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Windows XP Media Center Edition reviewed

A remote-capable ten foot user interface to digital media and television tasks

In January 2002, I got my first look at Microsoft's Freestyle software--a remote-friendly front-end to digital media tasks--and immediately wanted it. Back then, of course, it was unclear how the software would be delivered, and I had hoped that any XP user would be able to get Freestyle through a cheap, Plus!-type add-on. However, in the days since January, Microsoft decided to ship Freestyle as Windows XP Media Center Edition (XP MCE), which will be made available solely with powerful new PCs, logically dubbed media center PCs. While I understand the reasoning behind this decision, I still have my doubts, since there is a large crowd of digital media enthusiasts who might have paid $50 for an add-on package but have no interest in shelling out $1800 or more for a new PC, just to get this software.

<% ' Added so can inventory as Connected Home articles. kw = "CH" %> So what is XP MCE? Essentially, it's Windows XP Professional Service Pack 1 (SP1) with an additional application, Media Center, and related supporting services. XP MCE runs only on media center PCs, which include modern processors, fast video cards, FireWire connectivity for attaching a DV camera, a TV tuner card for interacting with a cable or satellite signal, and, optionally, other multimedia features, including a DVD writer, surround sound speakers, and front-panel access to the types of memory cards used by most digital cameras. This year, only Hewlett-Packard will be shipping media center PCs in the US, and I'll be reviewing the final hardware here on the SuperSite in early November; this review focuses solely on the software. But other companies, such as Samsung, are marketing media center PCs in other locales, and Microsoft will announce new partners and markets for XP MCE in 2003.

As noted in my Freestyle preview, the first iteration of XP MCE is geared toward small living spaces, such as a college dorm, apartment, or children's room, where a PC might be an acceptable alternative to a TV, and be used as a complete, all-in-one entertainment center. That is, you could use the PC, normally, with a mouse and keyboard to interact with applications like Word and Internet Explorer (IE), as you would with any PC. But when you wanted to watch or record TV, consume music, photos, or digital movies in a more comfortable fashion than is normally possible with a PC, or watch a DVD movie, you can grab the remote control--included with every media center PC--and sit back in a chair and interact with the computer from ten feet away.

I don't live in such a place, however, and I wanted to see how XP MCE stood up as a consumer electronics device. Which is to say, I've been using a prototype HP media center PC in my living room, attached to a 48" rear projection TV set; it's not used like a computer, but rather as a combination TiVo, video game machine, and DVD player. My family has used XP MCE to watch TV and DVD movies, record TV using the product's integrated digital video recording features, listen to music, watch photo slideshows, and even play some Quake III Arena.

However, it's important to remember that a media center PC is a PC, and a very powerful PC at that. The prototype hardware I tested included a 1.8 GHz Pentium 4 processor, 256 MB of RAM, a powerful NVIDIA graphics card, and a large hard drive. This isn't a set-top box. This PC, in fact, is every bit as powerful as the PC I normally use day-to-day. This fact has many ramifications for the Media Center experience, some good and some bad. Because the media center PC is a PC, you get all that a modern Windows XP PC has to offer: Almost infinite expandability and software compatibility, a gorgeous user interface, and ways to elegantly access XP's excellent digital media features. But you also get the bad stuff too: Crashes and bizarre hangs, little video stutters that require you to restart the Media Center application, and inexplicable recording errors that you always suspect are somehow Windows' fault. Yeah, it's a 1.0 product.

Is Windows ready for the living room? Let's take a look.

Media Center Setup
The Windows Media Center interface (Figure) is designed solely to consume digital media. That is, you can't use Media Center to copy an audio CD to the hard drive, create your own audio mix CDs, or copy photos from your digital camera to the PC. Instead, you use Media Center to watch and listen to digital content. This content could come from your TV or, more specifically, a cable or satellite TV connection, it could be stored locally on your PC, or it could be stored remotely on another PC on your home network. Media Center has interfaces for TV tasks (live TV and digitally recorded TV), digital music, digital photos and other pictures, digital videos, and DVD movies.

