Microsoft has tried to generate a lot of excitement this year for Windows XP Media Center Edition (XP MCE), the company's consumer-oriented OS release that will power a new generation of special Media Center PCs; these PCs go on sale for the first time later this month. XP MCE builds on XP Professional Edition Service Pack 1 (SP1) and adds a gorgeous Media Center front end to multimedia tasks such as digital audio and video. But the most intriguing aspect of XP MCE is that you can use a remote control to access this new functionality. XP MCE is what Microsoft calls a 10' UI—you interact with the PC from a distance. When you want to interact with the PC in a more typical fashion—to play a game, browse the Web, or write email—you use a mouse and keyboard.
As I describe in my XP MCE review (see the first URL below), the interface mostly succeeds. I tested XP MCE in my den, attached solely to a TV, although I don't expect most Media Center PC buyers to use the machine that way. Instead, most potential customers will probably use the PC as a complete entertainment center in small living areas, such as apartments, dorm rooms, or children's bedrooms. Many Media Center PC users will use both a monitor and a TV; they'll use the monitor for typical PC tasks and the TV to consume media with XP MCE.
But the Media Center PC falls short in a few key areas. XP MCE is, after all, Windows software, so you'll experience crashes, strange hiccups, and hangs. Although XP is the most stable Windows version Microsoft has created, using the product with TV and digital video recording (DVR) tasks often brings out the worst in the OS. Modern PC OSs such as XP are much more stable and secure than ever before, but they also don't yet match the stability of your DVD player, cable TV set-top box, and TV. When have you ever had to reboot your TV?
XP MCE has other software problems. Although its task icons are well placed and attractive, some key functionality is still missing. For example, you can search only for shows that are currently in the integrated onscreen Program Guide. (Search functionality is designed for recording, not watching). When you're watching television, you can press a Details button to display an onscreen description of the current show. But when you press Details in the program guide, you get a different, more detailed display about the highlighted show. This detailed view isn't available when you're watching TV; it appears only in the guide. Ideally, you should be able to hit Details twice while you're watching a show to get the more detailed information display; a third click of the button could then make the Details display disappear. This type of gaffe shows how immature the product is, even though I find the broad strokes of its capabilities quite exciting.
A final software problem concerns delivery. Current XP users—about 50 million strong—can't download or purchase the XP MCE software or a Microsoft Plus!-style package that bundles the software with a Media Center PC remote control and a TV tuner card. That's a shame, because I suspect that many digital-media enthusiasts would love to purchase such a package. Instead, the only way to get XP MCE is to purchase a new Media Center PC, and only one company—Hewlett-Packard (HP)—is selling Media Center PCs in North America this year.
HP's Media Center PC comes in two versions that cost about $1400 and $2000. Both versions feature fast Pentium 4 processors, huge hard disks, combination flash RAM readers, a fast CD-RW drive, and other multimedia-oriented hardware features. The high-end model also includes a recordable DVD drive and excellent 5.1-channel surround-sound speakers. Both models look like many other PCs, and that's another problem: Rather than embrace an innovative, consumer-electronics-like look the way Samsung did with its South Korea-only Media Center PC, the HP Media Center PC is quite obviously a PC. It has drive bays, front- and rear-mounted ports, and PCI card slots. And a fan. A nice loud fan.
When Microsoft created the XP MCE specification, the company expected—and practically begged—PC makers to come up with innovative hardware designs that would distinguish Media Center PCs from typical PCs. Inexplicably, HP refused to do so. Let's hope that when more PC makers jump on board next year, we'll see some impressive designs. I've heard that Samsung's excellent design might be sold in North America in the future, as well. I'll review HP's Media Center PC on the SuperSite for Windows soon.
For Europe and other non-North American and non-South Korean markets, 2003 will also see the release of new Media Center PC designs and hardware partners, although this second generation will run a slightly upgraded version of XP MCE that Microsoft expects to ship by mid-2003. The company says that current XP MCE owners will get the upgrade for free, probably through Windows Update. The update might address the search and program Details problem I mentioned above, as well as some of the problems I noted in my XP MCE review. And maybe Microsoft will eventually sell the product separately from new PCs. We can dream.
In any event, Media Center PCs aren't for everyone. If you're already happy with your current computer setup but would like to implement a PC-based DVR setup, some intriguing options that I'm evaluating will be available in the near future. The excellent SnapStream Personal Video Station (PVS—see the second URL below) will have two important upgrades by the end of the year, and the company has also partnered with BroadQ to create a Sony PlayStation 2 solution called QCast Tuner (see the third URL below); this solution pipes PC-based DVR through the PlayStation 2 so that you can watch TV shows recorded on your PC's hard disk on your big TV in the den. I'll review both products in Connected Home EXPRESS by the end of the year.