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October 16, 2002—In this issue:
1. GETTING CONNECTED
- HP's Media Center PC Arrives: Must-Have or Almost-Ran?
2. NEWS AND VIEWS
- TiVo Increases Capacity, Offers Rebate
- DVR: Popular or Not?
- Toshiba Hits 60GB in PC Card Hard Disk
- XM Is Doing Well, Thank You Very Much
- T-Mobile Sidekick Debuts
- Apple Releases iSync
- ViewSonic, HP Swell Entry-Level Pocket PC Ranks
- Meet Nintendo, the Forgotten Player
- New Sony CLIE Pushes Handheld Specs Higher
- Hey Denver and San Francisco! Got Security Concerns?
- Planning on Getting Certified? Make Sure to Pick Up Our New eBook!
4. QUICK POLL
- Results of Last Week's Poll: Xbox Live
- New Poll: Media Center PCs
- Tip: Get the Right Recordable CD-Rs
6. NEW AND IMPROVED
- Card Combines USB 2.0 and FireWire
- 6-Speaker System for Gamers and Desktop Theater Enthusiasts
7. CONTACT US
- See this section for a list of ways to contact us.
1. GETTING CONNECTED
By Paul Thurrott, News Editor, [email protected]
Microsoft has tried to generate a lot of excitement this year for Windows XP Media Center Edition (XP MCE), the company's consumer-oriented OS release that will power a new generation of special Media Center PCs; these PCs go on sale for the first time later this month. XP MCE builds on XP Professional Edition Service Pack 1 (SP1) and adds a gorgeous Media Center front end to multimedia tasks such as digital audio and video. But the most intriguing aspect of XP MCE is that you can use a remote control to access this new functionality. XP MCE is what Microsoft calls a 10' UI—you interact with the PC from a distance. When you want to interact with the PC in a more typical fashion—to play a game, browse the Web, or write email—you use a mouse and keyboard.
As I describe in my XP MCE review (see the first URL below), the interface mostly succeeds. I tested XP MCE in my den, attached solely to a TV, although I don't expect most Media Center PC buyers to use the machine that way. Instead, most potential customers will probably use the PC as a complete entertainment center in small living areas, such as apartments, dorm rooms, or children's bedrooms. Many Media Center PC users will use both a monitor and a TV; they'll use the monitor for typical PC tasks and the TV to consume media with XP MCE.
But the Media Center PC falls short in a few key areas. XP MCE is, after all, Windows software, so you'll experience crashes, strange hiccups, and hangs. Although XP is the most stable Windows version Microsoft has created, using the product with TV and digital video recording (DVR) tasks often brings out the worst in the OS. Modern PC OSs such as XP are much more stable and secure than ever before, but they also don't yet match the stability of your DVD player, cable TV set-top box, and TV. When have you ever had to reboot your TV?
XP MCE has other software problems. Although its task icons are well placed and attractive, some key functionality is still missing. For example, you can search only for shows that are currently in the integrated onscreen Program Guide. (Search functionality is designed for recording, not watching). When you're watching television, you can press a Details button to display an onscreen description of the current show. But when you press Details in the program guide, you get a different, more detailed display about the highlighted show. This detailed view isn't available when you're watching TV; it appears only in the guide. Ideally, you should be able to hit Details twice while you're watching a show to get the more detailed information display; a third click of the button could then make the Details display disappear. This type of gaffe shows how immature the product is, even though I find the broad strokes of its capabilities quite exciting.
A final software problem concerns delivery. Current XP users—about 50 million strong—can't download or purchase the XP MCE software or a Microsoft Plus!-style package that bundles the software with a Media Center PC remote control and a TV tuner card. That's a shame, because I suspect that many digital-media enthusiasts would love to purchase such a package. Instead, the only way to get XP MCE is to purchase a new Media Center PC, and only one company—Hewlett-Packard (HP)—is selling Media Center PCs in North America this year.
HP's Media Center PC comes in two versions that cost about $1400 and $2000. Both versions feature fast Pentium 4 processors, huge hard disks, combination flash RAM readers, a fast CD-RW drive, and other multimedia-oriented hardware features. The high-end model also includes a recordable DVD drive and excellent 5.1-channel surround-sound speakers. Both models look like many other PCs, and that's another problem: Rather than embrace an innovative, consumer-electronics-like look the way Samsung did with its South Korea-only Media Center PC, the HP Media Center PC is quite obviously a PC. It has drive bays, front- and rear-mounted ports, and PCI card slots. And a fan. A nice loud fan.
When Microsoft created the XP MCE specification, the company expected—and practically begged—PC makers to come up with innovative hardware designs that would distinguish Media Center PCs from typical PCs. Inexplicably, HP refused to do so. Let's hope that when more PC makers jump on board next year, we'll see some impressive designs. I've heard that Samsung's excellent design might be sold in North America in the future, as well. I'll review HP's Media Center PC on the SuperSite for Windows soon.
