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Windows Vista's Media Center Not Ready For Prime Time

One of the perils of reviewing tech products is that you actually have to use them. And when it comes to prerelease software and even hardware, there's always a steady stream of upcoming products winding its way through the Thurrott household. Sometimes, I even get to share with the family.

Such was the case over the past two weeks, during which time I inflicted on them the public version of Microsoft's Windows Vista Beta 2. As we discussed here a few weeks back, Microsoft has made the Beta 2 version of Windows Vista available for free to anyone with a broadband connection. And though I wouldn't normally ask anyone I care about to run beta Microsoft software, we actually use an HP Media Center PC as our primary TV interface, and have been using Microsoft's XP Media Center since the first beta of the first version, way back in early 2002. For my young kids, Media Center *is* television. They've never know any other way of interacting with televised content.

So what better way to put the Vista version of Media Center through its paces than to install Windows Vista Beta 2 on the Media Center PC and let my entire family enjoy the testing process as much as I do? After all, this is the ultimate real-world test.

I should have known better. Tuesday morning, at about 3:15 am, I finally finished exorcising Windows Vista Beta 2 from my family's Media Center PC, replacing it with the factory version of XP Media Center it originally shipped with. Much of the time it took going back to XP involved backing up and restoring about 80 GB of recorded TV shows (mostly for the kids), copying back my tens of gigabytes of family photos and videos and music from the media server, and reconfiguring XP Media Center to understand our cable box, the channels we get, and the shows I wanted to record. But as I sat there in the dark, working on this horrible project, I reflected on the past two weeks and the utter disaster that ensued. Hopefully, I learned something.

First, the version of Media Center that ships with Windows Vista is a half-way house between the "old" (i.e. current) version of Media Center and a future version in which the UI will be completely overhauled. That is, in Media Center Vista, some bits of the UI have been switched over to the new style, but others--like the screens you see when you select a TV show, video, photo, or song--are still stuck back in a weird XP Media Center time machine.

Some of the MCE interface has been overhauled to dramatic effect ...

... but dig a little deeper, and the old-style MCE 2005 interface shows up.

Much of what's changed in Media Center Vista is quite good. For example, the UI is now oriented to widescreen displays like the HDTV to which my Media Center PC is connected, and content takes advantage of this horizontal real estate by moving left to right visually, instead of up and down in a text list, as in previous Media Center versions. It takes a little getting used to, but in the Recorded TV user interface, in particular, where my four year old daughter could pick out her shows by seeing the pictures (see can't read yet), this was particularly effective.

A nice use of space: Like many experiences in Media Center Vista, Recorded TV
is more visual and is horizontally oriented for widescreen displays.

Some of the changes aren't so positive. In Beta 2, at least, performance is comically bad. After doing a clean install of Windows Vista on my Media Center, downloading all the latest drivers and updates, and copying over my content, I was surprised to see that the machine was horribly underpowered. This was most evident during any playback that involved audio, including songs and live and Recorded TV shows. The audio would start to stutter and then catch up, creating an annoying robotic-like stuttering sound. So if a newscaster was saying, "Tonight in Iraq," it would come through as "T-t-t-t-t-t-o-o-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-ight in Ira-q-q-q-q-q-q-q-q-q."

It got worse. If you tried to watch a recorded TV show or video while recording another show, the performance was even more lackluster. And forget about playing a DVD: The performance there was so horrible and so aggravating that the kids just scurried off to the cellar DVD player after a few painful minutes of "Herby the Love Bug."

Curious about the performance, I started investigating what I could do to fix it. Though the Media Center boasts a once-impressive 3.0 GHz Pentium 4 HT microprocessor, it was saddled with just 512 MB of RAM, which surprised me. So I ordered 1 GB of RAM from Crucial and set about doing what I could in the meantime to relieve the performance burden a bit. I turned off Vista's glass-like Windows Aero user interface and reverted the Windows UI to plain-vanilla Windows Classic. I plugged in a USB 2.0 memory fob and utilized Vista's innovative ReadyBoost technology to supply the system with an extra 288 MB of memory cache, which should have speeded things up.

None of it worked. And neither did the memory upgrade, infuriatingly, which did absolutely nothing to help Media Center. The final straw came Monday. Microsoft shipped a new interim build of Windows Vista over the previous weekend, and it offers much better performance than Beta 2. Maybe this would fix Media Center once and for all. As it turns out, this new build did fix a few issues, but the performance problems remained. More important, it was no longer possible to use Media Center full-screen, which is what you want when it's your TV interface. It was only viewable in a window on top of the Windows desktop.

And that's how I found myself, alone, hot, and tired, finishing up a restoration of the original Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 install that came with the Media Center PC at 3:00 in the morning. But my family is happy because the TV works once again, and I'm tired and confused and wondering how I'm possibly going to get Vista back on there again in the future when these issues are actually worked out. It may be quite a while.

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