I've been a fan--and a steady user--of Windows XP Media Center Edition since for almost three long years now, and have watched this trend-setting product evolve through three revisions, all of which have built on the successes of the past and added new features, fixed problems, and made the underlying platform more stable. Now, three years after I first set my sights on this intriguing multimedia champion, XP Media Center Edition (XP MCE) is at a cross-road. It still offers the premium PC experience, with amazing and unparalleled digital media features. But too, it's still a computer, and not necessarily the type of device one would want in the living room. In other words, the same old arguments about Media Center seem to apply today as much as they did when the product first shipped in 2002.

If you're not familiar with Windows XP Media Center Edition, and the Media Center PCs on which it runs, please refer back to my earlier reviews of Windows XP Media Center Edition and Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004, the versions of this product that preceded XP MCE 2005. We've got a lot of ground to cover, and I don't want to waste any time or space revisiting the past. Let's see what's going on with Media Center these days.

Three years of feedback

While Microsoft can hardly be faulted for basing the feature set of its first Media Center version on internal testing, field tests, and surveys, the company now has a large body of dedicated users who are clamoring to provide the company with feedback about the product. Some of the feedback was surprising, according to Windows eHome Division General Manager Joe Belfiore, who noted that while almost 50 percent of all Media Center buyers were using the machines in their dens, studies, or home offices, 27 percent use the machines in their living rooms, and 23 percent use them in bedrooms.

The usage patterns are interesting as well, and point to the success of Microsoft's current strategy of augmenting Media Center PCs with Media Center Extenders, which allow users to enjoy Media Center content remotely on other TVs in their home (see below for more details, and also my Media Center Extender review). 58 percent of Media Center users watch TV on their PCs, while 27 percent have their Media Center PC connected directly to a TV set.

Most Media Center customers are happy with their machines, too: 89 percent say they are "satisfied," while 66 percent say they are "very satisfied. That said, there is still certainly plenty of room for improvement. Customers told Microsoft that the features they'd like to see most in XP MCE 2005 include improved TV quality, easier music management, the ability to save recorded TV shows to DVD, multi-tuner and HDTV support, archiving/backup of personal memories (photos, home videos), and the ability to enjoy Media Center content in other rooms in the house, and on the go.

Design goals

To that end, the company began working on "Symphony," the product that became Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005. Don't be fooled by reports that this release is a minor upgrade, it's not. First, there's been a not-so-subtle change in the way in which Microsoft perceives XP MCE. In the past, XP MCE was sort of a high-end niche product, since it was available only with special types of PCs which came with bundled TV tuner cards. Now, that vision has changed dramatically. "When we talked about Media Center in the past, we tended to refer to it as the version of Windows that came with a remote [control]," Belfiore said. "But it's also worth mentioning that in this version in particular Media Center represents the version of Windows that is the highest end, most complete, and best version of Windows, even when you're sitting at your desk using your mouse and keyboard. It's the best PC experience you can get as a consumer."

Second, for the first time since XP shipped in 2001, Microsoft has taken the opportunity to provide XP MCE 2005 with a brand new visual style (discussed below), highlighting its prominence and importance in the XP line-up.

And finally--and perhaps most importantly--Microsoft has imbued XP MCE 2005 with a rousing set of upgrades that takes a previously excellent but somewhat flawed product to a whole new level. The visuals in XP MCE 2005 are stunning. So are the new features, which are, yes, refinements, but also major usability wins that will have customers grinning to themselves as they discover the product's improved functionality. You'll see what I mean by that in a bit.

Introducing XP Media Center Edition 2005

Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 is a major improvement over previous versions of XP MCE, with changes both to the underlying Windows desktop and the Media Center experience. If you're an existing Media Center customer, you'll want to get this upgrade as soon as possible. If you've never considered a Media Center PC, this release will likely change you mind. Unlike previous MCE versions, XP Media Center Edition 2005 improves both the core Windows desktop as well as the remote-enabled Media Center experience. In the next two sections, we'll examine those improvements.

Desktop changes

From the first boot, it's clear that Microsoft has not just changed the Media Center environment in this release, but has also updated the underlying Windows desktop to give XP MCE 2005 a unique, stylish, and professional new fascia (Figure). "We've updated the visuals in this release, and you'll see enhancements to the digital media features, making it the premium version of Windows," Belfiore said. The new default visual style, Energy Blue (also seen in Windows Media Player 10 and Windows Media Player 10 Mobile), is a subtle improvement on the default Luna style used by other XP versions, with shiny, sharp edges.