As such, setting up a media center PC is pretty difficult. The beta units came with a bizarre assortment of hardware, some of which you had to use in order to get it working, while others you had to ignore; I'll be interested in seeing how the final hardware works. Because I wanted to use the media center PC as a consumer electronics device, I disconnected my DVD player, and got to work integrating the HP PC into my den.

This involved a number of cable attachments and configuration settings. In my case, I wasn't connecting a PC monitor, so the display was driven through the hybrid S-Video Out port (it can drive a composite signal as well, using an adapter) on the bundled Hauppauge TV tuner card. My digital cable box was re-routed through the Hauppauge as well--using coaxial cabling--and I had to install Microsoft's custom IR blaster to the front of the cable box so the remote control could, well, control it. If you've ever used a TiVo or Replay device, you're familiar with the slow performance of this sort of control. When you hit the Up Channel button on the remote, for example, the DVR actually inputs the channel number directly above the one you're currently watching, followed by the "Enter" command. Then, the information is slowly transmitted to the cable box and, finally, the channel changes; you can't just sit there hitting Up Channel as you could in the old days. If you're not familiar with DVRs, you might find the resulting slow performance infuriating. However, it's not any slower than a TiVo or Replay device.

Once the hardware connection was made, and I could boot the device on the TV set, I moved right to setting up the networking configuration, which is crucial for XP MCE, since it uses the Internet to get TV programming guide information. And, as a PC, XP MCE will also use the Internet for whatever tasks XP Professional does: For example, accessing Windows Update, Auto Update, CD and DVD information in Windows Media Player, and so on.

Unlike many potential media center PC purchasers, I've already got an extensive home network set up. So I connected the PC, temporarily, via 100 Mbs Ethernet cable and copied over my music and photo libraries from the server, so I could access them locally as a typical consumer might (of course, a typical consumer would also need to manually create these libraries, but I've already spent time doing this in Windows XP). Then, I added one of Microsoft's USB-based Broadband Networking adapters and disconnected the Ethernet cable.

Because the Media Center application will consume any photo, music, and video libraries you have already created, they were instantly accessible through the new interface, though I'll discuss that below. One crucial feature that isn't immediately available, however, is the TV functionality, which needs to be configured with your specific hardware and locale information. Microsoft supplies a friendly but lengthy wizard for this process, and you can access it later through the My Settings menu section, also discussed in detail below.

From there, it's simply a matter of using Media Center, and though customers can--and likely will--use media center PCs as general purposes computers, I use it only for its digital media interfaces. The results were often exciting, but sometimes frustrating, especially for my wife and son, who had become used to the relatively speedy performance and stability of the digital cable system we already used. On the other hand, the DVR functionality was a huge hit with everyone, and my family has also grown used to the video on demand and live TV pausing features. In the next section, I'll examine what it's like to actually use Media Center in the real world.

Using the Media Center
As noted in my preview, the Media Center user interface is gorgeous (Figure), harkening to the blue and green Windows XP user interface we're all so used to today. However, Media Center is designed to be navigated with a remote control, and its large buttons and text make it all come together. The remote that Microsoft shipped with the beta units (Figure) bears only a passing resemblance to the remote that HP will ship with its media center PC, and Microsoft has created a standard remote that PC makers can use or modify (HP's is different than the Microsoft design).

The remote features a Start button for launching the Media Center interface, buttons for Program Guide, My TV, My Pictures, My Movies, and My Videos, and a TV/Jump button for moving quickly to full-screen TV. It also has a slew of standard remote buttons, which work in any of the Media Center modules, such as Play, Pause, Rewind and Fast Forward, Stop, and Record, for TV.

You can use the remote for navigating around Windows somewhat as well. The navigational buttons can move from button to button in a dialog box, for example, the Cancel button can cancel a dialog button, and the Select button works as OK, or Enter on your keyboard. Likewise, you can use your keyboard and mouse to navigate the Media Center interface if you want, though the later will cause a surrounding border to appear (Figure). You can also run the Media Center interface in a resizable window (Figure). This lets you keep a small TV window in the corner of the screen, which can be handy if you're getting work done but still want to watch a live or recorded show, or a DVD movie (Figure).

