Like most pioneering products, the first version of Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition, released in early 2003, showed lots of promise but suffered from rough edges. The software and its accompanying hardware turned your PC into a TV and a DVR, letting you watch, pause, and record live TV. And it let you do all this--not to mention listen to music, watch DVDs, and view photos--from the comfort of your couch with remote in hand. Not a bad idea, but it turned out that the TV video quality was poor, the systems stuttered switching between PC and entertainment tasks, and the software made it difficult to burn recorded TV programs to DVDs.
With Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004, Microsoft has addressed these issues and added new software features for an improved experience. Equally important, we're seeing signs that computer manufacturers will break out of the box. Too many designs are still based on the same old minitower, but a couple, such as the ZT Home Theatre PC A5071
, look like they would be at home in an entertainment center, and more innovative ones, such as the Gateway 610, are in the works. At the very least, companies have caught on to wireless keyboards and mice, which are much more suitable for Media Center PCs. Notebooks are now a viable alternative, too, with new models from HP and Toshiba featuring wide-screen displays. Finally, you can choose from a broader range of configurations and prices, starting from around $1,000 to the sky's the limit.
The Media Center software has undergone almost as many changes as The West Wing
in the off-season. The TV image quality is noticeably better, and the application includes a number of display calibration tests that allow you to fine-tune it for different display types. Overall, the application feels more stable. Microsoft hasn't directly addressed the DVD-burning issue, but Sonic Solutions has: its PrimeTime application, bundled with some Media Center PCs, lets you burn DVDs within the Media Center environment with the remote. Other notable enhancements include a better program guide, support for FM radio, and onscreen phone-call notification.
Windows Media Center 2004 is a big step in the right direction, but there is still room for improvement. We'd still like to see support for two TV tuners--so that we can watch one show while recording another--and a better way to share Media Center content with other networked devices in the home, such as a home stereo or other TVs. We take more issue, however, with the hardware; the units still look more like home office systems than home theaters. Until these hardware and software issues are resolved, the Media Center PC will remain a better fit for cramped dorm rooms and studio apartments than upscale living rooms.
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