XP MCE 2005 also includes a number of features that Microsoft previously made available only in its $20 Plus! Digital Media Edition for Windows XP, including the Windows Audio Converter, Windows CD Label Maker, Windows Dancer, and Windows Party Mode (Figure). And, it includes screensavers and themes that it previously made available only in its $20 Plus! for Windows XP package. Bundled screensavers include the ever-popular Aquarium (now with more fish) (Figure), Da Vinci, Nature, and Space. Themes include Aquarium, Da Vinci, Nature, and Space. XP MCE 2005 also ships with a unique screensaver called My Pictures Premium: This screensaver presents an animated slideshow of your My Pictures folder, with optional background music, and is quite nice.

Additionally, the version of Windows Movie Maker 2.1 that ships with XP MCE 2005 supports burning DVD movies (Figure), a feature that isn't available to other versions of WMM 2.1 on other versions of XP. It also sports new transitions and video effects (Figure). And while this isn't new to XP MCE 2005, if you like the Media Center interface, but want to use it as a media player, you can run it in a window alongside your other applications.

Finally, XP MCE 2005 ships with all of the core XP improvements from XP Service Pack 2 (SP2, see my review) and is the only version of Windows to ship with Windows Media Player 10 (see my review) in the box. "Even if you haven't run Media Center yet, or even picked up the remote, you've still got a bunch of new features," Belfiore noted.

Improvements to the core Media Center experiences

The Media Center environment--or Media Center experience, as Microsoft likes to call it--has undergone far more impressive improvements. The first thing you'll notice when you bring up Media Center and navigate through the entries in the Start Page (Figure) is the cleaner, easier-to-read new font. Also, most of the Start Page entries now spawn pop-up previews of commonly accessed, or recently accessed, content (Figure). So, for example, if you hover over the My TV choice, you will see pop-ups for Recorded TV, Live TV, and Movies (the latter of which is a new feature I'll explain below), three of the most commonly accessed features of My TV. However over My Videos, and you'll see your most recently accessed videos.

This pop-up effect isn't just pretty, it's useful. That's because it helps you get to the content you want more quickly. For example, we have friends over for dinner every Sunday night, and typically play a random selection of New Age music over a photo slideshow from all of our pictures from 2004. Since we've done this so many times in the past, the "New Age" genre is now the first pop-up preview choice off of My Music on the Start Page, and the "2004" photo folder is the first choice next to My Music. A couple of clicks of the remote later, and we're good to go.

What's interesting is that Microsoft used to bubble up this "most recently used" content on the main page for each subsection. So, for example, to access New Age on XP MCE 2004, I'd have to go to the My Music page. Now, I can save a click. Nice!

Microsoft has also subtly changed the behavior for shutting down Media Center. Previous versions supported the standard Minimize, Maximize, and Close buttons in the upper right side of the Start Page. In XP MCE 2005, there is a single Shut Down icon to the left of the clock. When you select this, it turns bright red and displays the text "Shut Down." Press the button and Media Center displays a handy Shut Down pop-up (Figure), from which you can close Media Center, log off, shut down the system, restart the computer, or enter standby mode.

One of the most dramatic changes in XP MCE 2005 is the new context menu-like pop-ups (Figure) that appear whenever you right-click on an item in Media Center (or click the Details/More Info button on the remote control). "We wanted to provide Media Center with a consistent way to get more information about any object you see onscreen," Belfiore said. You can click the More Info button and you get this list, and say, 'here's this thing, and here's all the stuff I can do with it.' This feature is also extensible, so third parties can add new options to the pop-up menus that will expose functionality in their services.

"Media Center is the most entertaining version of Windows ever," Belfiore said. "If you're into digital photos, TV or DVD, music, or video, this is the place to be. Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 is the first consumer operating system with built-in support for high definition TV (HDTV) programming, and we're covering HDTV broadcasts, HD-DVD, and HD Web downloads in this release.

Setup

Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 features a simpler new setup experience that walks you through the process of configuring your Internet connection, TV signal, speakers, TV or monitor, and other features. Particularly nice are the new options for optimizing the display to match your equipment (Figure). You can also easily setup your speakers to support 2-, 5.1-, or 7.1-speaker setups.

