After years of being banished to dusty spaces under desks or behind computer monitors, desktop PCs are finally ready to take their rightful place in the living room. Armed with Microsoft's (MSFT) vastly improved Windows XP Media Center Edition software, the new crop of PCs can serve as home entertainment hubs, with the clean look and easy operation of consumer electronics gear but the brains to do much more. In short, the entertainment features are finally demonstrating their worth, making the Media Center the most radical makeover of the PC since the arrival of Windows 95 a decade ago.
Want one? In a stark contrast to 2002, when the Media Centers made their debut, there's a wide array of options out there. They range from modest desktops that can bring TV viewing and other entertainment features to an office or dorm room to sophisticated and expensive machines designed as yet another component in a home entertainment rack. While Apple (AAPL) bills its Macintosh -- also an outstanding choice for home buyers -- as the hub of digital entertainment, only Microsoft has delivered true integration of computing and video entertainment.
Just ask Petar Vucetin. When the 35-year-old software developer bought his Alienware PC in early October, he didn't relegate it to a desk in his Birmingham (Ala.) home. It landed right beside his DVD player, TiVo (TIVO) recorder, and 43-inch plasma-screen TV. The striking black computer, no bigger than a high-end stereo receiver, looks right at home -- unlike the Dell (DELL) Dimension minitower he also considered. "Their box looked awkward," he explains. "I mean, where are you going to put that thing?"
"This Is the Future"
Vucetin's Alienware DHS, tricked out with 2 gigabytes of memory and a 200-gigabyte hard drive, cost him a cool $3,400. He admits being lured in by its sharp lines. But he bought it because, with a single remote control from across the room, he can burn digital movies onto DVDs, download tunes from Napster (ROXI) to listen to on his stereo, and record episodes of his favorite TV show, Lost, when he's out of town. Just as easily, he can download feature films from Movielink and CinemaNow to watch anywhere in the house. And, when he has a party, he can play his favorite Internet radio stations. "This is the future," he says.
It's one small step for home entertainment, but one giant leap for the PC. More than a third of U.S. households have computers in their living rooms today, but because the hardware and software haven't been up to snuff, few families use them for home entertainment. This year's Media Center models will change that by exploiting the PC's speed, its vast storage capacity, and the ease with which it can be linked with home networks.
The best example may be Hewlett-Packard's (HPQ) $1,999 Digital Entertainment Center. HP was one of the first PC makers to offer a Media Center two years ago, but it went back to the drawing board this year. Like the Alienware DHS and CyberPower's $1,255 Media Center PC Limited Edition, the HP Entertainment Center has a 17-inch-wide black, brushed aluminum case with a two-line LED screen to display such information as album titles and TV channels. On the back, HP junked the PC's usual thicket of ports for a simpler layout of input and output jacks necessary to connect the computer to other home entertainment components, making the hook-up process as friendly to couch potatoes as computer geeks.
Inside the Entertainment Center are all of the ingredients of a top-of-the-line desktop PC. HP gave it a fast Intel (INTC) Pentium 4 processor, a 200-gigabyte hard drive, a gigabyte of memory, and built-in wireless networking. There are two TV tuner cards, which means you can record two shows at once or watch one live while recording another. There's a wireless keyboard and mouse for Web surfing and instant messaging from up to 10 feet away, and a 160-gigabyte portable hard drive that pops out so you can access your media files from other PCs.
The new Media Center PCs are not without flaws. For now, Media Centers, even when equipped with high-definition TV tuners, can only handle over-the-air high-definition TV content -- not cable or satellite HD. Microsoft plans to offer full support for HDTV early next year, including so-called cable-card-equipped models that will allow you to eliminate your cable set-top box.
The biggest challenge PC makers are still trying to overcome is noise. The fans that dissipate the heat from high-performance PC processors also generate low-level sound that competes with your TV and stereo. The solution is a fanless system, such as the Denali Edition from boutique maker Niveus Media. The Denali runs silently, but at $3,999 it's designed for high-end home theaters.
For the first time, Media Center PCs appear at the other end of the spectrum, too. HP, Gateway (GTW), and Dell all are planning to offer the system on conventional-looking PCs costing well under $1,000. For $300 more, you can add a networked HP or Linksys Media Center Extender that lets you access the entertainment features and all your music, video, and photos from up to five TVs in the house.
For those willing to open their PC case to install hardware, SnapStream's BeyondTV package offers a sort of poor man's Media Center: It can turn any PC running Windows XP into a TiVo-like personal video recorder for just $150, including an internal TV tuner.
Sony (SNE), as usual, has its own take on the Media Center. The $1,699 Vaio RA820G Digital Studio PC adds its own software for digital moviemaking, DVD burning, and sharing media files on a home network -- and gives the minitower an extreme makeover. The size of a conventional PC, the bold, matte-black case looks best sitting horizontally in an entertainment center. Positioned that way, it shows off a large, see-through opening, part of an advanced liquid cooling system that significantly reduces noise. It handles almost any home entertainment task, thanks to such features as a double-layer DVD burner, high-end audio output, and room to upgrade to as much as 1.6 terabytes of storage. That's a $1,600 option, but it would provide enough storage for virtually limitless video recording.
For anyone expecting to pay $399 for a new PC, that may sound a bit much. But with movies, music, and TV all going digital, it may finally be time to let Microsoft into the living room, even if it means a big investment. These PCs look so good, you can fire the interior decorator.
By Andrew Park