Surprises in Windows' new media software

PLUGGED IN

December 01, 2005|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

If you're shopping for a computer this season, you'll find a lot of machines with labels that say "Windows Media Center Edition." If you buy one and don't know what you're getting, you could be in for a surprise - good or bad.

Windows MCE, as it's known in the trade, is software designed to turn a suitably equipped PC into a friendly, family room multimedia center that can play video and music through a TV or home stereo. It can also serve as a digital video recorder, much like the well-known TiVo. Think of it as Windows for couch potatoes.

The first MCE computers appeared in 2002, but like most Microsoft innovations, this one took three tries to get right. Although MCE machines are on the upscale side of the market ($1,000 or more), they can be well worth the money if you're sanguine about turning over your entertainment to a PC.

First things first. You can indeed run a Media Center computer as a standard Windows XP machine. So, you don't lose any functionality by choosing one. But MCE's claim to fame is a set of large-print, multimedia menus designed to access broadcasts, recorded video, music and photos - viewed from afar on a relatively low-resolution TV screen. Most MCE machines ship with a remote control that allows you to command the PC from your couch or from a dorm-room bed - which is why a surprising number of laptops are MCE-equipped this year.

To take full advantage of Windows MCE, a computer needs specific hardware that boosts the cost a bit. The first item is a video adapter with a TV-out port, which allows the computer to display its screen on a television set. The second is a TV tuner, which connects to an antenna or cable outlet so you can watch and record shows. Sometimes tuners and video adapters are combined on a single expansion card.

Windows MCE also works best with a relatively powerful Pentium 4 or Athlon 64 processor, at least 512 megabytes of memory and 200 gigabytes of hard drive space (to store lots of video and music).

Assuming the computer has a tuner, Windows MCE provides software that turns the PC into a digital video recorder (DVR), with a searchable TV schedule downloaded from your local cable company.

I've tried a couple of these machines, and the recorder works just as well as the DVR in the cable box I rent from Comcast. The advantage of using the computer is that you store the recorded video on CDs or DVDs and play it on other computers. This may not always be legal, but it's another reason MCE is showing up on college laptops.

Windows MCE software also makes it easy to play digital music stored on the computer's hard drive (or on other networked PCs). And it does a credible job of turning your digital vacation photos into TV-based slide shows that can bore your friends and relatives.

So what if you don't want to keep your PC next to the family room TV? If you have a home network, you can put the PC in your office or bedroom and spend $300 for a gadget called a Media Center Extender. That can hook up to the family TV and your network so you can still control the MCE computer from the couch and watch your videos on the big screen.

Alternatively, spend $400 on a new Microsoft Xbox 360 game console, which has a complete media center extender built in. It's a great deal for gamers.

Whether you actually need all of this is another question. It's more technology than many of us want to fool with.

Also, beware of cheap MCE computers. To lower the price, some machines sold with Windows MCE don't have TV tuners, or even TV-out ports, which eliminates one of the main reasons for buying one.

One warning for those who like to be on the very bleeding edge: Windows MCE can only receive high-definition TV signals over the air. It can't get them through the cable box that may already carry HD signals into your house. So you're limited to HD from local broadcasts - and to get those, you'll need a separate antenna, as well as an HD tuner installed in your PC. Definitely more trouble than it's worth.

If you really care about high definition, wait till next year. Microsoft has just struck a deal with the cable industry that will allow MCE computers to display and record HD from cable feeds. But it will take the better part of a year for the technology to hit the market.

Bottom line: Windows MCE does work and it's fun to fool around with, if you have the money, time and energy and you care enough about video and music. If you're missing any of those, stick with a standard PC.

Department of Imitation Leatherette:

Like most happy couples, my wife and I occasionally agree to disagree. For example, my wife likes a house with a fireplace. It makes her feel warm and fuzzy. To me, a fireplace is a fire hazard. If the Lord wanted us to ignite dead trees indoors, he wouldn't have given us central heat.

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