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Intel's Hard-to-Define Viiv Doesn't Live Up to the Hype

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, April 23, 2006

In January, Intel told the world that digital media would never be the same again.

During a presentation at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, chief executive Paul S. Otellini unveiled Viiv -- a combination of hardware and software that would combine functions of the TV, the DVD player, the VCR and the videogame console. Viiv (pronounced like "five") would make possible such novel feats as watching new movie releases online, catching South Africa's evening news in London and beaming video from one TV to another within your house.

In April, Viiv doesn't look much like that vision. On a typical Viiv box, Hewlett-Packard's Pavilion m7360y, it amounts to a smattering of free Web video clips and discounts on online music, movie and game rentals -- plus a nifty rainbow-hued Viiv sticker on the front of the computer.

Intel says that Viiv ( http://www.intel.com/viiv ) is still developing, that an update in the second half of this year will bring more features, and that the best Viiv devices are yet to come. But considering all the hype Intel ginned up around Viiv -- and the news coverage devoted to it -- this ranks as a phenomenally ho-hum product.

It's hard even to define Viiv. This brand amounts to a recipe Intel has prepared for computer manufacturers to follow on their own, which means that Intel's idea of Viiv may not coincide with what appears in stores.

Viiv's ingredients start with a dual-core Intel processor, which allows the computer to handle demanding video playback while also taking care of other chores, such as burning a CD or running a spyware scan. Then comes one of a handful of Intel digital-media chipsets equipped to play high-definition video and at least six channels of surround sound, plus Intel's Ethernet wired-networking hardware.

On the software end of things, Intel requires Microsoft's Media Center 2005 edition of Windows XP and its own "Quick Resume" feature, advertised as offering "instant on/off" capability, and Matrix Storage Technology backup software.

Problem is, the same basic hardware already exists on many non-Viiv desktops. Dual-core processors are standard fare on high-end computers, and those intended for media-center use have offered powerful graphics cards and surround sound for years. (HP's machine doesn't even use Intel's graphics chipset; as it turns out, Viiv manufacturers can make substitutions like that if they still meet overall performance requirements.)

Other Viiv ingredients are even less remarkable. The idea of mandating Intel or any other company's Ethernet hardware is a joke: Ethernet ports are commodity parts. Quick Resume doesn't actually put a Viiv computer in any sleep mode; it just turns off the display and speakers while barely affecting the rest of the machine. (You can provide a decent approximation of it by pressing the power button on your monitor.)

And the Matrix backup software can only be used if your computer has a second hard drive, internal or external, as big as or larger than its primary drive.

HP, in turn, has taken Intel's recipe and stuffed it into a numbingly unoriginal package that buries any inherent Viiv-aciousness. The m7360y (starting at $800) employs the same tower-case design as HP's other Media Center desktops, which in turn differ from most other Media Center desktops only by including WiFi wireless networking, LightScribe label-printing CD/DVD burners and bays for HP's removable Personal Media Drives.

So if you can't tell a Viiv machine by its appearance or its operation, what's left? Intel has signed up content providers to offer online exclusives to Viiv owners.

But once you're online with a Viiv computer, it's far easier to find ads touting this wealth of Viiv bonuses than any of these extras. That's because they can only be viewed through the Media Center interface's "Online Spotlight" screen-- traditionally a dumping ground for random marketing links.

All of the Viiv-exclusive content that I found on this HP required lengthy program installations that temporarily punted me out of the remote control-driven Media Center interface. (Apparently the concept of preloading this software eluded the folks at Intel and HP.)

The rewards for this work were surpassingly lame. For example, ESPN.com's lure of high-definition video turned out Friday morning to consist of three short clips -- one of which kept looping back to the start after a minute or so -- that filled only a fraction of the screen, as well as nine low-resolution clips taken from the previous night's SportsCenter. Yawn.

The worst experience of all came when I tried to view Intel's own showcase of Viiv content. At first, clicking this button yielded a "Windows Media Center Edition required" error. After rebooting the computer to try again, I was presented with a lengthy license agreement and an ActiveX installation dialog. The subsequent download seemed to stall out when the HP-bundled Norton Internet Security firewall warned that "EntriqMediaServer" was a high-risk program that it should always block.

Naturally, that was a Viiv component. After allowing it to proceed, I could see what I'd been waiting for: pointers to Viiv content that I'd already seen and discounts and coupons (such as $20 of free rentals at the Movielink site) that combined would not add up to the premium you'd likely pay for a Viiv machine.

Intel says Viiv will mean much more in the future. For example, the coming movie "10 Items or Less" will be sold as a digital download to Viiv owners within weeks of its debut in theaters. And in the second half of this year, Intel says Viiv computers will be joined by Viiv set-top boxes and networking devices, allowing people to watch Web video on their TVs. And we may also see smaller Viiv computers that depart from standard-issue PC design.

But in the meantime, Intel is only embarrassing itself with its half-witted hucksterism for Viiv.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrob@twp.com.

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