The main Media Center menu, or Start page, is logically laid out with options for My TV, My Music, My Pictures, My Videos, Play DVD, and Settings, as well as buttons for logging out, and minimizing, restoring, and closing the Media Center application window (Figure). I'll discuss the main Media Center experiences below.

Arguably, most consumers are going to spend most of their Media Center time using the TV functionality, as my own family has done. The My TV module (Figure) includes options for accessing the Programming Guide, your Recorded TV shows and configuration, very basic search functionality, and the TV configuration settings. As with most Media Center modules, a picture-in-picture preview appears as well; in this module, live TV is loaded regardless of what you were viewing previously.

To watch TV in full screen mode, simply hit the TV/Jump button and you're in. From here, TV is similar to the experience you might have had previously with cable or satellite TV. However, there are many improvements, and we've come to greatly appreciate a few of these features. For example, you can pause live TV (Figure). This is handy in a number of situations, such as when the phone rings, someone comes to the door, or as is so often the case in my house, our young daughter wakes up crying and needs attention. Media Center, like other DVR products, caches the incoming TV signal on the hard drive for about an hour, letting you come back later and continue watching. If you think you'll be gone longer than that, just start recording (more on that below). You can also fast forward and rewind through live or cached TV (Figure), mute the sound (Figure), and raise and lower the volume, all of which trigger attractive on-screen displays. Overall, the live TV functionality of Media Center is on par with other DVRs I've tested.

The Media Center Guide (Figure) is wonderful and, unlike the other TV functionality supplied by the OS, quite a speedy performer. The Guide is loaded periodically from the Internet and stored locally, which might account for the performance gains. However, the channel numbers are laid out backwards, so that the higher numbers are at the bottom of the screen. This leads the illogical act of pressing the Up key on the remote to move down in the channel list. The Guide also includes a small picture-in-picture display, so you can continue to watch live TV as you browse around, and a handful of small ads, similar to what you might see on a Web page. However, unlike programming subscription info from TiVo or Replay, the Microsoft Guide is completely free, a huge improvement over rival products. Thus, this feature beats out any of the consumer electronics competition, though of course the underlying hardware purchase price is considerably higher.

The Recorded TV section of the My TV module lets you manage your recorded television shows. Here, you can view programs you've already recorded--such as the plethora of Scooby-Doo episodes my son craves (Figure)--look through the pending recordings you've scheduled, and configure recordings. Recordings can be manual--simply hit the remote's Record button once while watching live TV, and the current show will be recorded--or more intelligent. For example, you can navigate through the Program Guide, select a show you'd like to record, and hit the Record button once. This will display a single red circle on the show in the Guide (Figure), indicating that the show will be recorded. Hit the Record button twice, and you can record a series; this displays a series of red circles in the Guide (Figure). By default, Media Center considers a series to be first run and reruns on that channel only, but you can change this through the Recorded TV interface (Figure). For example, you might want to record the Simpsons on every single channel, at any time, and keep the episodes until you decided to delete them. This feature is very well implemented, and on par with other DVRs. It's also a Godsend--my entire family has come to rely on the Media Center's DVR capabilities, and we all have shows scheduled now, which we can watch at any time.

It's also worth mentioning that recordings you make with Media Center can be backed up to recordable DVD, or copied over a network, and used on other XP SP1-based PCs with Windows Media 9 Series. Originally, Microsoft had planned to disallow this functionality, due to piracy concerns, but its customers complained enough that the feature was restored. Recordings are stored as regular files in the Recorded TV folder under Shared Documents. More information about this functionality is available in my new Technology Showcase, Copying Content in Windows XP Media Center Edition.

