VIA cranks out the Hi-Fi PC

Is it a hi-fi? Is it a PC? VIA's upcoming home entertainment centre is a bit of both - a PC that can be used with remote control and without a monitor

Motherboard manufacturer VIA Technologies will further blur the distinction between consumer electronics and computers early next year when its hardware partners begin shipping what it calls the Hi-Fi PC.

At a demonstration in London on Monday, VIA showed its prototype Hi-Fi PC playing CDs and DVDs from a program called PlayNow! that resides in BIOS -- the Basic Input Output System that is usually just used to configure hardware and boot the operating system. Together with a remote control and the small character-based LCD panel on the front of the PC for displaying playlists, PlayNow! will, hopes VIA, make small PCs based on its motherboard more attractive as PC-based entertainment centres.

(Images of the Hi-FI PC can be found on Via's Web site.)

The demonstration Hi-Fi PC booted into the BIOS CD-DVD player application in about five seconds. If no button is pressed on the remote control before a countdown timer reaches zero, then the Hi-PC goes ahead and boots the main operating system -- Windows XP in the case of the demo machine.

VIA plans to provide its Hi-Fi PCs as bare-bone "white boxes", which PC manufacturers will turn into fully featured products with their own branding. "We will probably work with one major systems integrator in the UK next year," said VIA's international marketing director, Richard Brown.

Pricing is expected to be around the £799 price point for a complete system including monitor. VIA said it is receiving interest from hi-fi manufacturers as well as PC makers. Brown said the brushed aluminium casing of the prototype Hi-Fi PC was designed to make the device look more like stereo equipment than a traditional PC, and accordingly the company expects the PCs to be sold in stores' consumer electronics departments, as well as (or even instead of) the PC department.

One apparent shortcoming of the Hi-Fi PC, admitted Brown, is that the PlayNow! application cannot access the hard disk, so that although it can play MP3s from a CD, it cannot play them from a hard disk.

At the heart of the Hi-FI PC is VIA's EPIA-M motherboard -- an updated version of the mini-ITX size EPIA motherboard that VIA launched earlier this year. VIA invented the mini-ITX motherboard form factor to take advantage of its low-power processor line, its chipsets and graphics cores in a market where similar efforts from Intel have failed to take off -- largely because of the relatively high power consumption of Intel processors, which makes it difficult to build cheap, small-form-factor PCs that don't have noisy fans.

The EPIA-M motherboard measures 170mm square and has on it a 933MHz C3 processor (an Intel-compatible x86 part), a new integrated graphics engine called Castle Rock, and an updated chipset called CLE266 which has support for up to 1GB of 266MHZ DDR memory -- significantly faster than the 133MHz SDRAM supported on the old EPIA motherboards. Another improvement in the CLE266, said VIA is a hardware MPEG decoder, which makes it possible to pay full-screen DVDs at 30 frames per second. The new chipset also supports USB 2.0 and Firewire.

The new EPIA M motherboard will be available on its own, said Brown, but without the ET Bios program for playing CDs and DVDs without an operating system. "There are licensing issues that would make that difficult," said Brown.

VIA hopes to have the EPIA M motherboard available by mid-November -- a much shorter lead time than the company experienced trying to get the original EPIA motherboard out earlier this year. "Last year we put out the spec for mini-ITX, said Brown, explaining the delay with the original EPIA board. "The originally strategy was for us to work with motherboard manufacturers, but the question we got asked by them was 'will there be enough volume for to make it worthwhile us putting all that money in designing and manufacturing boards?' In the end we decided the best solution was for us to bring out our own motherboard."

The EPIA-M is likely to cost slightly over £100 in the UK, according to VIA, and futher improvements are planned. "Next year we plan to get rid of the fan altogether," said Brown, "and we may do DVD encoding in hardware. We may also add personal video recorder features." Other future options include Wi-Fi and Bluetooth built into the motherboard, 24-bit audio support and a "legacy-free" version that would lose the parallel and serial connections on the back.

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