Sony Aims CableCard PCs at Tech Buffs

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Are you ready for some ESPN Monday Night Football on your Windows machine?

Cable operators may soon be getting a few more jingles from subscribers for CableCards, as major PC manufacturers gear up to ship their first CableCard-enabled computer systems this fall.

Sony Electronics last week announced its Vaio LT PC/TV computer, to be available in October, which can access premium cable content via an operator-provided CableCard. The computer, which runs Microsoft Windows Vista, is pitched as “a computer entertainment center” that allows users to watch and record analog, digital and cable-TV programs, including those in high definition.

The Vaio LT PC/TV standard model will start at about $1,900, while the HD model — which includes a Blu-ray Disc HD optical drive — will cost around $2,900.

Given their features and price points, Sony's new cable-ready PCs and similar models from Dell and Hewlett-Packard are probably not going to tickle the fancy of mainstream consumers, said Mike Wolf, director of digital home research at ABI Research.

“I think right now this is a fairly small-market opportunity, focused on advanced users or hobbyists,” Wolf said.

Xavier Lauwaert, Sony's product manager for Vaio product marketing, said the LT PC/TV is aimed at the “design-conscious end user who wants to morph productivity with entertainment.”

The PC system features a 22-inch diagonal, wide-screen flat-panel display and is designed to be mounted on a wall. The display is framed with a transparent border, which, according to Sony's marketing copywriters, “produces a stunning, floating effect.”

To be able to view and record premium-cable programs, users must obtain a CableCard — a piece of hardware that ensures a device is authorized to access cable-TV content — from their cable operator. Sony said the system's CableCard features have been certified by CableLabs.

As for post-sales support, Lauwaert said: “We support our products even when they are used with a CableCard. However, we rely on the cable companies to support the card itself.”

But ABI's Wolf said the Sony, Dell and HP CableCard-enabled systems run the risk of frustrating customers, given that to date it's sometimes a laborious endeavor to get CableCard devices working properly in any given operator's network.

“There's an interest by the PC guys to put their toes in the water, to make their products HD receivers ,” he said. “But there's still a lot of pain in getting a CableCard and getting it installed.”

Meanwhile, there's the issue of whether the Sony combo unit will cut into sales of the company's own TV sets. After all, in addition to the LT PC/TV, the consumer-electronics giant last week also introduced a lineup of 15 flat-screen Bravia HDTV sets.

Lauwaert maintained that the target markets are different: “The TVs are 26 inches and above and offer a more passive entertainment-feature set,” he said, while the LT PC/TV offers “a dynamic entertainment solution at 22 inches.”

Sony's CableCard PCs will be configured with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 320-Gigabyte hard drives and 2 Gb of memory. And, of course, they come with a remote control, as well as a fold-up wireless keyboard and wireless mouse. The system also has a power button that lets you shut down the TV functions while the PC continues to run.

As traditional desktop PCs become increasingly commoditized, consumers are looking for “something different,” Lauwaert said, adding that the Vaio LT PC/TV is “a product that distinguishes itself by form factor and by usage scenario.”

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