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Microsoft Media Center OS Available to White Box Vendors
By Mark Hachman


Nvidia Corp., ATI Technologies Inc., and others are expected to benefit from a new Microsoft Corp. program to provide its Windows Media Center software to system builders.

Previously, Microsoft had restricted sales of its Windows XP Media Center Edition to PC OEMs like Hewlett-Packard Corp. Now, a new version of the software due this fall will be much more widely distributed, a boon to chip companies which design TV tuner cards as well as PC graphics chips.

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To better help its case, Nvidia will be rolling out a program in retail stores and others to help consumers visually compare the images its chips produce, compared with its competitors. The program is designed to encourage customers to seek out custom-built and white-box OEMs which have selected its video chips, Nvidia executives said. ATI also has a similar program planned, timed for a product refresh around the September timeframe, executives said.

Although Nvidia and rival ATI Technologies are locked into a dogfight for control of the PC graphics market, Media Center PCs represent an additional market for Microsoft as well as chip makers that could represent additional sales. Later this fall, Microsoft will roll out details of a new "Designed for Windows XP Media Center Edition" logo program that will limit the system builders' choice of components to a select list. Nvidia and ATI are being considered for inclusion in that list, executives said.

"The additional technical requirements for the logo program will focus initially on identifying key Media Center components and peripherals such as television tuner and graphics cards, remote controls, Media Center Extender devices, and high-speed wireless access points for audiovisual streaming," Microsoft said in a statement Monday. "Identifying these components as compatible with Windows XP Media Center Edition will enable both end-user consumers and partners to make better, more informed decisions as they purchase their PCs."

The logo could be applied to motherboards, tuner cards, and graphics cards, potentially placing as many as three Nvidia-branded products in a single box, according to Oliver Baltuch, director of media center business for Nvidia. Nvidia has been working with card makers Chaintech and Leadtek, among others, to develop products aimed at four price points: under $800, under $999, under $1,199, and under $1,399, he said in an interview.

"We think Media Center is a good thing for the industry," Baltuch said. "It will raise the bar for system video and video quality; we think it will raise the level of performance."

Customers should also expect that ATI will be a part of the logo program, although ATI will likely let Microsoft take the lead on promoting the initiative, according to Godfrey Cheng, director of marketing for ATI's multimedia products. "ATI is all over Microsoft, working with them on upcoming editions [of Media Center]," he said. "It's not really new news for us."

As customers become more concerned with image quality -- both in scenes of 3D images and in rendered video -- both ATI and Nvidia have begun trying to develop methods to convince consumers that their products are superior. Benchmark companies can test 3D graphics cards using various applications and synthetic benchmarks, boiling the 3D performance down to one or a series of numbers. Graphics vendors are now attempting to come up with a number of subjective and objective tests to apply similar tests to image quality.

ATI's Cheng said that ATI is leaning toward a mix of objective measurements -- such as TSNRs, or threshold signal-to-noise ratios -- that could be conducted by professional laboratories, such as Sarnoff. Other tests could be more subjective.

In that vein, Nvidia intends to roll out a "taste test" program that will allow consumers to judge for themselves which chip produces a higher quality of video. For the last eight months, Nvidia has tried to develop a method for comparing video quality, in much the same way benchmarks are used to determine the speed of a video card.

Nvidia's solution has been to develop a split-screen video .AVI file that may be provided to retail vendors like Best Buy or posted to the Web, he said. The video file will compare a chipset with integrated video -- like Intel's latest Intel 915 "Grantsdale" chipset -- with the Nvidia Personal Cinema FX cards to highlight the differences in inverse 3:2 pulldown. A second comparison will be made with ATI's own tuner cards to compare the tap filters, a key component in image quality.

The video will portray Nvidia's offerings in a positive light. "Obviously, we're doing this right, and others are not," Baltuch said.

ATI's Cheng said the company will provide more details on the company's plan in September, going "far beyond tap filters", he said. "We want to completely avoid the messy situation we had with 3D benchmarks," Cheng said.

Microsoft officials could not be reached for comment by press time.

Editor's Note: This story was updated at 3:53 PM PDT on Monday, July 12 with comments from ATI's Godfrey. .

     
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