For background: Media Center refers to a version of the Microsoft Windows XP operating system designed especially for multimedia. You can use a PC with it like a normal computer. Or you can press a button and get a "10-foot" interface similar in style to what you get with TiVo or a digital cable program guide. In this setup, you can operate the PC via a remote control to cue up music, play DVDs, and channel surf or even record television. Since it came out in 2002, Media Center has mostly been a curiosity, as in "That's cool. Now what do I do with it?" The systems are generally more expensive than separate DVD players and TiVos, and frankly, the quality wasn't that great.
Well, Microsoft and the PC makers have nearly solved one of those problems.
I was amazed at how good the video from some of the new PCs looked. It often matched and sometimes exceeded what I got from a very respectable new DVD player. Same goes for audio. With a digital output to a nice receiver, these things sound great.
Some of that credit, at least on the video side, probably goes to Microsoft hiring an outside company called the Imaging Science Foundation to clean up the performance. The initial goal, at least, was to produce high-end "ISF-certified" PCs for the rich and famous (or for people willing to drop a lot of money on A/V gear).
I just evaluated one of the two PCs that have been certified so far. It worked! The video looks darn good. But more important for most people is the trickle-down effect. In working with Microsoft and especially the graphics card makers, ISF appears to have made it possible for all PCs to look better. The graphics companies have developed new software (called drivers) that shows much more respect for the idiosyncrasies of video and the demands of high definition.
I saw a few PCs that don't have certification and don't cost nearly as much as the premo models, but that also look pretty darn good. However, it's hit and miss, and that's one thing that I find discouraging. I hope that, in the future, it will be a given that all PCs produce good video. The tools are available.
Another discouraging thing is that Media Center PCs are still awfully expensive. Even a low-price (and not that great) model goes for $1,500. You would have plenty of change left over if you spent that money instead on a very nice DVD player and a TiVo (or a digital video recorder that you rent from your cable or satellite company).
And sadly, most of these PCs don’t support high-def TV. Those that do can get it only from antenna broadcasts, although the cable companies finally agreed to make it possible for PCs to receive high-def feeds sometime before the end of next year. Given how sluggish cable cos have been with other innovations -- such as the little decoders called CableCARDs that plug into the back of TVs in lieu of a set top box -- I don't expect a fast and painless implementation. So here you have a real irony -- the most wired people, willing to spend a comparative fortune on their A/V setups, can barely get HDTV.
Despite all the drawbacks to such computers, the rumor mill is convinced that Apple will follow Microsoft's lead. Apple recently dipped its toe in the multimedia waters with a simple Media Center-esque program called Front Row (complete with remote control). Now the scuttlebutt says Apple will release a full-on media PC sometime in 2006. If the past is any guide, once Apple jumps into something, the world will follow.
I saw a lot of MP3 players before the iPod arrived. But the iPod was the only one I found worth buying. That's because Apple took a floundering product idea and made it into something that actually worked and was fun to use. Way to go, Apple!
But if the same thing happens with media PCs, I may actually feel a bit sorry for Microsoft. That company has put so much effort into making these products work -- effort that Apple can certainly take advantage of. With that and a good ad campaign, the Windows Media Center PC could go the way of the Rio MP3 player.