Early PCs Regrettably Avoided Multimedia

mltdaDespite a growing interest in multimedia, the PC industry is still wrestling with the best way to offer sound, CD ROM drives and other hardware components. Buyers should be aware that price and performance vary widely across the range of multimedia solutions.

While companies such as Apple Computer Inc., IBM and Tandy Corp. are committed to delivering systems with multimedia components built in, others favor supplying add-on peripherals. NEC Technologies Inc., for example, currently offers a multimedia PC upgrade kit that includes a CD ROM drive and sound board.

“Consumers want to put the best peripherals together for their applications,” said Marc Miller, vice president of NEC’s advanced media products group in Wood Dale, Ill., and chairman of the Multimedia PC Marketing Council, an industry group that has defined a base-level configuration for multimedia PC (MPC) hardware.

But NEC also recognizes the advantages of built-in equipment and soon plans to announce versions of its new Image Series computers with CD ROM drives, said Michael Everett, marketing manager for NEC in Boxboro, Mass.

Compaq Computer Corp. recently joined those offering integrated multimedia systems with this month’s introduction of the ProLinea CDS. The 486-based system includes a Pro AudioSpectrum 16 sound board from Media Vision Inc. and an internal CD ROM drive. “As we’ve expanded our channels of distribution to include more retail and direct mail, more and more of our customers want fully configured PCs that are plug and play,” said John Sweeney, a spokesman for Compaq in Houston.

The ProLinea CDS with a 120M-byte hard-disk drive has an expected street price of about $2,000, including a monitor, he said.

For the installed base, multimedia add-on products are the best solution. “Right now, people want to leverage their installed equipment and buy add-ons,” said Michael Neubarth, a senior research analyst with the Meta Group in Westport, Conn. Applications that are emerging for multimedia include informational kiosks and training, he said.

Upgrade products currently make up the bulk of multimedia hardware sales, according to Will Strauss, president of Forward Concepts Co., a market-research company in Tempe, Ariz.

“Multimedia acceptance is very dependent on price,” he said. “Multimedia systems have not sold well compared to add-ins from people like Media Vision and Creative Labs [Inc.]. Part of this is marketing and part is because the people who are the early adopters already have the systems, and they are fearless when it comes to upgrading.”

Completely integrated multimedia computers provide users with plug-and-play systems, said Neil Whittington, assistant vice president of NCR’s Multimedia Products Business Unit in Dayton, Ohio. NCR’s multimedia computer is the NCR 3331 Multimedia Learning Station, a system designed for training applications.

“What we have done is taken inside of our company all of the responsibility for the sound, video and graphics working together. People using this system want to be involved in training, not computer integrating,” said Whittington.

Similarly, AST Research Inc. is now shipping its second integrated multimedia computer and is emphasizing ease of installation. “There is instant gratification,” said Tim Eckles, product manager for AST’s Advantage product line in Irvine, Calif. “End users are thrilled to buy a configured system and go to just AST for technical support,” he said.

On the down side, integrated systems are typically more expensive than buying separate components. “The advantage you get from buying a multimedia system fully configured is that it’s plug-and-play, and if you are brand-conscious, you can buy under the brand of your chosen PC vendor. The disadvantage is that you are paying for that,” said Arnold Waldstein, director of marketing for Creative Labs, maker of the Sound Blaster Pro sound board and MPC upgrade kits in Milpitas, Calif.

Tandy’s 486SX-based Sensation computer, for example, with a Super VGA monitor, CD ROM drive, 107M-byte hard-disk drive, fax/modem and audio board, is priced at $2,598. A similarly configured system at a CompUSA superstore is $1,798, including $379 for an internal CD ROM drive and $199 for a Sound Blaster Pro sound board.

What the buyer has to deal with when purchasing equipment separately is setting it up, analysts said. “You’re definitely better off getting an integrated PC, unless you are a rocket scientist,” said Bill Coggshall, president of Pacific Media Associates, a market-research firm in Mountain View, Calif. Users who install their own peripherals must modify system files and set jumpers, he said.

Suppliers of upgrade kits are looking to change that, however.

Media Vision, for example, recently released the Fusion line of multimedia PC upgrade kits, designed for the mass market. “We knew the mass-merchant channel was very different. Here, people are used to buying VCRs. There are no jumper settings; everything is software selectable,” said Ryo Koyama, director of product marketing for Media Vision in Fremont, Calif.

An intelligent install program determines which direct memory access (DMA) and interrupt request settings are available and establishes default settings based on this data, he said. The Fusion kits are priced at $699 for the 16-bit sound card, speakers and an internal CD ROM drive and $749 with an external CD ROM.

The add-on approach also gives the buyer the choice of multimedia components that are of higher quality than those often found in complete multimedia PC systems. “A lot of computer makers have opted to include the cheapest components they could find,” said Jeff Klinedinst, vice president of marketing for Turtle Beach Systems, maker of the $599 MultiSound audio board in York, Pa. “They are more interested in cost than anything else.

“Price is such an important issue that quality is not their first concern,” he said. The 16-bit MultiSound provides two tracks of CD-quality recording and a professional synthesizer, and avoids system conflicts by not using a DMA channel. Unlike most sound boards, which use algorithms to emulate instrument sounds, MultiSound incorporates a ROM-based library of instrument recordings.

As sound and video become standard PC components, users will not have to decide whether to buy peripherals separately to gain multimedia capabilities.

Apple, for example, will incorporate the AT&T DSP (digital-signal processor) 3210 chip in some new machines this summer, said Strauss of Forward Concepts. “That will enable them to do all of the non-video multimedia on a basic system. With that chip built in, Apple [users] will be able to simultaneously use a fax/modem and speech synthesizer, and record and play back speech,” he said. Similar capabilities are available now, but with separate, board-level products, said Strauss.

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