My TV

Billed as the ultimate experience in Media Center television viewing and recording features in XP MCE 2005 have, predictably, received the most attention. "As far as we're concerned, TV watching is the new mission critical application for Windows," Belfiore said.

Indeed the number one request from customers was that Microsoft improve the picture quality for those Media Center systems that were connected to televisions. In previous versions, the company focused on PC-based connections like DVI and VGA, because it felt (and rightfully so) that most people would use Media Center PCs solely as PCs, with traditional PC displays. "Last year, we made a really big step forward with good TV quality on computer displays," Belfiore said. "But one weak area--and a lot of reviews noted this--was that the picture quality of TV on some Media Center PCs wasn't as good as what you'd get from a less expensive DVR device or by just hooking the TV signal directly to the TV set."

Media Center's lackluster picture quality on TV sets was the result of two factors. First, Microsoft didn't dedicate enough time to making it look as good as it could, given the limitations of the hardware. And second, some of the MPEG decoders that PC makers shipped with their systems were, shall we say, crap. "The tuner hardware and the tuner drivers have to be of high quality," Belfiore agreed. "The display hardware and the drivers have to be of high quality. And the truth is, no one was really connecting PCs to TVs in high volume until we released Media Center."

On the note, one of the big focuses with XP MCE 2005 was improving the quality of S-Video display. I can quote facts and figures about how much this has improved, and so forth. But there's no way I can accurately explain what my eyes--and the eyes of my family--now see on our TV set. By simply upgrading to XP MCE 2005, the display improves (we had used S-Video with the previous version of the hardware). Moving to a component video or DVI video out improves matters even further (as does getting a newer TV tuner; the dual tuner, DVI-based NVIDIA NVTV tuner card I'm now using is simply amazing). Long story short, we've got our TV back. No longer does Media Center dumb down the display, and present a muddy palette of washed out colors and lackluster clarity. No longer do we need to switch to the standard cable box connection to view HDTV programming in full quality. Everything on the TV now looks equally beautiful when broadcast through my Media Center PC as it does without it. In other words, adding the Media Center to the chain no longer degrades picture quality. At all. Folks, this heady stuff: For years, we've put up with a degraded picture so we could take advantage of the excellent Media Center features. Now there is no tradeoff at all.

Microsoft tells me that XP MCE 2004 was limited to encoding incoming TV signals at a maximum of 6 Mbps, which was sufficient for most TV shows, but often displays artifacts on fast-moving content like sports and action movies. In XP MCE 2005, the system can now encode incoming TV signals at a maximum of 9 Mbps, resulting in much-improved picture quality and clarity. Also, the newer version displays far fewer MPEG-2 compression artifacts. And now MCE 2005 natively supports DTV displays and can display 720p and 1080i video at its native resolution on large flat screen displays.

Picture quality aside--and let's face it, that's this version's killer feature--Media Center's My TV includes a number of other exciting new features. As with previous versions, you can watch live TV and record television using the integrated personal video recording (PVR) functionality. The difference is, this time you can do both of those tasks simultaneously, thanks to multiple tuner support. That means you can watch a live TV show and record another simultaneously. Or you can record two or more live TV shows simultaneously, depending on how many tuners you have. And let's be clear here: This isn't "dual tuner" support: MCE 2005 supports up to three tuners. So if you want to add three tuners, one of which could be an HDTV tuner, go nuts. A new generation of tuner cards now includes two tuners on a single card, so you could, for example, add three tuners simply by plugging into one of those cards and a more typical single tuner card. AV geeks, rejoice.

I've been testing Media Center 2005 with two tuners for several months, and it works extremely well. If you purchase a dual-tuner machine and plug in just a single TV signal to start, it detects that and deactivates the second tuner until you need it. Smart.

The main My TV screen has been improved to show both recently recorded shows and upcoming scheduled recordings, giving you at-a-glance access to the information you're most likely looking for (Figure). This is also important because most Media Center remotes do not include a dedicated Recorded TV button, as does the excellent HP remote, so this addition can often save you from having to delve deeper into the interface to find the shows you want to watch.

