Media Centre Unmasked
At first glance Microsoft’s introduction of Windows XP Media Centre Edition operating system may not seem that groundbreaking. Any one who has watched the PC market for a few years will have heard this mantra before – the PC will become the centrepiece of a converged digital entertainment system bringing together the Internet, TV, music, photography and an a la carte menu of other digital services in a single box.
In the late nineties the big manufacturers released “convergence” PCs: They had basic multimedia functionality (i.e. CD ROM, sound card, speakers) and a TV tuner card, which enabled you to watch TV in a small screen on your monitor while working. Invariably these machines were shod in black plastic like Hi-Fi separates, in the hope they would be used in the front room just like other home entertainment devices. Unsurprisingly they sunk without a trace.
Things are different this time around thanks to the launch of Microsoft’s Windows XP Media Centre Edition, an extension of XP Professional, it automates the way you interact with digital media. After an extended tinker with a couple of Media Centre Edition PCs and talking to sources in the PC industry, we think Microsoft could be on to a winner.
For a start, the hardware has improved in leaps and bounds in the last couple of years. Media Centre Edition PCs are powered by hyper-threading Pentium 4 processors with large hard drives (at least 100Gbyte and over) and plenty of RAM (512Mbyte is standard).
Media Centre could finally provide the killer application that will inspire people to upgrade. PC processing power has outpaced the demands of software in the last three years: it has been one of the contributing factors to the relatively poor sales of desktop PCs over that period.
Massive changes have also taken place in what people are using their PCs for. The MP3 revolution means, more and more users are storing and listening to music directly from their PCs. While that’s great in a home office or similar set up, fans of MP3 have been hooking laptops up to their Hi-Fi separates for years, so that they can enjoy the advantages of digital music on their current sound set-up.
Digital photography has also taken off, which means PCs are being used to edit, store and print out images. Even in Ireland broadband is available so we are all much more attuned to sharing this kind of content with friends and family.
Multimedia made easy
The great thing about Windows XP Media Centre Edition 2004 (to give it its full title) is that it makes working with all these different types of media a lot easier. On the outside a Media Centre PC doesn’t look that different from any other current high-end machine. In terms of hardware the only clue that these PCs are different is the TV-like remote control that allows you access features such as music, TV or digital pictures. It is possible to copy CDs to the Media Library in Windows Media Player using the remote as well as accessing photos from a range of media and carrying out common tasks such as zooming, printing and editing.
Your content can be displayed directly on the PC monitor or on a TV display using the same remote. Displaying TV on a PC display has always been problematic due to the difference in pixel shapes between the two technologies but improved video drivers shipping with Media Centre make a huge difference.
Once you fire up the PC you can access the full screen Media Centre interface. It is a simple menu-driven system that requires only a minimum of PC know-how to navigate. While browsing your music, DVD, live or recorded TV and photos, the ‘Now Playing’ window shows what’s currently being selected so you can easily return to it.
Possibly one of the coolest features is the one that is not supported in Ireland unless you also have a Sky Digital box – that is interactive TV. Although it is possible to tune in TV manually, not all the features are supported and that includes the electronic programme guide (EPG). The EPG enables you to see what’s coming up over the next two weeks of viewing and easily record your favourite TV shows using the box’s Personal Video Recording (PVR) function. In addition to recording, you can pause live broadcasts and use category filters to show programmes in areas that interest you such as sports, movies, news, music, or kids.
TV is recorded to disk in a relatively new format called DVR-MS. Currently, there are no tools available to edit such content but Microsoft says it is working with third parties so that they can add DVR-MS support to their products. In the meantime it is possible to burn content you have recorded to DVD, so that it can be viewed on any standard DVD player. Media Centre offers four levels of recording quality each requiring a different amount of disk space for an hour of TV – Fair (1Gbyte), Good (2Gbyte), Better (2.5Gbyte), and Best (3Gbyte).
Unofficial in Ireland
While Media Centre Edition has been launched in the UK, Germany and France, it is not officially available in Ireland. For each market Microsoft engineers have to make changes to the software so that it works with the local TV frequencies to support the electronic programme guide features. Retailers and manufacturers speaking off the record have said that even in the UK there have been support issues with new owners finding it difficult to tune the TV and to get the programme guide working. David Brabham, consumer PC category manager with HP in the UK admits that a different level of training has been provided to staff supporting Media Centre products and that this is constantly under evaluation.
According to Clive Ryan, who takes responsibility for the operating system within Microsoft Ireland, Microsoft has accelerated plans to support Media Centre in Ireland. “The initial plan was that Ireland wouldn’t be looked at until the tail end of this year,” says Ryan. “We’ve been surprised by the very positive reaction from Irish retailers and consumers so we’ve asked the engineers to craft it for Ireland. It’s not a huge effort – there are similarities between the TV frequencies in UK and Ireland – so we expect it to be available in the near time frame.” Ryan describes TV support as “absolutely critical” for the product and once it is in place he expects Microsoft to make a major push on Media Centre Edition.
Dundalk PC manufacturer Iqon Technologies will launch Media Centre PCs into the UK market this month but sales director, Ciaran O’Donoghue, says it will not make them available in Ireland until the TV guide or EPS functionality is supported. “It’s a brilliant product,” says O’Donoghue. “It’s the most positive light on the horizon for manufacturers as it’s a genuine reason to upgrade. As soon as the TV guide is available for Ireland, we will push it big time.”
