Xbox Elite, HP Learning From Apple, Dads and Grads Gifts 2

Last week, there were three events worth talking about, but I’ll mention one of them only in passing. The first was the entry of the Xbox Elite into the market, positioned against Sony. It is almost a great product — and for new buyers, it may be good enough — but Microsoft could have hit a home run and didn’t.

HP launched its small business initiative and discontinued its dedicated Media Center line, but what I took away was this: They are becoming more and more like Apple in terms of marketing and product design.

Finally, I’ll mention three additional products I think might make good gifts for dads and grads as the countdown to Father’s Day and the end of the school year continues.

Xbox Elite: It Could Have Been a Contender

Microsoft launched theXbox 360 Elite last week, and it is hard not to look at this product and wonder if the bean counters there simply have too much power.

Don’t get me wrong — it is actually a good value. For US$80 more, you get about $220 worth of additional stuff, assuming you want it, and the product looks much better in black than it does in white — but then I also think all Apple products look better in black and am kind ofpartial to that color in general.

Accessories are black as well, and this is a needed refresh to the product, given that it was looking kind of dated against the newer PS3 and Wii. Of course, even though it is looking dated, it was outselling the PS3 by about two to one, according to NPD, though the Wii was outselling both the PS3 and Xbox combined — something I think should be of concern to both Sony and Microsoft.

Now, a lot of folks seem to be saying that the product should have a built in HD DVD drive, but given that the Blu-ray vs. HD DVD battle is far from over, the decision to approach this problem with an accessory was actually the better strategy to begin with. Changing that would have added an additional $100 to $130 to the product cost.

If Microsoft is going to do that, the right drive is the Blu-ray and HD DVD combination drive — but it is still teething and nose-bleed expensive, so it is simply too soon for that move.

What the company could have done was quiet the product down and put in a branded upscaler much like Oppo does with its DVD players, Gateway does with its 24-inch monitor, and Dell does with its 27-inch monitor. These parts aren’t that expensive and would have better positioned the product as a premium offering and driven more people to it for media use.

Right now, the Xbox 360 Elite falls short of what it needs to compete with some of the products that will be coming out in the second half that are specifically designed for this media role, and an upscaler would have closed that gap, if not reversed it.

Still, if Microsoft made the new model too good, existing Xbox owners would have replaced their product with it. However, profits come from games, and game sales wouldn’t change under that scenario, which may be one reason the company didn’t push the product further. Still, if it had, I think the reception for the new release would have been much stronger.

HP: Channeling Apple and Moving Into Small Business

Last week was HP’s small business launch pitch. With each HP event I go to, I see more Apple influence — particularly on the PC side. This event was focused onsmall business, but you can clearly see HP has changed a lot over the last 18 months. That is because the division — at least in the critical marketing and product development roles — is staffed largely by ex-Apple employees now.

Its ads are better and more compelling. The consumer products, like the nice-looking Touchsmart PCs, are more attractive and really stand out competitively, and their events are a bit more exciting.

Of course, you see a lot of the old HP still, with lots of foils and a tendency to focus on slides rather than products and customers. Still, it is clearly getting better — though I wonder what it would take to get the company to just cross over rather than stay on the rather lengthy path it has been traveling.

At this event, HP even had a custom Orange County Chopper Motorcycle, and it was stunning. The reason it was there is this company is now a big fan of HP and evidently uses an HP workstationto design its bikes.

Of the products HP showcased, the two that stood out as best-designed for the small business market were the semi-industrial all-in-one printer and the small business NAS (network attached storage) appliance.

The first provides corporate capability with small business ease of use and price. The second transforms a consumer offering — while retaining ease-of-use and price advantages — into something a small business can use.

HP featured a number of other customers. Even more interesting, if that is possible, than Orange County Choppers (I’m kind of a hot car, hot bike fan), was the guy selling liquid worm poop.

Terracycle, clearly the poster child company for Al Gore, is about as “green” as you get. The owner started a business in college that has apparently gone national. He buys garbage, feeds it to worms, puts it into used soda bottles (stay away from his refrigerator on April 1st), and sells it.

Fortunately, it isn’t a new energy drink; it is, from what I understand, an incredibly good fertilizer. That I found the whole thing kind of funny probably showcases the fact that I haven’t grown up yet. If I had a young son, I’d probably buy this stuff just so I could explain it to him and make him laugh.

HP Says Goodbye to Media Center and More Cool PC Products Are Coming

HP also exited — and this is what I’m mentioning in passing — the dedicated Media Center business where it was the leading player. However, if you look at its Touchsmart PCs, you’ll see more next-generation Apple in those products than you actually see in Apple’s own current line.

That, my friends, is really interesting. Wait until you see what the Voodoo guys are doing to HP gaming later this week. I promise that you’ll be amazed.

Design is back in, and you are already seeing changes in Toshiba and Dell, andAsus is actually doing interesting work in this regard. Hang on to your hats — PCs are about to get interesting again, and I’m only hinting at what Apple has coming.

Dads and Grads, Part 2

Here are three more ideas for interesting gifts for dads and grads:

The iPod Jacket. TheKenpo Jacket for the iPod is actually rather cool, and it doesn’t look bad either. The controls for the iPod are built into the sleeve, so you can keep your iPod in your pocket where it is safe and dry, and control it by tapping fabric buttons on your sleeve. This is a great choice for someone, like me, who really likes gadgets. It retails at $150, but you can find it on sale for around $80.

iPod Recorder. TheMicroMemo from ExtremeMac (make sure you get the one that goes with your dad’s or grad’s iPod) turns an iPod into a high-quality recorder. It even has little speakers that allow listening to recordings without a headset. And there’s an optional little lapel microphone that goes with it. Under $50, and actually incredibly handy if you need a little recorder.

Super Flash Drive. Corsair, which makes performance memory for PCs, just came out with theFlash Voyager GT, a performance FlashDrive with 8 GB capacity. Fast enough to be called a “ReadyBoost” drive (used by Windows Vista to supercharge drive performance), it is semi-hardened — that is, water and shock resistant. At $120, it isn’t cheap, but it will hit 34 Megabytes per second. Kind of the Ferrari of flash drives.

Next week I’ll suggest three more products that make good gifts. Until then, stay safe!

Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

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