Windows XP Media Center Edition
By Erik Rodriguez
This article describes the features and functionality of Windows XP Media Center Edition.
Windows XP Media Center Edition is a special version of Windows that gives users the ability to have access to all their media from a PC. More importantly, it provides PVR (Personal Video Recorder) capability. It is very similar to TiVO. I have mixed feelings about this because XP MCE cannot be used on just any PC. It must be used on a PC (usually an OEM PC) that has hardware compatible with the OS. I happen to have a custom-built media center that is fairly different than the OEM media centers available. If you go to a retail store that sells media center PC's (Best Buy, Sam's, Circuit City, Etc.), you may see them connected to a plasma TV. They are actually geared towards use in your living room (hooked up to your main television, projector, etc). The next few sections of this article give you glimpse of the features and ability of this OS.
Media Center PC's are strictly produced by a number of manufacturers. Among them include:
Microsoft claims that until version 2005, Media Center PC's could not be custom built. This is not true. If you have the compatible hardware and a copy of MCE, it will work. The important thing is that you have enough RAM and a PVR capable capture card. I will tell you that getting everything to work correctly on mine was a NIGHTMARE! Remember that your hardware requirements will vary depending on the use of your Media Center PC. Personally, I use my PC for everything. In my case, I required some very powerful hardware to record TV in the background while still being able to perform my regular computing.
Upon booting XP MCE, you won't notice too much difference. The splash screen while booting will read "Windows XP Media Center Edition" instead of the standard "Windows XP Professional." This operating system performs the same as any other version of XP. The menus are still the same, the look and feel haven't changed, and for the most part, an un-aware user may not even notice a difference. However, it does take a toll on slower hardware...slower being anything below 2.0 GHz (Itel based speeds). Remember that XP MCE gives you PVR capability. You can record live TV in the background while you work. However, you can only record 1 TV show at a time, and you cannot watch another channel while it is recording. You can view pictures, listen to songs, and watch movies located on other machines connected to your network. The network feature works great, and you can watch jitter-free Divx or Xvid movies from a 100 Mbps connection. Microsoft claims that you can use XP MCE with a wireless network. YEA RIGHT! Wireless technology is not near as good as it should be, and it will never beat the speed and reliability you get over the wire. The images below are screen shots from my MCE 2004 edition:
Click to Enlarge
One of the coolest things with MCE is the remote. You have complete control with the remote, and it has a great range. I was able to use the remote from almost 20 feet away! The remote also features a 30-second skip button. This is great for skipping the commercials nobody wants to watch. Pressing any button on the remote will also "wake" the PC if the monitor has powered down. I use this every morning when I wake up to illuminate my room when my alarm goes off.
Okay, so this recording live TV thing is great. Although, there is a catch. Each 30 minutes of recording time uses 1.5 GB of hard disk space. Now you can reduce the quality from "best" to "better" or "good." Come on, who wants to watch a TV show at a lower quality just because they didn't watch it live? Even worse, Microsoft uses a proprietary format (*.DVR-MS) to encode these files. It is very hard to convert these files to any other type of file. While it is possible, you'll quickly realize it isn't worth it when you start wasting your time to cut out the commercials and encode the raw files to compress them. I was able to compress a Seinfeld episode (without the commercials) to 153 MB. It took me over an hour to cut out the commercials, convert it to .mpeg, then to .avi and compress with Dr. Divx. There are other 3rd party programs that will let you do it, but the quality is noticeably poor. I am not sure why Microsoft chose to create this format, but it sucks! Other than that, MCE is fairly stable. It will crash every now and then like every other Windows machine on the planet.
Microsoft seems to be pushing this MCE pretty hard. However, I am part of the 1% of PC users that owns a Media Center PC. I am not sure how the marketing department at Microsoft felt consumers should spend at least $1500 for a computer that performs the same functions as a TiVO/DVD player/Cable Box. I personally don't see consumers rushing to the store to spend that kind of money for a device that has cheaper alternatives. In addition, Microsoft recommends the use of 802.11a for wireless connectivity. Who the hell is actually using 802.11a? I am not sure if these Media Center PC's will last very long. Microsoft has started releasing accessories, such as the Media Center Extenter, but I believe the only way this technology will catch on is with a lower price. The table below outlines the major pro's and con's of using a MCE PC as a dedicated device for your television.
||Very high cost
|Sleek Appearence and Case Design
||Bulky, also consumes more electricity
||Alternative (TiVO) does not
|Upgradeable (new features)
||Risk of viruses, exploits, etc.
|Records TV in high quality
||HDTV playback not possible
|Great for single/young consumers
||Target market is very narrow
||Microsoft recommends use of 802.11a for wireless connectivity.
You can view Microsoft's Demo of XP MCE Here. You can also view a very stupid HOW-TO article and terrible picture of a Microsoft employee's living room here. You can view pictures and specs of my Media Center PC here.