Review: Windows Media Center 2005 Hits The Mark


Microsoft's latest version boasts range of improvements


Microsoft is getting closer.

After years of jealously eyeing the success of
consumer-electronics vendors in the living room, and after releasing two versions of its Media Center software to help it gain a foothold in the market, the latest version of Microsoft's Windows Media Center software is a big step toward helping Microsoft systems become the all-in-one entertainment and multimedia control units for the home.

Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 boasts a range of significant improvements that will please digital integrators and system builders and help them convince customers of the benefits of media-centric systems. Advancements include upgraded television capabilities and enhanced management of media sources.

However, there a few caveats that integrators and system builders need to consider and work around, such as limitations in support for numerous TV sources and some problems with its core features. Plus, consumer knowledge of Media Center Edition 2005 still remains low, so some education from integrators is necessary.

Microsoft launched Media Center Edition 2005 in September 2004, opening it for the first time to its general system builder partners. Everyone from major OEMs to mom-and-pop system builders have responded by rolling out a wide selection of units running the new software. Digital Connect Lab engineers tested Media Center Edition 2005 on PCs from Hewlett-Packard, system builder Nor-Tech, Sony and Toshiba (see review of these computers).

While the previous version offered overall excellent multimedia features, its TV capabilities were lacking. Microsoft tackled this problem head-on. First, the new version includes support for DTV/HDTV signals broadcast over the air with an external antenna, and given the strong growth of HDTV throughout the United States, the timing is excellent. Media Center Edition's reception of HDTV signals is only available in the United States.

The previous version only supported a single standard TV card, which meant that users could not watch TV while a program was being recorded on a different channel. Media Center Edition 2005 now includes support for two standard TV cards as well as an HDTV card, all of which can be used simultaneously. System builders can choose the number of TV cards to include; some units are being shipped with one or no cards, though most include three. In addition, Media Center Edition 2005 can receive AM/FM radio signals through one of its TV cards, and if a user wants to watch or record a TV program while listening to the radio, it is necessary to have more than one card installed.

The quality of TV signals has also been improved. Older versions of the software compressed TV signals at a fixed 6-MBps rate, while the new software compresses signals at a variable bit rate of up to 9 MBps, yielding higher clarity.

Another useful addition is an integrated Windows Messenger box, so users can instant-message while watching TV or accessing another of the software's media capabilities. However, Media Center Edition 2005 does not support competing applications or even Microsoft's own MSN Messenger, so customers will have to create a Windows Messenger account. Another option is to repeatedly minimize and maximize the interface to access instant messaging, or to keep multiple windows open at once, Plus, customizing Windows Messenger is difficult while within the Media Center interface.

Engineers also would like to have access to a Web browser and e-mail application from within the interface. The Internet is a source of rich multimedia content and connectivity, and users miss out by not having direct access.

Media Center Edition 2005 also includes on-screen caller ID, which is especially useful when deciding whether to pause a live TV program or DVD to answer the telephone. Another addition is new photo editing and printing capabilities. Using the PC's remote control, engineers were able to make a wide range of changes to photos, including cropping, changing contrast, rotating and removing red eye.

Engineers were impressed with the ease in burning CDs or DVDs or recording video files. Microsoft also added features from its Plus Digital Media Edition for Windows XP pack, including the Windows Party Mode, a full-screen skin that turns the PC into a digital jukebox by providing access to music files stored on the PC while locking access to other files on the PC. The features are only available in the general Windows screen outside Media Center Edition, but it's worth the trip.

Outside of the new additions, Digital Connect Lab engineers have long been impressed with the control and access Media Center brings to home entertainment, although there are still a few tweaks that need to be made to the basic functionality.

Media Center Edition offers a great way to watch and record TV by downloading programming information, offering star rating and detailed information on live or recorded TV programs and providing a single-button method for recording an individual show or entire series. Subtitles are offered for most TV channels, although quality varies by station. Radio reception capabilities are also appreciated, and the interface includes nine presets for radio stations. The Online Spotlight application, which provides access to music and movie services such as Napster and MovieLink, as well as to Reuters and NPR news reports, is also valuable.

Engineers appreciated the ability to fast forward, rewind and skip ahead and reverse in live or recorded TV, although there is no automatic commercial-skipping capability as is available on TiVo and its competitors. Media Center 2004, and most DVRs, include another useful feature curiously absent in the new version: When a user would hit fast forward and then play, the Media Center software rewound the program a few seconds back to compensate for slow hand-eye coordination. The lack of this feature makes fast forwarding or rewinding somewhat challenging.

Media Center Edition machines are programmed to not revert to a screen saver while the TV is on in the Media Center Edition interface, which is valuable. However, if a user is watching TV in one window while accessing a non-Media Center Edition application in another, the machine must be manually set not to go into a screen saver.

Engineers encountered some other hurdles during testing, including a few crashes and difficulty downloading television programming data from the Internet. Users on Internet message boards also report other bugs when installing or using Media Center Edition 2005. Overall, though, engineers were impressed with the advances Microsoft has made and recommend the platform for home installations. But integrators should still keep their eyes on future improvements.

For additional information, visit www.thegreenbutton.com. The independent user Web site includes a wealth of resources including technical forums and hacks and modifications. Another useful site is www.antennaweb.org, sponsored by the Consumer Electronics Association, which offers information on setting up external antennas to receive HDTV signals.