Live TV works similarly to previous versions, but features a wonderful new translucent overlay effect (Figure) that doesn't block 1/3 of the screen display as did previous versions. So when you're pausing a live TV show, navigating through it, or viewing how much time is left in a show, you can do so without destroying the picture.

Recorded TV offers the familiar Sort by Date (Figure) and Sort by Title options; the latter organizes shows alphabetically and combines each episode of a recorded TV series into a single title (so you'll see one entry for "The Simpsons," and not one entry for each Simpsons episode) (Figure). The Scheduled screen (Figure), which shows the complete list of shows you will record in the future, operates in a similar manner. You can also access a history of recorded TV shows.

Vastly improved is the conflict resolution interface, which lets you determine which shows are going to record when two or more are scheduled for the same time period. As before, Media Center is smart about recording. If you try to record an episode of "Blue's Clues," for example, at same time as "Maisy" on a single tuner system, Media Center will automatically reschedule the Blue's Clues recording if it can find another instance of the same episode in the program guide. Otherwise, you get an irresolvable conflict, and it's time for you to make a choice, using the Resolve Conflict screen (Figure). Microsoft feels that it has created a simpler and more obvious conflict resolution feature than is available in other PVR solutions, and though it's been a while since I've looked at TiVo for obvious reasons, I will say that the way it works in XP MCE 2005 is exemplary.

The Media Center program guide (Figure) hasn't changed much since the last release, which means it's still excellent. The only thing that's missing is a timeline that displays exactly where you are in the guide, as Snapstream Beyond TV has. In that software product, a vertical line indicates the exact time, so you can see how close you are to the end of a show. That sort of feature would be nice.

What Media Center does offer, however, is a cool UI for determining which channels you receive. In previous versions, you could navigate through a list of the stations your cable system or other TV source provides, and uncheck those stations you don't get or want to see in the guide (for example, if you don't subscribe to Cinemax, it makes sense to remove those channels from the guide, because you don't want to inadvertently schedule a recording of a movie on Cinemax and then discover you've just recorded two hours of static. In XP MCE 2005, this UI actually changes from channel to channel as you navigate through the list of channels, letting you visually determine whether you receive individual channels (Figure). Well done.

The guide also offers the same filtering options as it did in the previous release. So if you click the Guide button on the remote a second time while in the Guide, you will see options to filter the display to only show movies, kids shows, sports, news, or special programming (which is essentially documentaries, music videos, and other content that doesn't fit neatly into a popular genre category).

Aside from the picture quality improvements, the single greatest new feature in My TV has to be the new Movies functionality (sometime called Movie Guide or Movie Finder), which lets you quickly access the list of movies that are now playing on your TV system, or will soon start (this feature is available only in the US and Canada, Microsoft tells me). "One thing we've tried to do in this release is help customers find really good content," Belfiore told me. "So we're introducing what we call the Movies Guide. In the past, we had the Program Guide and Recorded TV. Now we have the Movies Guide as well." Available as a choice off the main My TV screen, Movies presents a UI so excellent, you'll almost laugh out loud with joy when you see it appear on your screen (Figure). What you get is a screen full of all of the movies that are playing on your TV system, right now, displayed with DVD box-style graphics. It's like CD album art, but for movies. Click the On Next button, and you'll see a similar display, but for the movies that will start at the next half hour and hour (Figure).

I hope it's obvious why this feature is so excellent. Microsoft has added the critical feature of discoverability to movies, and made your cable or satellite system instantly more valuable. However, it doesn't stop there. If you're into the "six degrees of separation" thing, you can also find movies based on Genres (Figure), rating (Figure), actors and directors (Figure), or by title (Figure).

But wait, there's more. Let's say you find a movie and wish to record or watch it. The Movie Info screen (Figure) lets you do that, of course, but also lets you find other showings. Or, you can click the Cast & More link and start down a Web-like adventure in non-linear browsing experience in which you will quickly discover other movies that feature the same actors as the currently selected movie, are similar, or meet other criteria. It's simply a blast to find movies this way.

Sit down, I'm not done yet. Let's say you find a movie and would like to see similar movies, or movies that feature one of the actors in that movie. In the resulting list, you will come across movies that aren't in the program guide. Previously, that meant you simply couldn't record them. However, XP MCE 2005 now features a "Record in Future" feature that lets you set up a recording that what will occur whenever the selected movie appears in the guide in the future (Figure). So you may wake up one day and discover you've got a beautiful digital copy of STAR WARS to watch, months after you'd forgotten you'd even set up the recording. That's just cool.

