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Sun, Mar 09, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Music, video, games may make old personal computers obsolete

The elements may be in place to inspire a new wave of upgrading as the average price of a new PC has fallen to about half the cost of six years ago


Gerrit Vooren braved an icy Manhattan morning last week to press his search for just the right new computer. It had to be powerful, crammed with hundreds of megabytes of memory, and have enough hard-drive space to hold a vast music library and hours upon hours of digital video.

For Vooren, a 40-year-old native of the Netherlands who moved to New York 16 years ago to pursue acting and visual art, his new computer essentially had to do what his old one could barely manage: handle the latest high-performance programs to help him edit short films in his Brooklyn apartment, where he recently started a business, Reels 4 Artists. A DVD burner was essential, too, to save the video on disks.

"Smoke was coming out of the back of my computer," at least in the figurative sense, he recalled. "What I was doing with it was more than it could. It was just too much for it."

He replaced his aging Apple PowerBook G3, which ran on a single 400MHZ processor, with a US$2,000 Apple Power Mac G4, which uses two processors, each running at more than twice the power of his old computer's central processor. A 17-inch, US$700 flat liquid crystal display replaced his old tube-based monitor.

Now the elements may be in place to inspire a new wave of interest in upgrading. As the average price of a new PC continues to fall -- to US$835 last year, roughly half the outlay of six years earlier -- an army of power-hungry software programs are beginning to explode the boundaries of what those computers can do.

Those who see the tide turning make this case: High-performance applications like Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition are transforming computers into ever more sophisticated music studios, digital darkrooms and video-editing bays -- even so-called entertainment servers that can record and play back television shows with the touch of a special remote control.

But such uses require up-to-date operating systems and processors. And the very volume of digital photos and music that consumers are using PCs to store and transfer to and from other devices is also feeding a demand for bigger hard drives. With factors like those, the electronics association is projecting a modest increase in sales this year, to 14.3 million.

Some computer industry analysts, however, warn that it is likely to take more than flashy new applications to lift computer sales significantly anytime soon.

Andrew J. Neff, an analyst at Bear, Stearns & Co, said it was too early to see now, but that an upturn in computer sales would be more apt to happen when broadband and wireless computing becomes more prevalent as well as home networking of computers sharing those high-speed connections. "It's never one thing," he said, "but a combination of things that drive the market."

Still, as more software makes fuller use of late-model operating systems like Windows XP and Mac OS X, the industry seems optimistic about an eventual effect on PC sales.

"An ever increasing multitasking lifestyle and a set of killer applications in music and video as stand-alone products are definitely driving greater appreciation for power," said Ralph Bond, Intel's consumer education manager. He said that owners of low-powered computers only three to five years old often face a phenomenon he calls the "multimedia oven": The computer becomes so overwhelmed by a power-intensive task like making a music CD that it cannot do much else for an extended period.

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