For Europe and other non-North American and non-South Korean markets, 2003 will also see the release of new Media Center PC designs and hardware partners, although this second generation will run a slightly upgraded version of XP MCE that Microsoft expects to ship by mid-2003. The company says that current XP MCE owners will get the upgrade for free, probably through Windows Update. The update might address the search and program Details problem I mentioned above, as well as some of the problems I noted in my XP MCE review. And maybe Microsoft will eventually sell the product separately from new PCs. We can dream.
In any event, Media Center PCs aren't for everyone. If you're already happy with your current computer setup but would like to implement a PC-based DVR setup, some intriguing options that I'm evaluating will be available in the near future. The excellent SnapStream Personal Video Station (PVS—see the second URL below) will have two important upgrades by the end of the year, and the company has also partnered with BroadQ to create a Sony PlayStation 2 solution called QCast Tuner (see the third URL below); this solution pipes PC-based DVR through the PlayStation 2 so that you can watch TV shows recorded on your PC's hard disk on your big TV in the den. I'll review both products in Connected Home EXPRESS by the end of the year.
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2. NEWS AND VIEWS
(An irreverent look at some of the week's Connected Home news, contributed by Paul Thurrott and Keith Furman)
Digital video recording (DVR) hardware-maker TiVo recently increased the storage space on its Series2 recorders from 60 hours to 80 hours. The company will still sell the smaller-capacity versions, but for less money. Series2 machines with 60 hours of capacity now retail for $300; the 80-hour version costs $350. But like competitor Replay Networks , TiVo also requires users to subscribe to a programming guide service, which costs $13 a month or $250 for a lifetime fee. By comparison, PC-based DVRs such as Windows XP Media Center Edition (XP MCE) and SnapStream Personal Video Station (PVS) don't charge service fees.
And speaking of digital video recording (DVR), a new Yankee Group report says that by the end of 2002, 1.8 million consumers will be using DVR products, and that figure is supposed to jump to more than 19 million units by 2006. But despite loyal customers and sweet feature sets that virtually any consumer would want, DVR is selling slowly after years on the market. And compared with the sales rate of DVD players during the same time period, DVRs barely register. This year alone, hardware companies will sell almost 20 million DVD players, making the players the most popular consumer-electronics product ever made. So will DVRs finally take their place among the upper echelon of popular consumer products? Or are they doomed to the bin of barely used but innovative technology alongside the Sony MiniDisc, the Commodore CD32, and Microsoft Bob? Time will tell.
Toshiba's tiny PC Card-based hard disks, which power everything from ultralight notebooks to Apple Computer's successful iPod, have always been cool. But now they're getting big. Well, not big in a physical sense; they're as small as ever. However, the capacity of Toshiba's svelte disks is growing and is now up to 60GB—making what was once an interesting novelty the backbone of exiting new systems of the future. What can you do with 60GB of storage? You can base a tiny handheld PC on such a disk—or a massive portable audio player or a coming generation of portable video players. These solutions are happening right now. We can't wait to see what hardware makers do with these disks.
XM Satellite Radio has passed the 200,000-subscriber mark, matching company projections. But the most exciting news for XM is that car maker General Motors (GM) is installing XM equipment in twenty-five 2003 car models, a move that will add 350,000 to 400,000 new XM subscribers next year. XM's deals with car makers might save the company; XM also says it has agreements with Honda and Nissan. But for XM to move beyond the niche category, it must reach millions of subscribers and attract a user base that rivals popular regional radio shows. Hey, you never know.
A cool new mobile device debuted recently, and it's setting the traditional mobile market—which consists largely of cell phones, pagers, and PDAs—on its head. The T-Mobile Sidekick is a device that spans categories and offers users wireless Web browsing and email; AOL instant messenger (AIM); personal information management (PIM) functionality such as calendar, contacts, and to-do lists; digital photography; and cell phone features. The T-Mobile Sidekick is sort of a "hip-top," according to one reviewer, and features an integrated keyboard and always-on wireless capabilities. The device costs about $200 and comes with various monthly service plans. Could the T-Mobile Sidekick be the ultimate combination of mobile data device and cell phone? Maybe. But the product makes for a big cell phone and a small PDA. The device should be popular with the 18- to 34-year-old market T-Mobile is targeting, though. You kids and your toys.
Apple Computer released iSync by the end of September as promised, but the release was a beta, not the final version. Designed to synchronize personal information manager (PIM) information between one or more Macintoshes, Apple iPods, Palm OS devices, and Bluetooth-enabled cell phones, iSync is a Mac OS X 10.2-only application with a typically simple Apple UI that brings together devices that typically require proprietary synching methods. The iSync beta is a good first effort, and the final version will provide an important piece of the puzzle for Windows users who want to switch to the Mac. All-in-one device synchronization? Who would have imagined such a thing?
