Microsoft wants to bring your PC further into the lounge with Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE). Introduced in the US back in 2002, it's set for an Australian launch on October 13, but won't be available for purchase separately. You'll need to buy it pre-installed on new MCE-based PCs from manufacturers such as Optima, Acer, Toshiba, Hewlett-Packard and Pioneer Computers.
The launch will also see Creative showcase its 20GB Portable Media Centre and Microsoft may also preview its Media Center Extender technology for connecting Media Center PCs to TVs wirelessly.
MCE is basically a version of Windows XP Home, but using an interface that allows PCs to become more effective home entertainment systems, complete with a TV/radio tuner card and remote control. You can record and pause live TV (time-shifting), watch DVDs or view video and photo files. Besides radio, you can listen to CDs and manage your digital music collection. Naturally, you can also use Windows normally.
High-end parts are required for MCE-based PCs, so they'll typically be priced higher than your average system. Overseas reaction to this has been positive; how it's received locally remains to be seen, but it's likely to restrict initial take-up to early adopters and home theatre enthusiasts.
However, if you don't have the budget but want the features, you can achieve similar functionality with Cyberlink's PowerCinema 3 package (www.gocyberlink.com). This can be bought online for $148 (with bundled TV/radio tuner plus $30 for remote) as can Intervideo's similar Home Theater software/remote package ($US49.95, www.intervideo.com). Some TV tuners even bundle these or similar products. You'll not get the same degree of integration, but they're alternatives worth considering.
Microsoft has already announced that it will introduce new features for MCE in a "staged approach". At press time it was working on support for standard and high-definition digital TV tuners, and was in talks with two local premium content partners for the broadband-orientated Online Spotlight area - so it's reasonable to expect streaming news, movie trailers, music videos and possibly music-on-demand. What will be notably absent from MCE's feature set at launch is a working Electronic Program Guide (EPG). While planned, there's no date for when this will become available. This is disappointing when you consider that the Linux-based D1 HMC has long had this. So that's the state of play, now on to the machines. Optima and Pioneer Computers supplied PC World exclusively with pre-production test machines both running Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005.
Optima MyPC D9 MCE
This is a good looking grey-and-black system with a matching remote control to navigate the Media Center Edition interface.
Although this has a desktop tower form factor, Optima advised it'll also offer horizontal cases for those after a more lounge room friendly design. We liked the bundled Microsoft wireless keyboard and optical mouse plus six-piece Altec Lansing 251 speaker system.
We were a little disappointed with the LCD display being just 15in size, but for a $2599 system we can't complain.
The Hauppauge PVR-250-MCE analog TV/radio tuner card includes a left and right RCA audio-in, composite and S-Video inputs plus coaxial TV and FM aerial sockets.
The Intel 915GAG motherboard is based on the Intel 915G chipset and supports high-definition audio up to eight channels and houses a Pentium 4 530 (3GHz) processor and 512MB of DDR400 memory, from which the Intel integrated graphics chip can steal up to 224MB.
Graphics performance was a lowly 5348 in 3DMark 2001 - good enough to record quality TV to the sizable 120GB 7200rpm hard disk, but not quite enough to play Doom 3 smoothly. There is, however, one PCI Express x16 slot (for graphics) and one PCI Express x1 slot (for expansion) free. Application performance was mid-range (290 in SYSMark 2001).
The included optical drive is a multi-format (-/+) Liteon DVD writer. The MyPC includes two rear PS/2 ports plus two front and four rear USB 2.0 ports for attaching peripherals. It caters for connectivity with a 56Kbps modem card and on-board 10/100 Ethernet port.
Pioneer Power Media Center
Pioneer has gone a different route to Optima with this high-end pre-production offering, housed in a heavily modified SilverStone case that could look right at home under your TV or DVD player.
The bundled 27in monitor offers good quality viewing and also has its own TV tuner so you can watch another channel while recording using MCE, which is very convenient. The PC is equipped with the same TV tuner card as the Optima but Pioneer has gone with a Creative wireless keyboard and optical mouse combination.
Pioneer says it will be shipping this unit with a 6.1-channel Audigy 2 sound card and Inspire 6.1 6600 speakers. However, we can not see where the Audigy 2 sound card will be able to fit in this particular case, which is already devoid of space due to the full-sized AGP graphics and PCI TV cards that have been installed.
The AGP card sits in a riser card that fits into the AGP slot, while the TV tuner card utilises a riser card of its own to fit into a PCI slot. Consequently, it resides directly under the graphics card, hindering its airflow. The full-size PCI card also encroaches on the hard drive bay of the case, which has caused Pioneer to seat this drive above the graphics card in a makeshift bay.
While this design attempt is bold, media centre PC vendors will need to focus more on matching case designs with components and peripherals - technically and aesthetically.
Our warm-running test unit came with an MSI motherboard, but we're advised that the final spec will be a Gigabyte motherboard with an NVIDIA nForce3 150 chipset; an AMD Athlon-64 3400+ (2.2GHz) processor and 1GB of DDR333 memory. Discreet graphics will be delivered by a Gigabyte Radeon 9800XT with 256MB of memory and the included hard disk is to be a 200GB 7200rpm model. The use of a Serial ATA hard drive should also be considered by Pioneer, as the bulky IDE ribbon cables in this case were very messy and routed awkwardly.
For ease of use, the case's front fascia pops down to reveal the front audio ports, plus two USB 2.0 and single FireWire ports, in addition to the sole optical drive - a multi-format (-/+) Sony DVD writer.