Media Center's TV Search section is one of the weak points. On our AT&T digital cable set top box, my four year old son had learned how to navigate the box's menu system, and could find children's programming with its Search functionality. On Media Center, Search is designed for one purpose, and one purpose only: To find shows to record. What you can't do with it is find shows that are on right now. So, sadly, my son is unable to find children's shows that are on right now, pick one, and watch it. Microsoft admits that this is a limitation, and the company will probably fix this problem in a 2003 software update. You can search by show name or keyword (Figure), however, and if finding shows to record is what you're after, it works fine.

Overall, the TV functionality in Media Center is superb, with a few glitches.

My Music
The My Music module (Figure) is fairly straightforward, offering simple access to audio CD music you've copied to the hard drive with Windows Media Player. The main view displays recently played music, and you can access your music library via Albums (Figure), Artists (Figure), playlists, or genres. Like other modules, My Music includes a small picture-in-picture window, which can display live or recorded TV, a photo slideshow, a DVD movie, or a digital video, whichever you happened to be viewing before you entered this part of the UI.

Where My Music excels is in its gorgeous displays. You can view an album via song list (Figure) or per song (Figure), both of which are attractive. You can also integrate a music playlist with a photo slideshow, which we'll discuss in the next section. Being a Microsoft product, you can even buy related music online (Figure), and this is one of the many places the Media Center interface breaks down: When you choose this option, the Media Center resizes and an IE window loads, bringing you to the Windows Media Web site (Figure). Yuck.

Also like other modules, My Music includes a basic search feature (Figure), but it doesn't seem to offer much beyond artist search.

Overall, the music functionality in Media Center is attractive and fun, with no major disadvantages beyond the fact that you'll need to use XP's built-in tools to copy audio CDs, and create playlists, two skills that might be beyond typical consumers' capabilities. I'd like to see these functions brought into the Media Center for a future release.

My Pictures
Like My Music, My Pictures (Figure) is designed solely to consume a particular type of digital media, in this case digital photos and other pictures. It integrates with your My Pictures and Shared Pictures folders, and lets you view photo slideshows, of individual folders or your entire collection. The effect is wonderful, even mesmerizing if you have a bunch of personal photos, as I do (Figure), stored on the computer. What makes it even better is the way you can integrate a music playlist with a photo slideshow: Just queue up an album, artist or genre playlist in the My Music module, switch to My Pictures, and start up a slideshow: The music will play in the background as you watch the slideshow full-screen (Figure).

What's amazing here is how universally enjoyable this feature is. Scoff if you will at the modern equivalent of a gathering the family around the slide projector, but there's something very compelling about the randomness of the images that appear. I've been taking digital photos for over two years now, and I've got thousands of images from family events and vacations, work trips and trade shows, and other events, and as the images fade in and out you never know what's coming next. It's quite neat. You can control the slideshow through a basic UI (Figure) as well, changing the transition time, and determining whether it displays images randomly, or utilizes subfolders.

Curious as it sounds, this one feature is always the big hit when I show off the media center PC to friends and relatives, most of whom aren't technophiles.

My Videos
The My Videos module (Figure) will probably be the most under-utilized portion of the Media Center interface, since it comes with the most baggage. To fully utilize this feature, you will need a DV or analog camera for recording home movies, the know-how to use a video editing application such as Movie Maker, and the time and desire to make and edit your own home movies. That said, you can save such movies in your XP My Videos folder and access them through the My Videos module in Media Center if you'd like.

Digital movies work just like any broadcast TV program or DVD movie, in that you can pause, stop, play, rewind, and fast forward through them. The movies play full-screen by default (Figure), and the quality will naturally vary according to the source material.

Digital home movie making is only now coming into its own, and hopefully consumers will start taking advantage of some of the exciting possibilities in this market. In the meantime, I decided to keep my own home movies out of the media center PC for space reasons: I didn't want to clog up the hard drive with the many GB's of movies I've created, and opted to use that space for recorded TV shows. If this were my only PC, I'd get a second hard drive dedicated solely to home movies.

Play DVD
The Play DVD module lets you interact with DVD movies (Figure) using the same pleasant UI Microsoft provided for the TV and digital video modules. This means you can pause (Figure), stop, and navigate through DVD movies, and do all the other sorts of tasks you'd expect. The HP media center PC uses the excellent Intervideo DVD decoder to supply DVD playback, and the performance is top notch. We never witnessed any of the sorts of glitches I've come to expect from laptop-based DVD playback.

