New Windows XP MCE Offers Performance and Functionality Improvements

Yesterday, Microsoft announced the release of Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE) 2004, which will power Media Center PCs from companies such as Dell, Gateway, HP, Sony, and Toshiba. MCE 2004 is the second major release of Microsoft's OS for TVs. The software provides a friendly, remote-control-accessible interface for digital-media tasks such as digital-music playback, photo slide shows, digital-movie and DVD viewing, TV-based digital video recording (DVR) with live-TV pausing, FM radio playback, and similar features.

I've been a steady Media Center PC user since the first systems debuted in October 2002. My device, an HP Media Center PC, sits in my living room attached to a 48" rear-projection TV and is the primary interface my family uses for the TV. We use the Media Center PC to record TV shows and watch them on our own schedule, enjoy digital-photo slide shows, and listen to digital music. Frankly, I have a love-hate relationship with the device. The first version of XP MCE was decent but inexplicably crashed and had glitches now and then, often leading to support calls from my wife when I was on the road. But the convenience of the Media Center PC's DVR features and the ability to take recorded TV shows with me when I travel made the unit an important entertainment center. Although the PC irked us sometimes, we just couldn't do without it.

Enter XP MCE 2004. My family has been testing beta versions of the software since February, and since an interim beta release in April, the software has been highly stable. The new software performs dramatically better than the initial release and offers features, some of which I'll describe below, that make it a must-have upgrade. Owners of first-generation Media Centers PCs will be able to purchase the XP MCE 2004 software from their PC makers for a nominal fee, Microsoft tells me. However, people who hope to buy the software for their non-Media Center PC are in for some bad news. Despite the demand, Microsoft still has no plans to sell just the MCE 2004 software. Instead, you need to buy a Media Center PC (typically $1000 to $2000, depending on the model) to get this intriguing software.

So what's new in XP MCE 2004? First, the software is a lot simpler to use than the initial release. Microsoft now includes a Display Calibration Wizard that makes it easier to customize the display for various display types, such as TVs and computer monitors. A new Set-top Box Learning Mode configuration option lets the XP MCE software learn about your cable or satellite box automatically, a much simpler option than the manual configuration that the first version required. Dial-up users can have the system automatically connect to the Internet to download TV-guide information, similar to TiVo. And for TV shows that begin or end at odd times, a new "Record on or around" feature lets you configure recording to begin or end with as many as several minutes of padding when possible.

New features abound in this release. You can now copy audio CDs to your PC directly from within the XP MCE 2004 interface by using the remote control. Photo slide shows are now fully animated and feature nice fade effects. For music fans, full-screen visualizations from Windows Media Player (WMP) can display while your favorite songs play.

XP MCE 2004 also ships alongside a new suite of add-on applications, games, and services, all of which are 100 percent compatible with the system's remote-based 10' interface. One such application, Sonic Solutions' Sonic Primetime, will automatically encode recorded TV shows to DVD, offering users a simple (if time-consuming) way to back up or travel with recorded shows. The application worked well in my tests. Some of the new services, including on-demand digital-video rental through CinemaNow and Movielink and digital-music downloads through the relaunched Napster service, look interesting. As of this writing, I haven't spent enough time with these services to comment effectively, but you can find more information about these services in my detailed review of XP MCE 2004 on the SuperSite for Windows (see the URL below).

For users who own widescreen displays, XP MCE 2004 natively works in 16:9 mode, providing access to more photo and video thumbnails and wide-screen TV, DVD, and video content. I tested the final shipping version of XP MCE 2004 on a stunning 22" Mitsubishi Digital Electronics America's LCD High-Definition Television (HDTV) display, and the effect was amazing: Colors were rich, crisp, and bright, and HDTV and PC displays were amazing (we receive numerous HDTV channels through our cable provider, RCN). Note that although XP MCE 2004 isn't HDTV-compliant, the system will downstream HDTV content so that you can record and view HDTV, albeit at slightly lower quality.

Does the system have problems? Well, devices based on XP MCE 2004 are still very much Windows computers, meaning they can suffer from crashes and other odd problems. But XP MCE 2004 is much more stable than its predecessor, and we experienced fewer problems with the new system than we did with the old one. These stability problems will largely be resolved next year when various companies offer Media Center PC-compatible networked set-top boxes that let you keep your Media Center PC in your home office and remotely access your digital-media content through your PC by using a true consumer-electronics device. In the meantime, XP MCE 2004 is a happy medium. I could say a lot more to say about XP MCE 2004, but I'm out of space. For more information, read my exhaustive review on the SuperSite for Windows.

"Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 Review"

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