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Windows XP Media Center: A Look Back

I often get very personal remarks from the anti-Microsoft crowd, as if a Microsoft product defeat were somehow personally bothersome to me. Generally speaking, Microsoft highs and lows don't impact me in that sense, but every once in a while a technology or product does comes down the pipeline that is indeed personally important, for whatever reason, something that affects me, my family, and others around me in ways that most products and technologies do not. Media Center was such a product, and while I have long since moved on from this solution for various pragmatic reasons, it's hard to escape the notion that Microsoft was on to something there and if things had just gone differently, it might have changed the world.

When Microsoft revealed its Windows-based ambitions for the living room in January 2002, just months after the Windows XP launch, it seemed they were on the right path. The company opted to enter the living room through the PC rather than a new set-top box because Windows was familiar and powerful, and at the time, that division could do no wrong. Media Center proved tantalizing but frustrating, bringing both the best and the worst of the PC into the living room. Over subsequent yearly updates, the software was improved, the messy, cable-laden Setup routines were streamlined, and Microsoft added extender capabilities to the mix so that you could leave the Media Center PC in the office and use a simpler box in the living room.

While Media Center never really saw much success, Apple liked it so much that it copied the UI, and bald-facedly, first in its Front Row software for Mac OS X and then later in the Apple TV. That alone should be a clue, or even proof, that Microsoft had done something right. But through a combination of reasons--its reliance on expensive and complex PCs early on, the added complexities of extenders later, and a general move away from traditional TV video sources towards more online content--Media Center was always just a niche product. And by the time Microsoft integrated this software into mainstream versions of Windows in Vista and then 7, it seemed like development had slowed to a crawl if not stopped almost entirely.

Media Center, like Longhorn, like Zune, like Tablet PC, is a great example of what could have been, maybe the best example in Microsoft's history. There, on the cusp of a new decade, the software giant was positioning Windows as the center of an ever-expanding universe of new computing experiences. It seemed like the right strategy at the right time, but it was neither. And while it's easy to point fingers after the fact, it's something none of us really saw happening at the time.

We can at least take heart in this, however: The new user experience coming in Windows 8 can be tied directly back through many previous Microsoft products, but the genesis of this new way of thinking occurred 10 years ago in the original Media Center version. That many of the same people are still toiling away at Microsoft, trying to get it right yet again, is a testament to how strongly they feel about this stuff. I feel it too. Media Center really does matter, and it deserved a better fate.

This retrospective focuses on the XP versions of Windows Media Center as well as related products of that era, including Media Center Extenders and Portable Media Center. As with previous retrospectives, newer articles can be found at the top.

Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 Update Rollup 2 Review - October 14, 2005

Update Rollup 2, codenamed Emerald, builds on the success of XP Media Center Edition 2005 and adds a number of minor new features. None are particularly notable, per se, and one might argue that the biggest point of this release--making XP MCE 2005 compatible with the HDTV Media Center Extender that ships with Xbox 360--will be hidden from most users anyway. And Microsoft is using UR2 to extend MCE 2005 to many more locales, opening up the wonders of Media Center to a much wider range of potential users. Let's take a look.

Remote Keyboard for Windows XP Media Center Edition - September 6, 2005

The Microsoft Remote Keyboard for Windows XP Media Center Edition works almost exactly as you'd expect it to, and with a single nagging exception, it appears to work quite well. It's pretty straightforward.

Media Center Extender for Xbox Review - December 7, 2004

In this review, I'll take a look at Microsoft's software-based approach to remoting the Media Center experience to the Xbox video game console and see how it stacks up against standalone Media Center devices.

Media Center Extender for Xbox Photo Gallery - November 24, 2004

Here are some photos of the new Media Center Extender for Xbox, which includes a software disc, a controller dongle, and a remote control.

Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 Review - October 12, 2004

Three years after I first set my sights on this intriguing multimedia champion, XP Media Center Edition (XP MCE) is at a cross-road. It still offers the premium PC experience, with amazing and unparalleled digital media features. But too, it's still a computer, and not necessarily the type of device one would want in the living room. In other words, the same old arguments about Media Center seem to apply today as much as they did when the product first shipped in 2002.

Media Center Extender Review - October 12, 2004

At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January 2004, Microsoft unveiled its plans for TV set top box devices, called Media Center Extenders (codenamed Bobsled), that would let users remotely access Media Center content from any TV in their home using a wired or wireless connection. The idea, I thought, was a good one.

Portable Media Center Review - September 2, 2004

Portable Media Centers have exceeded my expectations, but that doesn't mean they're for everyone. The first generation devices are fairly large and expensive, and they require a fairly new XP-based PC for a decent experience, and a Media Center PC for the best experience. Since I count the number of Media Center users on one hand at this point, we're talking about a fairly small group of people that can totally take advantage of this device.

Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 Review - September 30, 2003

Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 is one of the stealthiest major software releases Microsoft has ever released. Several months in the making, and several beta machines later, I'm still surprised that the company didn't do anything throughout 2003 to build excitement for the new version, which ships September 30, 2004 with a variety of new and modified Media Center PCs from a number of PC makers, including notable new additions Sony and Dell. In this review, I'll examine the new software release, its myriad new features, and the various other supporting technologies that are becoming available now to Media Center owners for the first time.

Microsoft "Media2Go" Preview - January 15, 2003

As a digital media enthusiast and frequent business traveler, I'm genuinely excited about Media2Go and am looking forward to getting my hands on a pre-production model for long-term review. We live in a truly wonderful age, and Media2Go is a necessary, evolutionary step in getting digital media content--photos, movies, songs, and recorded TV shows--off the PC, and into our hands, wherever we might be at the time. While digital video recording (DVR) devices like TiVo have made it possible to digitally time-shift TV content, Media2Go takes this capability to the next level, allowing us to digitally time-shift and space-shift. And if the price is right, it could be a breakthrough product.

Copying Content in Windows XP Media Center Edition - October 10, 2002

It's possible to backup, copy, and share content you record with Windows XP Media Center Edition. In this showcase, I'll explain how, but first, let's take a look at some of the issues that surrounding Microsoft's capitulation to the television networks and other content providers which makes this capability less full-featured than it could be.

Windows XP Media Center Edition Review - October 9, 2002

Windows XP Media Center Edition is 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.

Joe Belfiore Talks Windows XP Media Center Edition - September 3, 2002

In this exclusive interview with Joe Belfiore, General Manager, User Experience, at Microsoft's Windows eHome Division, we discuss how Windows XP Media Center Edition--code-named "Freestyle"--evolved over time from concept to product. Joe has been an instrumental part of Microsoft's user experience efforts since the first version of what became Windows NT, and his background includes user interface work on Windows 95, Internet Explorer 3 and 4, Windows 98, Windows 2000, Windows XP, and the new Media Center experience in XP Media Center Edition.

Windows XP Media Center Edition ("Freestyle") Preview - May 1, 2002

As we move toward a more connected world where digital media experiences such as music, photos, and movies are used more and more with PCs, it makes sense to bring that machine into other areas of the house. Windows XP Media Center Edition ("Freestyle") addresses this need. With Windows XP Media Center Edition, a new generation of TV-based PCs, or PCs used in smaller living areas such as dorm rooms and apartments, is made more viable thanks to a simple new user interface. Somewhat predictably, Microsoft calls these PCs Media Center PCs.

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