Microsoft Updates Media Center OS

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Microsoft Corporation today unveiled the latest version of its digital media-oriented operating system, positioning Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 as its best operating system for consumers.

"Media Center 2005 is going to catapult the operating system much more to a mainstream status," said Dave Fester, general manager of Microsoft's Windows Consumer group. "If you look at the massive interest and demand by consumers for digital entertainment in music, photos, and TV, this is the version of Windows you want."

Not all outsiders agree. Microsoft is aiming high with its Media Center OS projections, says Rob Enderle, principal analyst with The Enderle Group in San Jose, California. "They are basically saying that a third of consumer machines will be a Media Center over the next few years. I think that is probably aggressive," he says.

The update to Windows XP Media Center Edition, code-named Symphony, has been in beta testing since early this year. Media Center Edition 2005 includes a host of new features, including support for two TV tuners, DVD burning, over-the-air high-definition television, and satellite TV, in addition to cable TV. The software also offers improved support for mobile devices and a refreshed user interface.

Media Center Edition 2005 interface.
Media Center Edition 2005 interface.
Several major PC vendors, including Hewlett-Packard and Gateway, made hardware announcements today in conjunction with the OS launch in Los Angeles.

HP, which was first to market with a PC sporting the original version of the Media Center OS, said it would have one new Media Center 2005-based PC available later this year, the M1100 series Photosmart PC.

HP Digital Entertainment Center
In November, HP ships the HP Digital Entertainment Center. A self-contained component unit that's designed to fit in with your living room entertainment rack, the Digital Entertainment Center offers a hard drive and DVD burner, and runs the Media Center 2005 OS inside. Two models are available: The 160GB HP Z 540 DEC will sell for $1499, while the 360GB HP Z 545-b DEC will sell for $1999.

HP Media Center Extender
A key new feature in the new OS is support for wireless technology and in particular Media Center Extender, a new technology that lets users wirelessly connect up to five TVs to the Media Center PC. Later this month, HP will ship its HP Media Center Extender X5400. This slimline box will serve as a link between your TV and your Media Center PC. The $299 unit communicates with the Media Center PC via either an ethernet connection or an 802.11a/g wireless network.

Gateway's 820GM Media Center PC
And Gateway announced its 820GM system, based on Intel's BTX architecture, which the company said promises cooling and noise reduction. The $1250 PC uses the Intel 915G chip set, and includes a dedicated ATI Radeon X300SE PCI-Express 128MB graphics card, 1GB of DDR dual-channel memory (expandable to 4GB), Gigabit (10/100/1000) ethernet, an eight-in-one media card reader, and a 250GB 7200RPM serial ATA hard drive.

Sending Digital Content Around the House

Windows XP Media Center Edition is a premium version of Windows XP, designed to make the PC the media and entertainment hub of the home. In addition to performing traditional PC tasks, the system can serve music, pictures, video, and live television to portable devices, stereos, and TVs while also enforcing digital rights set by content owners. Users can access the Media Center PC with a remote control through a special user interface on their TV.

Users will be able to exchange MSN instant messages through their TV and remotely program their Media Center 2005 system through a service offered by MSN.

With the 2005 version, Windows XP Media Center is finally a finished product, said Enderle. "This is a significant step. Last year's product was interesting, but this year's product feels mature, and where we go from here will be minor enhancements."

Microsoft and hardware makers also announced devices that use Media Center Extender technology, as well as new Media Center PCs and new digital audio receivers for an audio-only experience.

More Portability

In addition, Microsoft announced Windows Media Player 10 Mobile for Windows-based cell phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs). The software turns these devices into portable media players that will work with Media Center PCs, allowing users to take content with them.

Dell Axim X50v PDA
Windows Media Player 10 Mobile includes support for Microsoft's new DRM (digital rights management) technology, code-named Janus, which allows subscribers to online music services--services that support the technology--to download music collections to mobile devices. Currently, you may download music only to PCs. The software will ship on many new devices, including some cell phones, some PDAs, and a clutch of popular MP3 players. Existing devices can be upgraded, but users must get the upgrade from the device maker, according to Microsoft. Companies announcing devices today include Gateway, with a new portable MP3 player, and Dell, with its new Axim X50v Personal digital assistant; both feature Intel's 2700g multimedia accelerator. The Axim X50v is the first of its line to feature a VGA display (3.7 inches) and is capable of playing DVD-quality video and 3D games.

Today Microsoft also introduced a new logo program called Plays for Sure. The logo will appear on portable media players and online music and video services to indicate interoperability. "When consumers see a device that has the Plays for Sure logo or a music or video service that has the logo, you can guarantee interoperability between those devices and services," Microsoft's Fester said.

MSN Music Store Launch

As part of the consumer-focused announcements, Microsoft on Tuesday will officially launch its U.S. MSN Music store and a similar service in eight other countries through a partnership with Loudeye Corp. The download service also will be available in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Netherlands, Spain, Austria, and Switzerland.

The MSN Music Store, Microsoft's response to Apple Computer Inc.'s ITunes, is also available through Windows XP Media Center's TV interface, along with dozens of other online services that provide music, movies, radio and other content.

PC Sales Stimulator?

Windows XP Media Center 2005 is the centerpiece of a Microsoft marketing effort to revive interest in the three-year-old Windows XP operating system. With no new version of Windows scheduled until 2006, Microsoft is betting that XP Media Center 2005 will move consumers to buy new PCs.

Media Center PCs cost more than plain Windows XP Home machines, with price tags ranging from around $900 to over $1999 for the more expensive systems. In an effort to make Media Center PCs more affordable, Microsoft has relaxed the hardware requirements for the systems: a TV tuner card and remote control are no longer necessary.

Nevertheless, most buyers of a system without a TV card or remote will likely want to upgrade the system so they can get the full Media Center experience, analyst Enderle said.

Melissa J. Perenson of PC World contributed to this article.

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