Software For The Ultimate Couch Potato

A Windows Media Center can now handle three tuners

Depending on how you think about it, the Media Center PC is either a computer that doubles as a television in an office or dorm room or the core of your home entertainment center. With the release of a new version of Windows XP Media Center Edition on Oct. 12, Microsoft (MSFT ) has made its vision clear: It wants to take charge of home entertainment.

Media Centers are high-end PCs equipped with a TV tuner and a version of Windows that adds a program guide, the ability to record shows to the hard drive and to copy the recordings to DVD, and other entertainment-oriented goodies. These capabilities are wrapped in a user interface that lets you hold a TV-style remote while seated across the room and operate the TV and DVD player, show pictures, or play music. While there have been major enhancements, especially in TV quality, since the Media Center appeared two years ago, the basic features haven't changed much. But PC makers, working with the new edition of the software, have added multiple TV tuners, so you can view one show while recording another. You can also watch and record high-definition television, but only over-the-air broadcasts, not cable or satellite. (For more on HDTV issues, see "HDTV's Copy-Protection Prison".) The most important addition may turn out to be the Media Center Extender, a device costing $300 or less that lets you send content from a Media Center PC to TV sets in your house. (I'll take a detailed look at the Extender next week.)

MEDIA CENTERS COME IN THREE TYPES. Most are standard desktop PCs with added entertainment features, such as the Dell (DELL ) Dimension 8400, which starts at $1,138, including a 17-inch CRT. Dell plans to make Media Center features optional on all of its home desktops. These features range from audio-only offerings in PCs lacking the processing power to handle TV to high-end desktops with three built-in tuners. You can also get a Media Center notebook from Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ) or Toshiba. In fact, Toshiba (TOSBF ) has created a brand, Qosimo, dedicated to Media Center laptops, starting at $2,599 for a model with a 15.4-in. wide-screen display. But the most interesting models are PCs, such as the superquiet Alienware DHS I tested (starting at about $1,700), that are designed to look like part of a home-entertainment system.

The newest Media Centers can handle up to three tuners: two for standard television and one for over-the-air digital TV. The goal is to allow simultaneous recording and live viewing, or to let you watch two different live and recorded programs -- one on the Media Center and one on a set in a different room using an Extender. Setting up a show for recording is a simple matter of selecting it on the electronic program guide and clicking record on the remote. Saving recorded shows to DVD is also easy. As for viewing, you can watch on a computer display or use a variety of outputs to connect the Media Center to standard TVs, or to the latest wide-screen digital displays and surround-sound audio systems.

All Media Centers are full-fledged Windows XP computers. But computer makers say that many Media Centers, especially those designed for living rooms, nearly always involve clicking a remote from across the room while sitting on a sofa, or what Microsoft calls the "10-foot interface." In this sort of setup, the Media Center PC is overkill, since there's an awful lot of Windows -- and a lot of hardware devoted to it -- that sits idle. And yes, your Windows-powered TV may crash. But while other companies have tried to market simpler devices, nothing I have seen has come close to Microsoft in terms of integration or ease of use. In fact, most of the products I've looked at remain stuck in trials or have died without ever reaching the market. And no one has anything like the Media Center Extender.

After years of hassles with Windows, I wasn't eager to let it take over my TV. But the fact is, Media Center and the Extender do the job -- and do it well.

For a collection of past columns and online-only reviews of technology products, click here

By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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