Frickin’ Americans. They’re so lucky. Not only do they get to invade any country they like (rimshot please), but they also have all the latest technology long before us. And they kept Krispy Kreme doughnuts to themselves for decades. That’s so self-centred (and, er, soft-centred as well).
One area where the US is particularly out in front is home entertainment. Microsoft released its Media Center Edition of Windows XP at least a year earlier in the US, and online music retailing via iTunes, Napster and others has been available for a similar period. In fact, our first big taste of legitimate online music sales here in the UK is only just arriving, with Napster just about to make its European debut (the launch press conference is this week).
"HD DVHS projection makes DVD look like Kirsty’s Home Videos"
High Definition video is another entertainment development where we’re lagging far behind. Over a year ago I was told by JVC that in the US more than 400 movie titles were available on DVHS in the 1080i HD format. The number will be considerably greater now. If you’ve ever seen an HD DVHS projection in a properly kitted-out home cinema, you’ll realise that it makes DVD look like Kirsty’s Home Videos. In fact, the digitally projected cinema distribution of Star Wars: Episode 2 was no higher resolution than 1080. HD truly has the potential to give you almost the same experience in your home as you get in your local multiplex.
But we can fight back - we can take this home entertainment issue by the scruff of the neck and do it for ourselves. Okay, Microsoft has made it next to impossible to build your own MCE PC, completely forgetting that it’s the enthusiast market which has always driven early adoption of consumer computer kit. But there are many excellent alternatives. Showshifter is my current favourite, and there’s also SnapStream’s Beyond TV, SageTV, myHTPC, plus numerous other projects to create the perfect ‘Ten Foot Interface’ (as Microsoft likes to call couch-distance computing).
Getting UK XML TV schedule data reliably into one of these PVR systems can be a bit of a trial (and appears to be one of the things that held up Microsoft’s release of Media Center over here), but at least you can use a free utility such as XMLTV to rip listings and create something similar to MCE’s integrated Electronic Programme Guide. Being able to browse the day’s TV choices and simply click on the ones you want to record is so much more civilised than programming start and finish times, then typing in your own description. It makes VideoPlus look like hard work.
But it’s HD that’s going to be the real killer app for the home media centre. High definition broadcasting is still far off here in Europe. You’d need to import kit that operates using NTSC (the US and Japanese TV format) to set up your own HD home theatre for watching pre-recorded material. You’d also need to buy all your tapes in the US. In contrast, your PC is already potentially HD ready. With a fast enough processor and a high resolution display attached, you can watch HD videos right now. An SXGA projector might be a tad expensive still, but a 1,280 x 1,024 monitor isn’t.
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As much as it hurts to admit this, it’s Microsoft that will probably be the enabler of the home media centre HD revolution. Windows Media 9 supports resolutions up to 1,080 lines, with 96kHz 7.1 surround sound as well. Point your browser at wmvhd.com and have a look at some of the samples you can download from the site. There’s even an HD version of Terminator 2 available for purchase on DVD, although currently you can only buy this in America (damn, they’ve beaten us again…). DivX also has HD support – version 5 of the codec even includes presets for encoding to 720 lines of resolution – although there’s little content to be found in this high resolution format as yet.
"There’s a huge choice in great-looking, quiet-running diminutive chassis out there"
A site that really showcases the potential of converging PC power, video encoding prowess and broadband Internet is Atom Films. For a number of years, Atom has led the way with Internet video distribution, putting out quirky and amusing short films. But the recently added Maven system really shows the way forward. In the background, while your broadband connection is idle, Maven downloads movies to your local hard drive – including HD shorts in WMV format. Open up the client and you’ll find a library of films, some ready to watch and some still downloading. A pay-per-view version of this kind of technology could well be the future of the home movie channel.
And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that 3D accelerators can already maintain playable framerates at resolutions well beyond HD, even with features like anti-aliasing on high settings. As a result, 3D games engine movies, known as ‘machinima’, are also gaining popularity. Have a look at some of the end results at machinima.com. Not only could you lead the way in the entertainment convergence revolution by building your own media centre PC – you could be making the content on it, too.
Once and for all, the PC has the potential to wipe the floor with standalone consumer electronics media devices. There’s a huge choice in great-looking, quiet-running diminutive chassis out there, just waiting to be built up into kick-ass home entertainment centres (see, for example, bit-tech's review of the Shuttle Zen XPC, Here). Even without Windows XP MCE there’s a wide choice of software available to run on them. Now that online high definition video content is starting to arrive, the output could actually be far better than a dedicated device is capable of.