Still not satisfied? Oh yeah, there's more. Though I wasn't able to test this feature in time for the review, Media Center's newfound extensibility features will let third party services like MovieLink, CinemaNow, and others plug into the Media Center user interface and supply options of their own. So if you're a MovieLink customer, you might see a "Download from MovieLink" option next to a movie that's not in the guide. So instead of waiting, you can see that movie immediately, for a small fee. Impressed yet?

Speaking of online services, one feature that many power users asked for was a way to remotely control Media Center TV recording from the Web. That way, if you were at work, or on a trip, you could call up a Web page and trigger a recording without having physical access to the PC. To satisfy this need, MSN Entertainment will provide a free remote recording service for Media Center users. As with the aforementioned MovieLink service, I wasn't able to test this service, but it should be available at launch or soon thereafter. Other services--from companies as diverse as Discovery Channel and ESPN--will also be shipping soon. I hope to look at these in the near future.

My Music

By default, the main My Music page now displays an album list (Figure), instead of the list of most recently accessed music that the previous version supplied (that information is now available directly from the Start Page's My Music pop-up previews). From here, you can change the view to display all of your music by artist, by playlist, by song, or by genre, and you can search for music as well. "My Music is a lot more streamlined in this version," Belfiore told me. "One of the things that's nice about this design is that your recent music is available right there on the Start Page. So when you visit My Music, you get your full album list, and see all the nice album art."

Also new is a queue-it-up feature, which lets Media Center users add music to a currently playing playlist. Let's say you start playing a single album (Figure) and want to add more music to the list. In XP MCE 2005, all you need to do is navigate to the new music you'd like to queue up (which is to say, add to the end of the current playlist, which is the single album you previously selected), and press the Add to Queue button (Figure). Or you can select it, press More Info on your remote, and then select Add to Queue (Figure). Media Center prompts you nicely when the song is added (Figure) and your queue is updated, which you can verify in the Queue screen (Figure). You can also edit the queue, which is an equally major new feature, using a handy, remote-friendly interface (Figure) that lets you move songs up or down in the list, or remove them altogether.

Want to save your queue as a Windows Media Player-compatible playlist? No problem: Click the Save as Playlist button and you're presented with another nice UI (Figure). Then, when you're back in Windows, you'll be able to access that playlist from WMP too (Figure). But it doesn't stop there, of course. Because this playlist exists in both Media Center and WMP 10, that means it can also be copied to a portable device and enjoyed while jogging, traveling, or engaging in other activities away from your computer or your home. You can even burn that playlist to a CD or DVD using Media Center's new optical media burning capabilities, which was created by Sonic and not Microsoft, and therefore sports a slightly different look and feel than the rest of the Media Center interface. Simply insert a blank disk and then click Create CD/DVD and you're brought to the new Create CD/DVD screen (Figure), where you can choose between Audio CD and Data CD choices for a CD, or data DVD if you have a recordable DVD disc (Figure). Depending on the number of files you choose--a recordable DVD can store several gigabytes of music--this process may take a while (Figure). "I've found that I actually burn more discs now because I spend more time in the family room listening to music and looking at pictures than I ever did when I had to truck up to where the desktop PC is in my house," Belfiore said. These capabilities, thus, become so much more valuable because they're now so simple and convenient, he concluded.

In a similar vein to playlist creation, you can also edit meta data information for individual tracks directly from the Media Center UI using the remote control, which was another major request. To do so, right-click on a track in the queue or an album or song list, and choose View Details (Figure) to bring up the Song Details screen (Figure). From here, you can click Edit Info to change the song title, artist name, or, most interesting, the rating. These values, naturally, are written back to the file and will reflect in WMP 10 as well.

You can also acquire music from CD using Media Center. When you insert an audio CD, it appears at the top of the main My Music screen for easy access (Figure), and you can opt to copy that music to the hard drive using Media Center's 10-foot user interface (Figure).

Finally, because of Microsoft's new extensibility model, which allows third party developers to extend the Media Center interface, online music services like MSN Music, Napster, and many others are taking advantage of the product's ten-foot experience, though none were available for testing at the time of this review.

