Will Sony Commit Long-Term to the XL3 Media Center?
The product is quiet and sleek, with Blu-ray and CableCard, but it's still a PC.
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Custom electronics professionals are skeptical. They wonder if Sony will dump its Vaio XL3 Media Center product in the same fashion as HP.
Not likely, asserts product manager Xavier Lauwaert. "We don't even make desktops anymore, whereas HP does. That shows you our commitment."
Still, the XL3 is very much a PC. For example, it still comes with a lot of the junkware that drives MCE users bonkers. Furthermore, out of the box it is not necessarily optimized for the Media Center experience. Alas, users will still have to refer to our guide, "Optimizing Media Center: Stripping it Down, Setting it Up," written by EI's Mike Seamons.
"It is still IT-driven," Lauwaert admits, "but for casual IT usage. We are trying to get more into the A/V-centric scenario."
So it sounds to me that Sony is still hedging. In many ways, the XL3 is better than HP's custom-oriented z565. For example, it is quieter, has built-in Blu-ray and a CableCard slot, and it is of course built for the Vista era, which HP never quite got to.
But at least HP was trying to actually make its DEC a little more media-centric by stripping out a lot of junkware, offering some proprietary configuration tools, and better accommodating multiroom audio.
But the XL3 apparently provides a good enough Media Center experience that Exceptional Innovation anointed it with the "Lifeware Ready" certification, meaning it works well with EI's Lifeware home-control solution.
"To be certified, they [Exceptional Innovation] make sure that none of the software intrudes with the [Lifeware] usage, that it doesn't interfere with other software," Lauwaert says.
Could Sony Own the Channel?
Yes, Sony could very well own the custom installation channel, and possibly corner the mainstream market for Media Centers in a CE form factor.
In fact, my guess is that Sony will take over HP's position in Best Buy's ConnectedLife.Home package -- a $15,000 home-control package featuring an HP DEC (while supplies last) and Lifeware software, among other things.
It may also replace the DEC in the security channel, where Digital Security Controls (DSC) is rolling out a security/Media Center package comprising a DSC security system, plus a DEC and Lifeware software.
Best Buy was using the HP z565 Media Center, which retails for $2,999. The XL3 is expected to retail for roughly $3,300.
As for the custom channel, Lauwaert says Sony is exploring -- for the first time -- specialty distribution outlets that cater to A/V integrators.
In fact, Lauwaert says Sony is "open to all business models," adding, "We are also involved with home builders."
To thrive in the category, and especially in the CE pro channel, Sony will have to be a little more diligent than previously. ISF Certification, for example, would be nice. Participating in the Electronic House Expos, king of the Media Center shows, naturally, would be another smart move.