HP releases digital entertainment centre

Due to ship in the US this spring, the appliance will be priced "less than $US1000" and will offer both dial-up and broadband Internet connectivity. It is not, however, a PC replacement, eschewing typical Internet appliance features such as Web browsing and e-mail for straight-up music features, says George Prokop, product manager.

At the heart of the system: the capability to record and play MP3 and Real Audio music files. You can compile the collection from downloads, move them from your PC via a HomePNA network connection, and gather tunes from your standard audio CDs. At launch the device will not support Windows Media Audio (WMA) or the new MP3 Pro standards.

The music connection

You'll connect to the Internet through an HP portal using the device's remote control and your existing Internet service, Prokop says. The HP service, run with partner RealNetworks, will not require a subscription fee. It will offer access to music, Internet radio, and some streaming video. You'll store your downloads on the system's 40GB hard drive.

Music lovers with large existing MP3 collections on their PCs will be able to access them through HomePNA phone-line networking, he says. However, while music files will flow freely from the PC to the device, you can't move files from the entertainment centre to a PC, he notes.

Finally, for those old-timers still collecting CDs, the system lets you rip, store, and even burn MP3, RealAudio, and standard CD audio files using its 8X/4X/32X CD-RW drive, he says. (Like most consumer electronic CD-RW products, however, you cannot make a copy of a CD copy.) And thanks to the Internet connection, you'll be able to easily gather abundant album and artist information to catalogue those tunes, he says.

With all those sources, you're likely to acquire a fairly sizeable collection in no time. That won't be a problem, Prokop says. The 40GB drive holds the equivalent of about 750 CDs. That's about 9000 tracks stored as MP3 files at the near-CD-quality of 128 kilobits per second, he says.

Easy and upgradeable

HP doesn't consider the Digital Entertainment Center an Internet appliance, Prokop says. Instead, the company is focusing the device on a specific function--music--and trying to make it very easy to use.

Through user surveys, HP decided people don't want a PC-type experience in their living rooms, he says. So the company picked a very specific target for its entry there.

HP has a long history with digital music, he says. It includes MP3 capabilities on products such as its Jornada PDAs, Pavilion desktops, and OmniBook notebooks--and has long offered CD-RW drives.

The Digital Entertainment Center is upgradeable. About 2GB of the unit's hard drive stores its entire operating system -- Linux--and upgradeable files. As new music codecs become available, you'll be able to download them from HP, he says. Upgrades for the RealNetworks-based software will also be available.

You connect the device to your stereo via standard RCA jacks, and to your TV via RCA or S-video jacks, he says. The unit's black industrial design is intended to match most audio components. Besides standard consumer electronic connections, it has three USB ports, so you can move MP3 files to your USB-ready mobile players or USB-compatible Compact Flash readers, Prokop says.

Despite what may be a hefty price tag, Prokop expects likely buyers are "music enthusiasts" instead of straightforward music audiophiles. Audiophiles often worry more about brand names and specifications instead of just enjoying their music, he says.

Buyers will also probably be comfortable with digital music and will probably already spend at least four or five hours a week of their personal time on the Internet, he says.

HP will show early versions of the product at PC Expo in the US this month. It is just the first of many Digital Entertainment Center-branded products HP has planned, Prokop says.

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Tom Mainelli

PC World

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