My Pictures

Though My Pictures has been in Media Center since the beginning, this is the one feature that is, in my opinion, the stealth activity that gets new users most excited about the product. Microsoft does a good job advertising the TV viewing and recording functionality in Media Center, but the ability to enjoy personal family photos on the biggest screen in the house, and do so in an elegant fashion with beautifully animated slideshows, optionally accompanied by music, is actually the most wonderful part of the whole Media Center experience. Time and again, family and friends have sat transfixed in front of our television, as pictures from our more recent trip or family event animate by. It's hard to explain in words, but impossible to deny when you witness it in person. There is just something wonderfully compelling about enjoying digital photographs in this fashion. It makes photo albums look pathetic by comparison. And sometimes, in lieu of recorded TV shows, my children actually ask to "watch pictures" instead. It's amazing. "The social experience is the value you get with enjoying pictures on Media Center," Belfiore agreed.

In XP MCE 2004, Microsoft added the ability to insert a CompactFlash card or other portable storage format from a digital camera and then view those pictures in Media Center before they were acquired using XP's Scanner and Camera Wizard. This time around, the company has wisely added the ability to not only view those pictures, but import them into the computer. "One of the things people asked us for was the ability to copy their pictures to their PC without having to use the mouse and keyboard," Belfiore said, "and they also wanted to be able to plug their cameras in directly," and do this copying without having to remove the camera's memory card.

So when you plug in a digital camera or memory card to your PC, Media Center now offers the ability to both view and import the pictures it contains (Figure). If you select Import, you can determine where the pictures will be copied, and whether to delete them from the camera (Figure).

Regardless of how you do acquire your digital photo collection, Media Center now offers much nicer tools for enjoying and editing those images. As with previous versions, you can choose to play all pictures, or particular folders of pictures, as a slideshow, and this brings with it the now customary but highly entertaining animations and transitions, which are configurable through the My Picture Settings screen. However, you can now perform various editing tasks on each picture, some of which were available in previous versions, but not as nicely presented. To access the can-do list (Figure) for a particular picture, select it and then press More Info (or right-click it). If you choose Picture Details, you can now rotate the picture (clockwise or counterclockwise only, depending on your settings; previously, MCE 2004 included both buttons), print the picture, touch it up, delete it, or navigate to another picture (Figure).

Printing is new, and Touch Up has been significantly improved. To print a picture, select Print and the photo will print to your default printer without any prompting or configuration choices, which is pretty limited. For more complete printing options, you'll still need to visit the Windows UI. But seriously, few people will want to print pictures anyway, when they can enjoy them on the big screen. It's a completely different kind of experience, and arguably those that will want to print will need the mouse and keyboard anyway to perform other, more advanced editing tasks before printing.

The photo Touch Up screen still includes the automatic red eye reduction and contrast enhancement functionality from the previous version, but also adds the ability to crop photos. This is particularly useful for poorly framed pictures that include too much background and too little of the actual subject. "The nice thing about digital cameras is that you get lots and lots of pixels to work with," Belfiore noted. "So with Media Center, you can automatically fix poorly framed photos. We actually have a group at Microsoft Research that does image and video analysis. And one of the things they've been working on is smart crop region detection." So if you choose the Crop option, Media Center will provide a recommended crop area (Figure) but then present you will tools to let you more accurately crop the image using left, right, up, and down movements of the crop region, zoom in and zoom out, and landscape/portrait orientation. It seems to work well.

In keeping with other parts of Media Center, My Pictures also provides a Create CD/DVD link that, like its My Music relation, lets you create an optical disk. In this case, it's obviously just a data disk in each case (though the wizard curiously asks you if you'd like to make an audio CD when you start it from My Pictures), and you can edit the list of photos right before you burn the disc (Figure). The coolest feature here is that you can choose to burn a photo slideshow disc if you choose the DVD option only (Figure). The resulting disc plays fine on virtually any DVD player (Figure), and it's a cool way to share the Media Center photo slideshow experience with non-Media Center users: The slideshows include transitions between pictures, but not animations, and you can use the normal DVD navigational buttons to move through the pictures in the slideshow.

