Yesterday, Microsoft launched Windows XP Media Center Edition (XP MCE) 2004, the most recent version of the OS that's designed for what the company calls "eXPerience Computing," an initiative to extend the PC's general-purpose utility to new digital-media areas. XP MCE 2004's release follows the software's original release by a year and adds new features, increased performance, and new extensibility capabilities that third parties can use to build applications and services for the platform. But the biggest difference with this release is partner support: More than 40 PC makers are now making Media Center PCs, including crucial new partners such as Dell and Sony. In addition, PC makers will now sell Media Center PCs in new markets, including France, Germany, Japan, the UK, and--later this year--China. In the past, only customers in Canada, Korea, and the United States could purchase the machines.
   "Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 is a great example of integrating software, hardware, and services to create simple and compelling experiences that enhance people's lives," Jim Allchin, group vice president of the Platforms Group, said. "We've moved from designing feature-by-feature to designing complete scenarios that influence not just software but also hardware and services requirements. We're entering the era of eXPerience Computing; Media Center Edition 2004, which gives customers easy access to great entertainment experiences, is the first in a long line of product releases that will benefit from this holistic approach."
   Media Center PCs provide a simple, remote-control-accessible UI for digital photos, digital music, digital video, DVD video, FM and Internet radio, and digital video recording (DVR), which you can use to record, watch, pause, and navigate through live and recorded TV shows. New services that build on XP MCE 2004 let users download digital-movie rentals from CinemaNow and Movielink or stream digital music from Napster and Musicmatch Downloads. New games and applications, as well as other services that run on XP MCE 2004, are available to customers through Microsoft's Web site. In the future, Microsoft says, more XP MCE 2004 services will become available from a variety of third-party developers.
   Microsoft broadcast Tuesday's launch event, which was held at the company's Redmond campus, live by satellite to launch events in Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. At the New York event, Windows eHome Division General Manager Kevin Eagan demonstrated some of the key new features in XP MCE 2004, including high-definition 5.1-channel audio playback, 16:9 wide-screen support, photo editing, third-party add-on services, and support for various types of media cards. "The value proposition is that Media Center PCs are great PCs," Eagan said. "This year, over 50 million consumers will buy a new or replacement PC in the \[United States\]. So it's already highly valuable as a PC. But with the new capabilities built on top of that and the simplicity of the new \[Media Center\] shell, we unlock eXPerience Computing mode."
   PCs based on XP MCE 2004 will ship from a variety of PC makers in the coming weeks. Customers who purchased first-generation Media Center PCs can upgrade to XP MCE 2004 for "the cost of shipping and handling," the company announced. However, you must contact your PC maker for the upgrade; Microsoft made the software available to PC makers, who will then provide the upgrade to customers on CD-ROMs.
   XP MCE 2004 is an evolutionary but exciting upgrade for Media Center PC users. I've been using the software on several machines since February, and my exhaustive review of XP MCE 2004 is now available on the SuperSite for Windows. I'll also post various technology showcases about the new release soon.