Entertainment Anywhere

Digital Entertainment Anywhere is the bold new promise from Microsoft. Central to delivering on the promise is the new version of Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, the newly re-vamped home theater platform for PC users. Based on the significant feature enhancements to the current version, Microsoft clearly listened to customer frustrations with previous versions, making far more than incremental improvements over the feature set found in MCE 2004. p>

MCE 2005 is effectively version 3.0 of the platform. Predictably, it’s the first version of the platform to establish a solid product, finally delivering an acceptable home theater experience. Key among the enhancements is support for multiple TV tuner cards, finally allowing users to watch one program while recording a second program. Media Center Extenders take the viewing experience beyond the TV directly connected to the media center, adding the ability to listen to music, watch movies, and schedule recordings from any room in the house. Built-in support for CD/DVD burning and automated on-the-go portability is another area where previous versions came up lacking.

Content, whether residing on shiny disks or magnetic platters, rules the home theater. Microsoft dramatically expanded Media Center content offerings, partnering with XM Radio and NPR online services, simplifying the process of finding movies in the cable guide, adding full integration with MSN music, and improving the recording quality of personal video recordings. Content is fully portable, with transfer-to-device options integrating MCE with the new Portable Media Centers as well as support for MSN Music subscription content portability on newer portable players like the Rio Carbon.

What’s New in Media Center 2005

Tune In

One of the most common complaints I hear about several personal video recorder apps is the lack of ability to watch on channel while another channel is recording. Microsoft addresses this concern, expanding support up to a total of four TV tuners. HDTV tuners are now supported as well, meaning you can now record your favorite programs in HD, as well as standard digital and analog broadcast signals. Keep in mind, a separate cable box is required for each additional tuner.

Find Movies Faster

Finding movies in previous versions of MCE meant browsing the programming guide in search of movie titles or browsing through the available on demand content at Cinema Now or Movielink. MCE 2005 makes a dramatic improvement, cataloging all available movies, offering a browse by title option, and then letting you know when the movies will be on in your programming area. If the movie isn’t currently available in guide listings, a quick link to one of the on demand stores provides ready access to thousands of movie choices.

Photo Functions

Photos play a central role in most digital households. Media Center 2005 places greater importance on photos, adding the ability to rotate and crop photos on the fly, correct color and contrast issues, and automate slideshows, all from the comfort of the couch, using the MCE remote as a photo manipulation tool. This feature is head and shoulders above the 2004 solution, but adding a batch feature to automatically rotate an entire folder, also eliminating the resulting black borders around images for slideshows should be next on MCE photo feature list. There’s even an option to burn photos to CD right from the MCE user interface.

Dynamic Playlists

We all change our minds. Listening to music from MCE is no different. Instead of interrupting the current playlist, MCE 2005 smartly adapts to changing moods or tastes, offering a new queuing feature to add or remove tracks to the current playlist as it plays. For instance, if you are listening to Jet’s Rollover DJ and decide Green Day’s American Idiot is a better follow up track than Float On by Modest Mouse, Just locate Green Day in your music library and insert the track between Jet and Modest Mouse.

Media Center Extenders

A Media Center Extender effectively replaces the need for a cable box in every room, instead providing a link to all audio, video, photo, recorded TV and live television through a centrally located Media Center. The Extender interface looks just like the MCE interface, providing a dumb-terminal experience capable of scheduling recordings or playing audio and video from any room with a TV and an extender box. Most of the extender options support both wired and wireless connectivity, although you may experience performance issues using anything less than 802.11g. An XBox extender eliminates the need for new hardware in any room that already sports an XBox.

Media Center Content Partners

Smart on-demand content pairings are now integrated into the MCE experience. NPR offers pre-recorded offerings of most popular programming from the network. It’s no surprise MSN Music is now readily available from the MCE interface, with a subscription component looking strikingly similar to Napster’s offering. MSN does offer a slick feature via Passport integration, which automates track purchase and quickly adds the content to the My Music library. The danger in using the full Passport automation is spending more on music than you really intended too, because the purchase confirmation isn’t on. All commercial free programming available from the XM Radio online service is available via remote using MCE.

Future improvements still required

XP Media Center Edition 2005 is a rock solid home theater solution. Of course, room for improvement exists with virtually any technology solution. The current state of cable and satellite hardware is a limiting factor in using multiple TV tuners effectively. The idea of stacking 4 digital cable boxes next to your MCE PC, so that you can record all your favorite shows conjures the image of those room computers from the 1950s. An integrated cable decoder/ TV tuner card would solve this problem, but it may be a few more years before the cable companies relinquish their stranglehold on the interface devices to access their services.

Improving content portability should be another huge priority moving forward. The process of transferring recorded television programming to a Portable Media Center is ridiculously simple (as it should be). The wait time to transcode a one hour show from the full screen high-resolution version to a smaller 320×240 version is painfully slow.

These concerns certainly aren’t showstoppers. MCE 2005 delivers on its promise of new and improved features, fundamentally establishing a PC environment fit for the living room, while maintaining all the power of having Windows XP on a desktop PC.