To the average consumer the ‘Digital home’ has little to do, really, with internet-connected intelligent refrigerators that do the grocery ordering for you, or robotic valets who ready the ‘pipe and slippers’ when you walk through the door. It simply means a way to manage the home entertainment and avoid the ‘remote control rhumba’ that plagues our lives. Finally, Windows Media Center Edition seems to be ‘growing up’ in a way that realistically suits it to the task.

From the outset there were several ‘problems’ in the way of Windows Media Center Edition gaining widespread acceptance and uptake. Firstly, the OS ‘version’ was only made available preinstalled on ‘suitable’ systems. Home builders didn’t (and still don’t) get access to it, although recently some vendors have been able to provide the OS Edition ‘bundled’ with some hardware items such as TV cards. Secondly, the systems which were originally designated as ‘adequate’ for use with Media Center Edition were quite ‘beefy’ in terms of hardware, and initially quite expensive in comparison to everyday office PCs. Thirdly, and perhaps even more importantly, when used as a TV recording and playback device a Media Center PC was only able to provide low quality video playback!

Accordingly, uptake was rather slow from the original release of Windows Media Center a couple of years back, but over the past year sales of Media Center PCs have risen quite substantially, to the point where they are a large factor in the overall recent rise in sales of desktop PCs. Over the course of time updates have added more features, improved the interface, and largely overcome the problem of low quality playback. The more ‘beefy’ PCs which were required for the more advanced features of Media Center have become less expensive too. PC hardware hasn’t really jumped dramatically with regard to speed and power since the days that microprocessors first hit 3GHz a couple of years back, and even entry level systems nowadays are quite powerful indeed, because it’s become less expensive to make them so. And whilst technically you’re really supposed to get Windows Media Center with a prebuilt system, for those who know where and how to look it is now possible to obtain an OEM copy ‘bundled’ with that new TV tuner card you were planning on purchasing!

The next ‘update’ to Media Center Edition, Update Rollup 2 which is due any day now, adds even more functionality.

Despite the improvements to date, Media Center PCs have still remained best suited to the management of photo, music and home movie collections, and the playback of music and video. Update rollup 2 more truly brings into play online content from providers such as MTV and the like, and introduce seamless interaction with the extensive multimedia features of the Xbox360. The update is also purported to include native digital cable support, and added support for new and upcoming peripheral devices, such as extremely large capacity multi-disc changers. This imminent update is the one codenamed ‘Emerald’ by developers, and the following update, codenamed ‘Diamond’ and probably to be available around the release time of Windows Vista, will add even further functionality with regard to digital home entertainment.

The improvements to uptake of Media Center Edition are expected to not only continue but to also grow, according to some analysts, perhaps even increasing tenfold over the next several years. I strongly suspect that I’ll be amongst the ranks of the ‘uptakers’ myself!

When it comes to contemplation of the ‘digital home’, I’m afraid I don’t really want a ‘fridge that orders the grocery consumables for me. I don’t really want a washing machine that can tell me when I need to restock on soap powder. It’d be nice to have a ‘fridge that cleaned out the smelly leftover fish that I forgot about, or a laundry machine that collected the dirty undies for me, washed them and put them back in the wardrobe nicely folded, but all that’s not really likely to happen. And those ‘problems’ were my own fault anyway.

But when it comes to a simple thing like turning on the telly there’s a real problem. It’s a nice big telly, and it’s connected to a nice big sound system, which in turn is connected to other nice things like DVD players and the like – the sort of consumer appliances you find in most homes nowadays. Yes, the sort of consumer appliances that lots of manufacturers have developed, each of them with its own control system and none of them having any idea of what being ‘co-operative’ means at all. The sort of consumer appliances that have Mrs. Catweazle at my throat when it comes to what should really be the ‘simple’ task of turning it on and watching or listening to it. But instead, as I said at the outset it’s the ‘Remote control Rhumba’, and it simply doesn’t get taught in the ballroom dancing classes!

And, of course, it’s you-know-who copping the fallout. ‘Twasn’t my fault. I’m blaming the dills who made all those appliances in such a way that a person needs an Engineering degree in order to be able to get the things to work in some semblance of harmony!

Windows Media Center Edition is definitely ‘growing up’. If, as seems likely, it is incorporated into the ‘Premium’ home versions of next year’s Windows Vista then I’d consider it’s reached adulthood. And I for one will be quite pleased about it.

Media Center Edition (or some suitably sophisticated alternative) is a product that is essential in just about any household which has progressed past the 51cm analoge telly and VCR recorder, in my opinion!

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I've no need for a computer to control my life away from my computer...

But then I'm an oldfashioned kind of person. My fridge doesn't order my dinner for me, my TV doesn't tell my VCR there's a movie I might like on channel 5342 at 23:40 and to tell the household robot to feed a new tape because the old one is likely full.

While I own a digicam it's not hooked up to the internet (and in fact spends most of its time rather lonely in my car just in case I need it on the road or at the office).

I've in fact seriously thought about cancelling my cable TV and would have cancelled my phone already if the line weren't needed for my DSL connection.

I've been using Media Center begrudgingly over the past few months.

If you take it for what it's intended to be, a set-top box competitor, it does OK. It's got moderately good PVR capability, and it's really handy to have a remote with it.

The only gripe I have with Media Center is this: It's just a "gussied up" version of Windows XP Pro. They removed some stuff that's not needed for a Media Center system, like fine-grained permissions and group policy settings, but that's what it is at the core. Rather than making a completely different name for this "OS", I wish they would have just released it as a type of Plus! Pack for Windows, that could be bundled with supported TV tuners/hardware, or preinstalled OEM on boxes, like what's taking place now. Then, you could simply say, "I'm running Windows XP with Media Center Plus!" or something similar.

From a support standpoint, I can tell you it's really thrown people for a loop. Aside from the MCE frontend, it's just the same as any other version of Windows. You have a desktop, Start Menu, etc, just like XP Home or Pro. But, since it's "Media Center Edition", people treat it like it's some giant, unknown entity, and that they're not going to know how to work with it. Geez, even the media center frontend was designed to work pretty much like a TiVo or a digital cable/satellite tuner...

Oh... sorry, I got a little off-topic there. My take on it is this: I think Media Center was a decent product when it came out. I think it matured some time ago-- I think that now the market is finally maturing enough to make a place for it, now.

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