a notebook that includes a large 16.1-inch screen. Most other PC makers, including Dell Computer and Gateway, offer notebooks with 15.7-inch screens.

So far the strategy has reaped the company rewards. Sony gained an 8.8 percent share of the overall notebook PC market in the United States during the fourth quarter of 2001, putting it in fifth place behind IBM. Should such a performance continue, Sony has a good chance of passing IBM for the No. 4 spot, Promisel said. Dell Computer, Compaq Computer and Toshiba currently hold the top three spots, in this order.