When Microsoft first introduced the Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE) in the US two years ago, the biggest complaint we had about the operating system was that it held recorded TV captive and produced poor-quality video playback. Now in its third iteration, Microsoft's remote-controllable, multimedia OS, Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, continues to provide more freedom with your PC's digital-media content. With support for new set-top Media Center Extender network devices, you can now use MCE 2005 to access files on your PC from displays in the other rooms in your home--the TV in your bedroom, for example; each MCE 2005 PC can support up to five Extenders, over wired or wireless networks.
At this stage, however, Microsoft hasn't announced the availability of the Media Center extenders in the Australian market. They're definitely on the roadmap, but Microsoft refused to be drawn on exactly when this would be.
MCE 2005 also now supports dual TV tuners, which means you can watch one channel while recording another. MCE 2005 is the most polished and tightly integrated desktop DVR we've seen, but we'll have to test the image quality on more Media Center PCs and Extenders as they are released before we give it the thumbs-up for broad use throughout your home.
Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 looks polished before you even install it. The printed instructions contained clear illustrations for connecting our test PC to a variety of display types, along with details explaining how to connect the PC to wired or wireless networks and add set-top Media Center Extender devices into the mix. (PC vendors and networking companies such as Linksys will sell Extenders as standalone products.) We connected our test system to a digital LCD and a digital satellite cable box, then connected it to an 802.11g wireless router for use with the Extender we received.
After we powered on the PC and started up the MCE 2005 interface, the setup wizard walked us through the setup process, the majority of which we could easily navigate with the included remote control. Within 10 minutes, we received a live TV picture and had downloaded the program guide for our area.
Editor's note: At the time of launch in Australia, Microsoft does not provide an electronic program guide (EPG) for download similiar to other countries, such as the U.S.
The only hitch along the way was getting MCE 2005 to recognize the IR blaster we had connected to the PC and placed in front of our satellite cable box. After repeated attempts, we were finally successful (we're still not sure what we did differently to get it working properly), and we could control the satellite box with the Media Center remote. The IR blaster is essential for the Extender; without it, you can't change the channel when sitting in front of the Extender. This version of MCE adds an audio setup wizard, which simply asks you which type of speaker set you'll be using, from a two-piece set to 7.1 speakers.
Once we had our MCE 2005 PC fully operational, we set up the Extender in another room, connecting it to a 34-inch Sony TV via an S-Video cable. Setup was a snap. We turned it on, and it found the Media Center PC in the Labs next door on our office's 802.11g network. We plugged in a WEP key and soon had access to the contents on our MCE 2005 test system--recorded video and TV shows, photos, music, even live TV. (Since our test system had only one TV tuner, if we changed the channel on the Extender, the channel changed on the PC, too.) Unfortunately, we could neither fast-forward nor rewind when playing a recorded video. And on a large 34-inch screen over a wireless 802.11g network, viewing both live and recorded TV left something to be desired.
On the whole, MCE 2005 is more visually appealing and responsive than past versions. For one, the Media Center shell itself (more of an application within Windows XP than its own OS) looks much improved. Microsoft has made it easier to get to your most commonly used functions--next to each item on the main menu are three icons that are shortcuts to oft-used tasks. For example, next to the Live TV menu item, you might find icons for live TV, recorded TV, and movies. It's easy to close out of the MCE 2005 interface or just resize its window to return to regular Windows XP Home; you can perform either action with a couple of clicks, using the remote control or the mouse.
MCE 2005 is quicker, too. There's no longer a delay while your selections load, and you can now find cover art for albums and movies. The new Movie Finder--a subset of the program guide--takes full advantage of the cover art; it pulls out all the movies from the program guide, letting you know which movies are currently on and which start within the next hour.
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005's core functions haven't changed since the OS's conception two years ago. Its basic function is to give you a remote-control-friendly interface for watching and recording TV along with accessing the videos, photos, and music on your PC. Any MCE 2005 system comes equipped with Windows XP SP2 and Windows Media Player 10.0, but the most noticeable change to this year's version is greater hardware support, both inside and outside the PC.
