PC turned TV
In practice, Media Center Edition (MCE) lets you use an infrared remote control to play TV, music, DVDs, and photo slide shows on your PC. Technically, the OS augmentations include just a set of application controls and interface elements built on the core of Windows XP Professional, with simpler navigation conventions and--more important--the potential for your PC to use networking features such as Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) to distribute music and video to other systems in your home and to handheld devices.
As first-generation software, MCE delivers about what you'd expect: it adds no new capabilities to Windows, just a different way of accessing the old ones. And currently, it's tightly tied to hardware, too. In order to get the full experience, you must have a PC equipped with a personal video recorder (PVR) card and a remote control. That package is available now in only one PC: the HP Media Center PC.
My, my, my
Media Center Edition is part enhanced operating system, like the XP Tablet Edition, part application that runs under Windows XP. Media Center opens as a separate window where you control the various entertainment components of your hardware. When the Media Center window is maximized, it looks little like Windows; you don't see the Windows Start menu or desktop, for example. MCE provides a start menu when you first launch it (on its so-called splash screen) that you use to access its main functions: My TV, My Music, My Pictures, My Videos, Play DVD, and Settings. You can navigate through each module with the mouse if you want or just use the remote. If you minimize MCE, you're in plain old Windows. It's a bit disorienting to have different interfaces running on a single system, but it makes sense if you divide your tasks clearly between computing and potato couching.
The My TV module is certainly the most interesting of the modules. Through it, you can watch live TV, either full screen or in a window; look through the Program Guide of available shows; schedule shows to record; and play back recorded shows, (á la TiVo). You can also hook up your cable descrambler to your PC through this module, and setup takes about as long as setting up a satellite dish--30 to 45 minutes, if you're adept. MCE walks you through selecting the right remote settings for controlling your cable box, then finding the appropriate cable lineup to download into the Program Guide.
Program Guide info is supplied for free--no subscription necessary--by Tribune Media Services, but it's less detailed than some guides, such as the Time-Warner digital cable guide that's available in New York City. As with the digital cable guide, Program Guide lets you surf the listings while a show plays in a corner of the screen. However, in our tests, scaled-down video stuttered quite a bit; Microsoft claims that this is a hardware problem, not a software issue. Regardless, My TV is very easy to use; for example, to schedule the recording of an entire season of a show takes about two button presses on the remote. The software also allows you to pause live TV, then fast-forward through the buffered file. As a personal video recorder solution, My TV is less buggy than alternatives such as SnapStream but is also less feature-rich than standalone players such as TiVo.
For couch yo-yos
The rest of Media Center's applications are extremely basic, and that's fine when you're navigating via remote. But these simple-Simon programs also make it difficult to simply sit down across the room and vegetate, the whole goal of passive entertainment. Every time you drop in a disc, for example, be it DVD or audio, you get the standard Windows "What would you like me to do with this disc?" dialog, which you have to deal with at your PC. You'll have to run back and forth unless you tell Windows to launch everything in MCE, but that, in turn, becomes annoying when you're working within Windows because nothing will launch within Windows itself.
Even playing music becomes overly complicated under MCE. For instance, My Music lets you use your remote to choose music to play, which sounds great on the surface. But first, you'll have to complete the laborious task of adding all of your digital files to the Windows Media Player library and making sure that the track tags are clean. For example, all folk music must be labeled as Folk, not folk acoustic or folk rock, or you'll end up with many different playlists, because MCE can't aggregate them the way WMP can. Even once you've added all the music correctly, MCE won't let you create playlists using your remote--no queuing up Beethoven, Mozart, and Prokofiev unless they're the only classical artists in your collection, for instance. You have to build playlists in Media Player first. Worse, if you use your remote to click, say, the Buy CD link in My Music, you'll be tossed out of the MCE environment and into your browser--so you can't keep shopping from your couch since your remote won't work in the normal Windows interface.
We think that Microsoft might fix these awkward corners in the future--indeed, much of the benefit of MCE lies in its potential. For example, we're waiting for purchase links that stay within the MCE environment, for eventual couch-potato shopping. Third parties can add applications to the MCE start menu, and we're hoping they will because that would mean more robust versions of the basic apps at some point. Furthermore, some of the value of MCE rests in the ability to upgrade an existing system to use it, which you can't do at the moment.
Right now, MCE comes with a lot of hardware attached. For one-room apartments and dorms, kids' playrooms, or even as a lobby kiosk, a system with MCE makes sense only if the live and recorded TV support are essential to you; that's currently the only real value over Windows XP. Keep your eye on MCE, though. Future versions can only get better.
Media Center Edition's My TV module lets you record and save live television, Ã la TiVo or Snapstream.