One other nicety is that the DVD playback uses the Internet to retrieve title and chapter information about the movie you're watching. So as you skip around the movie using the remote, you'll see the current chapter heading, as well as the movie title, onscreen. Good stuff.

In the Settings module, you configure such things as appearance, UI sounds, the remote, your Internet connection, TV and DVD settings, recorder settings, and so on. Many of these settings are available in the various other modules, and some are presented when you first set up the media center PC. Most of it is pretty straightforward, though a few options trigger IE or even a Windows dialog box, which can be disconcerting.

Where Theory and Reality Collide: Problems with the Media Center
And that, really, is the overall problem with XP Media Center: Too often, the underlying OS peeks through, which can be off-putting when you're sitting on the couch holding a remote (though I did end up purchasing a wireless keyboard and mouse for the media center PC as well). In other cases, the underlying OS is simply required, for example, if you insert a new CD that you'd like to copy, as there's no way to do this from the Media Center UI.

In the end, the Media Center interface is most clearly defined by the fact that it is part of Windows XP, and running on a real PC. This isn't a true consumer electronics device, in that, yes, it does crash (Figure), and I occasionally had to reboot the system to get things working again, leading to explanations about why I was "rebooting the TV," which didn't go over to well with my wife. Other times, we'd be watching TV and there would be a small glitch, and then the voices were "off" from the actor's lips, maybe by a second or two. This was infuriating, and often led to me shutting down, and then restarting, the Media Center interface (which worked).

In fact, before I received the final software build, my wife was ready to chuck the whole system, due to various bizarre issues. However, most of these problems--aside from those I mentioned above--were fixed by the final release. I'm looking forward to the final hardware, however, to see how it all comes together. But my cable set-top box and DVD player have never crashed, not once. XP Media Center needs to reach this level of stability before its going to be a viable option for most consumers. I'd rather see the stability of the consumer electronics device world make its way into the PC world, rather than the reverse.

I also have concerns about how this system will perform in the real world, when it's being used as a real computer. Will it stand up to simultaneous Quake III deathmatches and DVR recording sessions, for example, or any other combination of high bandwidth activities? I don't know, and though Microsoft assures me these scenarios have been successfully tested, I have yet to do so myself.

Other concerns include the price--because media center PCs are high-end computers, they will come at a premium--and the fact that digital media enthusiasts, who already own high-end PCs, won't be able to get the software separately. While I understand why Microsoft decided to go the integrated route--which, frankly, is complicated enough as it is--I still feel that they're leaving a large market untapped by this decision. The company knows this, however, and things could change in the future. In 2003, for example, XP Media Center will get a fairly major software update, other PC makers will come on board, and Microsoft will begin targeting other markets, including Europe, with the new version. Time will tell if a software-only solution, or perhaps an inexpensive package including the software and remote--will eventually be made available to consumers. I hope so.

Timing and Delivery
Windows XP Media Center Edition has been finalized, and Hewlett-Packard media center PCs should begin shipping by the third week of October 2002. I'll report back on the hardware when I receive a unit later this month, and certainly the stability of the final system could be much higher than what I observed with the beta machine.

HP media center PCs will retail for $1300 to $2000. The high-end version features a recordable DVD drive and a 5 speaker stereo system.

I really enjoy using Windows XP Media Center Edition, and despite some glitches and missing functionality, no one in my family would be happy to see the media center PC go. We've come to really appreciate the DVR functionality, especially, and the seamless way it has totally changed our TV viewing habits. On that note, I don't feel that Media Center is a good solution for people with decent PCs who are looking to add DVR functionality in the den. However, for the market Microsoft is targeting with this first release--those with limited living spaces--the media center PC is an excellent all-around solution, and an exciting advance on the digital media experiences the company bundled with Windows XP. I just wish, again, that the Media Center software was made available to a wider audience.

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