Inside the box, Microsoft has eased its hardware requirements, so there's a wider range of prices for Media Center systems. Unfortunately, however, you still can't get MCE the cheapest way: by buying just the OS. Microsoft hasn't changed the way it is selling the OS: you still must buy it preinstalled on a new system--you can't purchase it separately and upgrade your current PC. There are rumours, however, that add-in cards such as TV tuners might come bundled in a kit with the OS from graphics card and TV tuner card vendors. We'll update you here should anything come of these whispers around the Web.
The biggest change, however, is Microsoft's added support for dual TV tuners, which give you much more freedom in watching and recording TV. With two tuners, you can record two different shows concurrently or watch one show while recording another. MCE 2005 records TV to your hard drive in a proprietary MPEG-2 format called DVR-MS.
Outside the box, two developments take centre stage. First, the aforementioned Media Center Extender, which is a set-top device that allows you to access an MCE 2005 PC's multimedia files over wired or wireless networks. We'll reiterate here that the Media Center Extender is expected to launch in Australia eventually -- but Microsoft refused to say exactly when. The model tested here was the US version, where extenders are expected to go on sale shortly.
Media Center Extenders allow you, for example, to connect the MCE 2005 system in your home office and stream content from the system to the TVs in your living room and bedroom. You'll just need to purchase an Extender for each screen you want to be able to share files with. MCE 2005 PCs can support up to five Extenders, though you'll probably run into problems if you have more Extenders than TV tuners: our test system had only one tuner, so if we changed the channel on the Extender, the channel changed on the PC, too. Other files--videos, recorded TV, photos, and music--can be accessed independently, however. What you can't do with an Extender is watch a DVD. Microsoft is right in saying that it would be a poor user experience to have to run to one room to load a DVD in order to view it in another. Our question is, then, why not build a DVD drive in the Extender itself?
Similarly, you don't need to leave the MCE 2005 interface to use MSN Messenger. You can IM with friends while watching TV, for example. You'll just have to get used to your conversation scrolling up instead of down. If you want to use another IM client or check your e-mail, you'll need to leave the Media Center interface. It's easy to switch between the two, however, and you can use AIM or Yahoo's IM and still watch TV in the corner of your PC screen simply by resizing the MCE 2005 window.
You can't browse the Web within Media Center, but Online Spotlight will give you severely limited access to the Internet, should you find yourself much too comfortable to reach for a keyboard or a mouse. Microsoft Australia announced content deals with NineMSN and ACP to offer local Online Spotlight content, which should be available shortly.
Microsoft put in a lot of work to improve the quality of TV playback with Media Center Edition 2005, but we're still not completely sold. We saw fewer dropped frames and artefacts than what we saw with MCE 2004, but it was still far from ideal on our tests. We connected the MCE 2005 system itself to a 17-inch digital LCD, then connected the Media Center Extender in an adjacent room via S-Video to a 34-inch Sony TV. The two devices were connected over our office's 802.11g wireless network.
Wireless interference and the large Sony screen conspired to make for some rough sledding with watching TV on the Extender. We attempted to watch play-off baseball (TV programs that were both live and recorded) on the Extender. Sporting events are a tough test, granted, with the detail in the crowd and the cameras quickly panning to follow the action. The Sony TV was fully calibrated before our tests (unfortunately, the MCE 2005's display calibration tool can be used only with the screen attached to the PC), yet the image we got using the Extender was overly saturated. The red in the St. Louis Cardinals' uniforms and hats bled profusely. And any foul ball into the crowd created artefacts that were very apparent.
Microsoft suggests you use an 801.11a connection or, better yet, a wired connection for the Extender. We also tested the Extender over a wired connection, however, and didn't notice much improvement in image quality. For a set-top DVR, your best bet is still a dedicated set-top recorder.
TV looked crisper on the 17-inch LCD that was connected directly to our MCE 2005 test system, which uses an Nvidia NVTV tuner card. The colour was better, but ample artefacts were still evident. Only when we resized the TV window from full screen to a smaller window that filled about a quarter of the screen did the image appear crisp.
MCE 2005 lets you control the quality of your TV recordings to some extent, at least. There are four settings, from Fair to Best. Our test system's 180GB hard drive could hold 64 hours on Best mode and 142 hours on Fair. We set up a recording on the Fair setting and another on Best and noticed a discernible difference. Our advice: get yourself a large hard drive (200GB or more) and use the Best setting.