In the meantime, Media Centre PCs have been coming into Ireland thanks to manufacturers such as Toshiba and HP offering their UK models here. Harvey Norman has been selling HP Media Centre PCs since November last year and according to Geoff McDonald, Irish country manager for the retailer, stock sold out very quickly. It has just taken on the new HP M477 and McDonald expects sales to be very strong.
He has found that most of the purchasers are owners of a Sky digital box so they are able to get around the issue with Irish TV frequencies. “It tends to be people with higher end disposable income who are purchasing the media centres,” says McDonald. “They are putting them in their kitchen or study as it’s not their main PC.”
Toshiba has also sold “reasonable quantities” of its Satellite P20-531 machine according to Owen Mc Guinness, regional support executive: “People who buy it love it because of the functionality,” says Mc Guinness. “You can watch a DVD, record TV to disk without rummaging for a tape, pause live broadcasts and have all that minimised if you want to do some work.”
Mc Donald rejects the suggestion that Media Centre PCs carry too high a premium for what a buyer gets. The M477 is retailing in Harvey Norman for €1849, but for that price you get a PC running a Pentium 4 2.8GHz chip, 512Mbyte of RAM, a 160Gbyte hard drive and a 15 Inch flat screen monitor in addition to all the hardware and software features that are part and parcel of Media Centre. “There’s a little bit of a premium but not too much,” says McDonald. “We were quite excited in November when sales went so well – HP was a little stand off-ish due to the TV frequency problems but its done really well for us. It’s the first true convergence product and we’re very happy with that.”
Extending Media Centre
If you think Media Centre Edition 2004 is the perfect fit for your digital lifestyle, you’re really going to like the plans that Microsoft has announced to extend its functionality. Speaking at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas at the start of the year, Bill Gates announced plans to roll out to new countries and support for new hardware called Extenders and Connectors.
Media Centre Extender, which will be available in the US at the end of the year, connects wirelessly or wired to your Media Centre PC and makes the content available on your existing TV or monitor. This means that one person can be listening to music on the PC in the home-office while the rest of the family enjoy streaming video in the living room. It could be the perfect solution for families fighting over the remote control – up to five different instances of the Media Centre Extender interface can run at the same time.
Microsoft hasn’t gone all gung ho with Media Centre just yet which would seem to suggest it’s feeling its way into what is essentially the home entertainment business. Sure, there are some issues to be sorted but the road map is really exciting. If you find yourself using digital media heavily you’ll probably find yourself justifying the premium the next time you go and upgrade your computer.
Toshiba Satellite P20-531
Contact: Toshiba 01 248 1248 – www.toshiba.ie
Toshiba doesn’t position this machine as a mobile PC like a laptop but rather a portable entertainment system. You won’t be sticking it in your briefcase but you would certainly move it from a study to the living room or bring it over to a friend’s house to show off your latest digital pictures on the massive 17 inch widescreen.
Cased in rich red, the P20-531 feels like a luxury product – which with a price tag of €3,510 it certainly is. For that price you get a PC weighing 4.5Kg, powered by a 3.2GHz Pentium 4 chip, 512Mbyte of RAM, a DVD multi drive capable of burning your recorded TV to DVD, an 80Gbyte hard drive, GeForceFX Geo 5200 graphics card and integrated Harmon Kardon speakers.
This machine certainly isn’t lacking in connectivity options – it has four USB ports, a Firewire port, as well Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and infra-red connectivity options. The tiny speakers that are integrated in front of the keyboard don’t look impressive but preformed well when we inserted a DVD copy of Lord of the Rings. The picture on the plasma screen was impressive and at 17 inches you could see it replacing a domestic TV particularly if you are going for the minimalist look in a modern apartment.
Connecting to a live TV feed is a little awkward – you have to swap out the battery (so you’ll have to run off the mains) and then connect a co-axial cable to the supplied jack. We managed to hook it directly to an NTL feed which got an acceptable picture but no programme guide. Connecting to an analogue set-top box just caused the machine to crash. The price tag will probably make most buyers balk but when you consider the kit it can replace – TV, VCR, DVD player and a notebook computer – it makes it easier to justify the outlay.
HP Media Centre M370UK Photosmart PC
Price: €2100 with 17 inch monitor
HP is a veteran of Media Centre having been the first manufacturer to introduce Media Centre systems back in 2002. The review model we looked at was a mini-tower encased in silver and black. Despite the accompanying lifestyle shots showing a bunch of friends sitting around it in a front room, we still wonder how many people will make a PC the centre of their living area. It shipped with a 15 inch Pavilion flat panel display although the accompanying literature says this monitor needs to be purchased separately. On the tech side it features a Pentium 4 2.6GHz hyper threading processor, 256Mbyte of RAM, 120Gbyte hard drive, separate DVD ROM and DVD RW drives, an Nvidia GeForce FX5200 graphics card with 128Mbyte of RAM, TV and radio tuners, as well as a modem.
The front panel slides down to reveal analogue sound and video connectors as well as the USB and Firewire ports – common sense when you consider you’re likely to connect lots of peripherals to this machine. The review model also shipped with wireless keyboard and mouse – definitely a plus for using this machine in your living room. Digital camera buffs will live the seven in one memory card readers which supports all the major formats. Everything worked beautifully on this machine – except the TV reception as we didn’t have a Sky box to connect it to. The cost of this PC is EUR*2100 which is a premium over a comparable machine without Media Centre.
HP’s David Brabham defends the cost by pointing to the special chassis HP uses for Media Centre PCs and the high end components used such as sound systems with sub woofers, Audigy 2 sound cards and high end Nvidia graphics cards.