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Microsoft Rolls Out XP Media Center 2004

Microsoft launched Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004, which led to a swarm of PC and notebook announcements from its hardware partners.

The upgrade offers several additional and revamped features over the version released last year, including an improved user interface for the PVR function, an improved remote control that can now handle CD burning, simple photo editing and printing. Another change is accessibility. Unlike the first Media Center offering, which was geared toward high-end PCs, the 2004 edition will be found on models starting at $999 from certain vendors.

The new version is only available when purchased with a Media Center-ready computer. Consumers who already own a Media Center OS-equipped computer can upgrade to the new version through the PC’s manufacturer. The vendors will set their own prices.

Microsoft also announced that Dell and Sony have signed on to produce Media Center computers, joining almost every other major computer vendor in the world. Sony’s move is interesting because Media Center offers much the same functionality as its Vaio GigaPocket PC line, but the company sees the two applications as complimentary. For Dell, adding Media Center is a timely maneuver since that firm just announced its entry into the LCD-TV market and intends to be more of a player in products found in people’s living rooms.

The general features from the original Media Center remain the same. Media Center Edition 2004 combines basic computing with the ability to use the computer as a PVR and multimedia hub for the living room, the part of a home where Microsoft believes Media Center belongs.

“This is the best marriage of software and hardware for your living room,” said Jim Allchin, Microsoft’s group VP for platforms.

Media Center PCs comprised under 2 percent of all computers sold since Media Center was introduced, said Steve Baker, The NPD Group’s director of IT research. This number could rise, he added, because vendors have gained experience in marketing the computers and price drops. Retailers are taking steps to show their customers the capabilities of a Media Center PC.

“We are dedicating end-caps to Media Center PCs and computer peripherals,” said Larry Mondry, president of CompUSA stores.

Media Center computers can operate as either a conventional PC or notebook or as an adjunct to a home A/V center. The operating system takes music, video and digital images from the computer and plays them either through the computer or the A/V system.

Because the computers are intended for use outside of a home office several hardware manufacturers have come up with living-room-friendly designs for their Media Center computers. Gateway has its 610 Media Center PC that combines a 17-inch LCD in a chassis that resembles a small television system more so than a desktop PC. Hewlett-Packard introduced the zd7000, its first Media Center notebook and the Media Center m300 Photosmart desktop PC series, which has a docking station for an HP digital camera mounted on top. The zd7000 is now available with a $1,899 street price and the m300 series pricing will range between $1,499 and $1,999.

Dell will place Media Center on its Dimension 4600, 4600C and 8300 configurations. Starting price is $999. The company will also make its proprietary Dell Media Experience multimedia software standard on all new dimension desktops and select Inspiron notebooks as of Oct. 17.

Sony will include Media Center on its new RZ Vaio series slated for shipment in October with a starting street price of $1,600. Toshiba introduced the P25-S609 and P15-S479 widescreen display notebooks with Media Center.

Microsoft is expanding its distribution for Media Center Edition 2004. The original version was only available in the United States, Canada and South Korea, but starting now will be available in the U.K., Japan, Germany and France.

The 2004 version also gives consumers access to several new media services. Available directly off the screen are the Napster 2.0 music download software, Cinema Now, a movie on demand service and Movielink, which gives users the ability to download and then view films.