My Videos

My Videos (Figure) is the one component of Media Center that doesn't appear to have visually changed much in Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, though of course it picks up the nice new screen overlays when you pause or perform other tasks. But My Videos has picked up some exciting new capabilities behind the scenes, and these changes dramatically expand this feature's versatility. For starters, you can obviously play back home movies created in XP MCE 2005's new Windows Movie Maker 2.1 version, which features new transitions and DVD burning capabilities. You can also take advantage of HD videos that you download from the Web from locations such as Atom Films (link). HD video, like any HD source, offers amazing resolutions and clarity, and with broadband connections becoming more prominent every day, we should see more and more new sources of these films appear.

Play DVD

Like My Videos, Play DVD hasn't changed much, but it too features the new translucent MCE 2005 overlays and benefits greatly from the overall picture quality improvements in this release (Figure).

Radio

Like XP MCE 2004, the new version includes FM radio playback support. But this version also adds the ability to timeshare FM radio, within limits (Figure). For example, you can pause, rewind, and fast forward through FM radio transmissions (the latter of which obviously requires you to have previously paused or rewound). However, you can't save FM recordings, which would be nice, especially given the product's portable device integration.

If you subscribe to an optional service such as Napster, you can also access Internet radio from the Radio feature.

Online Spotlight and third party customization

With this version of Media Center, Microsoft has expanded the ways in which third parties can plug into the Media Center interface and extend the experience and offer unique value to customers. So the Online Spotlight feature--which connects to online services such as Napster, MovieLink, and Live 365--will be dramatically improved at launch. During the best testing period, and over the past two months, however, this feature has resembled the previous version, so I won't waste much time on it here. In the future, I will examine the new online services integration in Media Center 2005 in a more detailed fashion, by adding to this review. Stay tuned.

More Programs

The first two versions of Media Center offered pretty weak Media Center-capable applications, but thanks to the new extensibility model, that's starting to change in Media Center 2005. This version ships with a number of useful programs, and I expect third parties to eventually show up with even more, as noted above. The test system I was using included three new programs, Create CD/DVD, Messenger, and Sync To Device, along with a few previously-released games (Figure).

We discussed Create CD/DVD throughout the review, but if you access it through More Programs, you can create a multi-media Data DVD disc, a Video DVD disc, or a DVD slide show disc. The Data DVD disc option then lets you navigate through the various areas of the Media Center UI (Figure) and pick content to record from each.

When I heard that Microsoft was integrated MSN Messenger into Media Center, I basically wrote the feature off as a bit of silliness. After all, even with a wireless keyboard, who would want to instant message with other people while watching TV? However, this feature does offer one bit of functionality that many people will probably find useful. You can use it is as an in-house intercom. So your spouse might IM you it's time for dinner or whatever (Figure). Or heck, maybe you like watching the big game with friends, even when you can't be there (Figure).

The third feature, Sync to Device, let's you take advantage of WMP 10's excellent portable device synchronization features using the Media Center 10-foot experience. If you have a Portable Media Center (see my review) or a portable audio player, this features provides a simple and obvious--and remote-friendly--way to synchronize content between the PC and that device (Figure).

Media Center hardware

Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 runs on what's called a Media Center PC, though the line between Media Center PCs and "normal" PCs has blurred significantly since the first version of this product. With XP MCE 2005, white box system builders can supply consumers with inexpensive PCs running the new OS, a significant improvement over the situation from just two years ago, when only major PC makers could sell Media Center PCs, which were expensive, high-end PCs.

Typically, a Media Center will include a Media Center remote control, for accessing the Media Center 10-foot experience, and a USB-based remote sensor that lets the remote communicate with your PC. They will typically include mid-grade to high-end video cards, though I've run the Media Center experience on pretty low-end hardware. Optionally, Media Center PCs will include one or more tuner cards and a hardware or software video encoder for recording TV shows, an IR blaster for controlling cable or satellite set-top boxes, and a TV-compatible output (DVI, S-Video, component, or composite out). A 5.1 or 7.1 channel surround system is preferred, but not required: Media Center works fine with 2 speakers or headphones.

PC makers can optionally ship their Media Center PCs with new high-end universal remote controls, thanks to Media Center's new support for these devices. My guess is that you will only see this option on high-end systems, or as an extra-cost option.

Finally, Media Center is also available on select notebook models from PC makers such as Dell, HP, and Toshiba. I expect other PC makers to start offering affordable Media Center notebooks soon as well.

