Although the hardware side of the Media Center PC (covered in a companion article) is not without its interests and attractions, it takes a long hard look at the software built into Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition (and sometimes bundled along with the OS by Media Center PC vendors) to get a real sense of what Microsoft is up to. Sure, it's conceptually pleasing to be able to use a PC to store digital music and movies, but there's a lot more going on inside (and alongside) this package than might immediately meet the eye.
Windows XP Media Center Edition Capabilities
Let's yank up the hood and take a look at what kinds of capabilities Windows XP Media Center Edition confers on its owners:
- You capture, manage, and play more music. Although many Windows users are already familiar with some of the capabilities of Windows Media Player 9, this software really comes into its own on a Media Center PC (or any other modern Windows system with highest-fidelity audio outputs, big screen displays, and LOTS of disk space to work with). You can use this software just like any other full-feature digital jukebox: archive large collections of music, build and use playlists, create download sets for personal digital music players, and lots more. As an added bonus, Windows WMA digital music format gets near-perfect marks on fidelity and listenability (and even includes an uncompressed option for those seeking no loss of data in digital signal encodings). Although Microsoft makes much of a Media Center PC's capability to integrate FM radio along with other forms of sound, if you're into radio you'll want to be sure that whichever package you pick out includes an integrated FM tuneror add one to your Media Center PC's base package. (Slightly less than half of all Media Center PCs include FM radios as part of their base configurations.)
- The Media Center PC's capability to manage moving images goes beyond support for DVDs and multimedia CDs; it also includes powerful TV capture, management, and playback capabilities. A TV tuner is a core component required in all Media Center PCs, so all include TV playback and digital video recorder (known as PVR, or personal video recorder) capabilities. In fact, most Media Center PCs can let users record any programs they like from broadcast, cable, or satellite channels, and then play them back at their convenience. It's easy to program the recorder to grab a single show or every show in a broadcast season. Viewers can also pause and resume viewing of live shows, skip past commercials, and do all the things other video recorders can do. In addition, the Media Center PC offers enhanced controls and access to DVDs.
- The family entertainment aspect of the Media Center PC really comes into its own when working with images and homemade videos. Users can grab and organize collections of still images into animated slide shows and include the background music of their choice. Still image-editing functions include cropping and resizing, red-eye removal, and all kinds of image and color enhancement tools. Likewise, Windows Movie Maker lets users grab digital videos of their own making and edit them to their hearts' contentincluding all kinds of transitions, special effects, and other image-manipulation techniques. Here again, it's even possible to add music to existing audio to create a real soundtrack for home movies. This is also an area where vendors such as HP, Dell, and Gateway provide additional still image and movie-editing tools (and sometimes offer specials deals on scanners, still or video cameras, and photo-quality color printers to increase what users can do with Media Center PCs).
- Because a Media Center PC remains a Windows computer at its heart, users can also bring PC-based entertainment or educational materials into the entertainment center. From playing computer games in a theater environment to cruising the Web for information or new content while listening or watching current holdings, to watching TV and working at the same time, the Media Center PC lets users add scripting, automation, and all kinds of tools and utilities to the controls they can exercise over their music, movies, TV shows, and other information.
Although it's nice to be able to purchase a PC with all the right interfaces already hooked up and working, ready to plug in and use, it's what one can do with that PC that really counts. To its credit, Microsoft has done a great job of re-engineering the Windows interface to make it easy to see, understand, and operate with a simple remote controlas well as retaining all the things that experienced users can do with a mouse and a keyboard. The system is easy to learn and simple to configure, and it offers minimal interference between users in search of relaxation and entertainment. It's an impressive technical accomplishment, and it will be interesting to see whether buyers find it attractive and appealing enough to make it a part of their family entertainment environments.