Microsoft's entertainment-oriented operating system, Media Center 2005, is a big improvement over the first version. But people still ask, why the heck would you want a PC next to your TV?
Before I tried it (see the news story in Seen/Heard/Tried), I already had plenty of reasons: In particular, I had heard that it would perform many tasks that I currently need separate devices to perform--and it'd let me browse the Web during commercials (and if I could manage it, during shows, via the picture-in-picture window). The promise was of multimedia multitasking from my favorite position: flat on the couch.
A Media Center PC is unquestionably a powerful component. It can play DVDs like a set-top DVD player; it can time-shift and record television programs like a TiVo or ReplayTV; it can pick up FM radio stations like a stereo receiver; and it can entertain users in many other ways that consumer electronics products can't.
But a Media Center PC still has all the drawbacks of a computer. For example, it will let you choose options that may not work (like trying to record to a DVD+R disc in a DVD-R drive) and then give you more options that may or may not help you figure out how to fix the problem. And of course, occasionally it won't work at all for some inexplicable reason--such as when it claims to be connected to your wireless network, but applications that rely on it disagree. Even skilled computer users won't want to hassle with nebulous computer-related problems when they have company over for dinner.
Microsoft's stated goals with the latest version of its Media Center operating system are to be "reliable [and] stable, and [to do] what the consumer expects." The new OS achieves some of those goals: It has more features than the previous version, and many of the new options are easy to use. But Media Center 2005 doesn't fully address its predecessor's biggest hangup: how it behaves when it doesn't work. For example, when I connected the Media Center PC that Microsoft submitted for evaluation to a 50-inch Optoma DLP television, the PC didn't recognize the TV. The fix wasn't terribly complicated, but I had to call Microsoft for help figuring it out.
The situation isn't entirely Microsoft's fault. Many consumer electronics companies either don't get the plug-and-play concept or refuse to go along with it. At the recent CEDIA trade show, the scuttlebutt was that consumer electronics vendors didn't want their products to work with PCs because they were afraid that Microsoft and other IT vendors would woo their customers and erode their profit margins. That's going to happen whether they like it or not; poor interoperability will only slow the process (and tick off people like me when they find out who's responsible).
But after all these years, the computer industry still seems to make many products for dedicated PC hobbyists and for companies with IS staffs: If something doesn't work, do this, this, and this; if those steps don't fix the problem, replace the part, because it's so cheap. But why should you have to go through that kind of song-and-dance with products that are supposed to be entertaining you?
This Digital World: The Insider Behind Seen/Heard/Tried
One of the likeliest people on the planet to know about new consumer electronics products before they hit the shelves is Cathy Lu, contributing news editor for Digital World. Cathy manages Digital World's Seen/Heard/Tried section, which requires her to sniff out new products and assign them for review.
Cathy also puts her nose for news to work writing "Digital World Insider," our free monthly e-mail newsletter covering consumer electronics--HDTV, DVD, and everything in between. For the scoop on new and nifty upcoming stuff, subscribe to the newsletter here.