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Be the Media Center of attention

Earlier this week, Microsoft launched the latest 2005 iteration of its Media Center Edition of Windows XP. The US release was a couple of weeks earlier, and two websites (thomashawk.com and www.gamepc.com) had a sneak peak a week before that. They got a few people excited, because they reported that at last MCE would be available as a user install. But they were wrong. Although the OEM license is being widened out considerably, Microsoft still won’t support the OS being loaded onto an existing system.

At the UK launch, there were a lot more smaller players than the Tier 1 / Tier 2 handful which brought Windows XP MCE 2004 to market. The 2004 version was actually the second incarnation as the first one never made it to Europe. But despite the 20-odd system integrators showing off their wares on Tuesday night, in many ways it still felt like more of the same. Microsoft was most proud of the Vivadi system, which Windows Client Product Manager Paul Randle said was targeted at the ‘technodad’. It would really have to be, as this plasma screen-based system will set you back tens of thousands.

Most of the rest of the exhibitors had more sane offerings, but they still cost at least £7-800. If you already have most of the appropriate hardware, this is a bit steep. And although many of these designs really are approaching something which wouldn’t look (or sound) out of place in your living room, most bit-tech readers will want a little more control over how their media centre systems look and behave.

"most bit-tech readers will want a little more control over how their media centre systems look and behave"

Talking to Microsoft, it’s clear that the company is continuing its trend of the last decade away from the hobbyist towards the mainstream consumer. The big problem with the PC as a consumer device has always been its lack of reliability and ease-of-use. Love or hate Microsoft, there’s no getting away from the fact that with MCE the company has produced the most successful interface yet for a media centre PC. Competitive products such as Snapstream’s Beyond Media have shown their respect by copying the MCE look and feel lock, stock and barrel.

On the other hand, though, Microsoft still wants to differentiate itself from the traditional CE (consumer electronics) companies. Whatever you do, don’t mention Tivo and Sky Plus in the same breath as MCE to a Microsoft executive. That’s sure to annoy them, because ‘MCE does so much more than just TV time shifting’. But, then again, so do lots of the new era of DVD VCRs – many of them have slots for viewing your photos on flash media, and some of them will even play MP3s and WMAs, such as Lite-On’s LVW-5045.

In a way, Microsoft is trying to have its cake and eat it. The company wants the ‘even your gran can use it’ appeal of a CE device (although some VCRs are still less user friendly than a PC). But it also wants to keep the extensibility and general-purpose functionality of an IBM compatible. A few bad user experiences could be the kiss of death for this balancing act. This is why the company has so far frowned upon Windows XP MCE being an end-user install. That, and the thorny issue of copyright when broadcast TV is being recorded digitally.

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James Morris


Fortunately, whatever Microsoft wants, you can now legally buy MCE 2005 in the UK. If you have a good relationship with an OEM, you may be able to get yourself a copy through them, either pre-installed on a hard disk or as an OEM bundle. At the time of writing, Microdirect was offering the bare software for sale for £84.60, but you’ll still need to purchase the remote. The Glow Lounge technology café in Clapham, London, sells both pieces - £89.95 for the OS and £27.95 for the remote.

Anyone in the UK who has tried to get MCE 2004 up and running on an existing system will tell you just how picky it is about driver and hardware combinations. MCE uses a new driver model called BDA, so you need a different driver set from the standard WDM ones. Only GTA’s Black Gold digital TV tuners readily supported end user installation on MCE 2004, although you had to buy the specific version with BDA drivers – they’re still not readily available for download.

"The new version of MCE doesn't add an awful lot of new features"

The new version of MCE doesn’t add an awful lot of new features. But one of them is very major indeed. You can now have two TV tuners, allowing the simultaneous recording and playback of TV. Although ATi’s own Multimedia Center software has supported this in the US for some while, with very specific hardware, this never made it to the UK, and it’s brand new in MCE. The feature is somewhat essential for MCE to make it to the mainstream, though, as recording one programme while you watch something else has long been one of the primary features of the TV/VCR combination.

MCE 2005 supposedly has a much wider support for end-user upgrades, as Microsoft is expecting people to purchase a single-tuner system and then add a second tuner at a later date. Hauppauge has launched five new products aimed at the new OS, including one PCI card which includes two analog tuners as standard, the WinTV PVR-500MCE. Nvidia’s PureVideo programmable video acceleration engine on the 6600 and 6800 has encode capabilities which will be made available for MCE, and ATi’s Theatre 550 Pro-based products will also support MCE 2005.

With the wider OEM availability of the software and greater hardware support, it’s finally worth considering building your own MCE box. Maybe Microsoft doesn’t really want you to, but the pieces are falling into place anyway. Although it’s easy to understand the strategic reasons for Microsoft not offering user-installs from the start, it’s hard to fathom why a few hardware enthusiasts building their own versions could be anything other than positive for MCE. So why have they always made it so difficult?