ViewSonic will enter the Pocket PC fold this year with a new low-price model that matches the features of other Pocket PCs and adds a transflexive screen that's good for indoor and outdoor use. But ViewSonic won't be alone in tackling the long-neglected low end of the market. Market-leader Hewlett-Packard (HP) will sell a $300 iPAQ model—the same price as the ViewSonic model—that’s much thinner. But the low end of the Pocket PC market is mid-range for the Palm OS: Last week, market-leader Palm started selling its $100 Palm Zire device, which launched to positive reviews.
People get so caught up in the Xbox versus Sony PlayStation 2 debate that they forget that the third player, Nintendo, has locked up a solid 20 percent of the market, which it expects to grow to one third of the market by the end of 2002. Nintendo says that sales of its GameCube console will surpass the Xbox by the end of 2002, thanks to upcoming game title releases such as the latest installment of its popular Zelda series. In fact, Nintendo expects to ship 55 million games this year alone. And the company also makes the handheld GameBoy Advance, which pretty much has the portable gaming market to itself. So don't count Nintendo out just yet. Unlike, say, Microsoft, Nintendo is dedicated to one thing and one thing only. And the company knows how to succeed in its market.
Sony has released a new CLIE handheld device that lets users record video—a first for PDAs. The $500 Sony PEG-NX70V features Palm OS 5, an integrated video camera, a 200MHz processor, 16MB of onboard RAM, and Memory Stick expansion—all in a small, 8-ounce package that's less than 0.93" thick. Sony says the devices can record MPEG-4 video directly to a Memory Stick expansion card, which can hold about 60 minutes of video per 128MB stick.
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4. QUICK POLL
The voting has closed in Connected Home Online's nonscientific Quick Poll for the question, "Are you interested in Microsoft's Xbox Live online gaming service?" Here are the results (+/-2 percent) from the 112 votes:
- 24% Yes, I'll sign up immediately
- 11% Yes, but I'll wait to sign up
- 6% No, I'll just Xbox without the online service
- 59% I'm not interested in Xbox at all
The next Quick Poll question is, "Are you interested in the new Media Center PCs, such as the one HP offers?" Go to the Connected Home Online home page and submit your vote for a) Yes, I plan to buy one, b) Yes, but I don't plan to buy one anytime soon, or c) No.
(contributed by Paul Thurrott, [email protected])
Recordable CD drives are becoming mainstream components of most desktop PCs and laptops, and CD-R and CD-RW disk prices have decreased accordingly. But you can still pay too much if you don't know what to look for, especially with CD-R disks. Your recordable CD drive is rated for certain speeds, which are generally noted in this type of format: 32X-24X-18X. In this scheme, 32X refers to the average speed of the drive during disk reads, 24X refers to the average speed of the drive during disk writes, and 18X refers to the average speed during disk rewrites on CD-RW media. In each case, a higher number is better (1X is equivalent to the first-generation CD drives that came out almost 20 years ago).
Recordable CD drives are getting faster and faster, causing recordable CD media makers to release faster and faster CD media. But if your drive is only capable of 16X writes, for example, media rated at 24X won't give you any performance benefit. And because such media is generally more expensive than 16X media, it pays to shop around. So check out your drive's specifications, and the next time you go shopping for recordable CD media, make sure you aren't paying extra for media that's faster than your drive requires.
Got a question or tip? Email [email protected] Please include your full name and email address so that we can contact you.
6. NEW AND IMPROVED
(contributed by Jason Bovberg, [email protected])
Keyspan announced the USB2+FireWire Card, a combination card that adds one internal USB 2.0 port and three external USB 2.0 ports to any Windows or Macintosh machine that has one available PCI slot. The USB ports support data rates as fast as 480Mbps and are compatible with USB 1.1 devices. The card also provides two external FireWire ports and one internal FireWire port to support data rates as fast as 400Mbps. The Keyspan USB2+FireWire Card costs $99. For more information, contact Keyspan at 510-222-0131 or on the Web.
Altec Lansing announced the debut of its 5100 multimedia PC speaker system, a package designed for PC gamers and video/audio entertainment enthusiasts. Featuring 10 neodymium micro drivers and 4" dual subwoofers, the 5100 system offers a surround-sound environment for games, movies, and music. The 5100 speaker system comprises four satellite speakers, a center speaker, and a front-firing subwoofer that delivers a 40Hz-to-180Hz low-frequency response. A handheld digital controller drives all system functions. The system starts at $159.95. For more information, contact Altec Lansing at 800-258-3288 or on the Web.
7. CONTACT US
Here's how to reach us with your comments and questions:
- ABOUT GETTING CONNECTED — [email protected]
- ABOUT THE NEWSLETTER IN GENERAL — [email protected]
(please mention the newsletter name in the subject line)
- TECHNICAL QUESTIONS — [email protected]
- PRODUCT NEWS — [email protected]
- QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR Connected Home EXPRESS SUBSCRIPTION?
Customer Support — [email protected]
- WANT TO SPONSOR Connected Home EXPRESS?
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