Remoting the Media Center experience

Also new to this release is compatibility with a new generation of Media Center Extenders, set-top boxes that connect to the Media Center over a network and let you display Media Center content to any TV in your home. "This version of Media Center is very connected," Belfiore said. "By that, I mean you can stay connected with your friends and family [using the aforementioned Messenger integration], and you can make all of these [Media Center] experiences show up throughout your home using devices like Media Center Extenders or Portable Media Centers." I look at Media Center Extenders in detail in my Media Center Extender review.

Also, in late November, Microsoft will ship Media Center Extender for Microsoft Xbox, which provides Microsoft's successful video game system with the ability to function as a Media Center Extender. That product will ship with a Media Center Extender DVD, a special black and green remote control and IR receiver that matches the look and feel of the Xbox, and a setup CD, and will cost about $130. I'll review the Media Center Extender for Microsoft Xbox as soon as its available.

Timing and delivery

While Media Center PCs haven't yet set the world on fire--only 1 million Media Center PCs have been sold in two years--my expectation is that the release of Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 will change all that. Microsoft believes it finally has the formula right this time as well. "This year we think we'll see a dramatic expansion in the types of solutions and choices that a consumer will get when shopping for a PC that's based on Media Center," Belfiore said. "When you think about Media Center, you think about a PC that has a TV tuner [card], that has a remote. There's the normal two-foot experience, and there's the 10-foot thing. Certainly, that's still true, and you can buy a Media PC like that today, or a laptop that's based on Media Center." Those types of PCs basically make up the middle tier of XP MCE 2005-based PCs, according to Belfiore.

What's changed, of course, is that Microsoft has both eased the requirements for Media Center PC builders, and opened up the program to so-called systems builders, those small PC makers that make the "white box" PCs you see so often in mom-and-pop-type computer shops. "This year, you'll see more of the lower-end, low cost PCs running Media Center," he said. "We've reduced the hardware requirements so that PC makers can ship a basic consumer desktop PC with Media Center software on it." Those low-end PCs do not have to include remote controls, as they did in the past, or TV tuner cards.

Also, Microsoft has significantly reduced the cost of XP MCE 2005, when compared to previous versions, which were more expensive than XP Professional. Now, XP MCE 2005 is priced between XP Home and XP Pro, and PC makers say that they will be able to pass this savings onto consumers. The result, they tell me, is that dramatically more Media Center PCs will be sold this holiday season than ever before. Why get XP Pro when you can get the more capable and exciting XP MCE 2005 instead?

On the high-end, Microsoft expects to see an amazing array of high quality Media Center PC solutions with innovative, AV-rack designs that connect to HDTV flat-panel displays. These PCs will typically ship with multiple tuners and feature the latest video cards and other hardware.

Like previous versions, XP MCE 2005 will not be sold at retail, which I still believe is a mistake, especially since the product seamlessly removes any TV functionality if you don't have a TV tuner card. Like previous versions again, existing Media Center owners will have to turn to their PC makers and hope they offer a free or cheap upgrade, because there will be no other way in which to obtain this release. That's a shame of the highest order, because Media Center PC makers have been slow to offer such upgrades in the past, and this release is so strong that many people will want to get it immediately (Update: HP, at least, has already announced plans to support the upgrade). I wish there was an easier and less frustrating way to do so. My fear is that some of these PC makers will go the Pocket PC route and dither for a while and then eventually not support the upgrade on certain Media Center PC models. I hope that doesn't happen, because that's the only possible black mark on what is otherwise a revolutionary product. Microsoft, don't let your partners screw this up.

Conclusions

Folks, Microsoft nailed it with this release, and if you're not excited about this product, check your pulse. Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 elegantly encapsulates all of the technologies I'm excited about into a single package that my entire family effortlessly uses every single day. It's the ultimate example of how technology should be integrated into our daily lives: A seamless experience that improves the quality of our consumption of the digital media content that is most important to us. Thus, it also improves our very lives. We've all smiled or laughed at family photos in a small book: Now imagine them animating to your favorite music on an HDTV screen in your living room. We've spent countless hours ripping our CD collections to the PC: Now enjoy that music on your best stereo system. We're all busy, but have TV shows we'd like to watch: Now consume that content on your schedule, not the TV network's schedule, and skip the commercials, thank you very much.

I could go on and on about the positive impact XP Media Center has had on my family--OK, I have already--but what it comes down to is this. Very rarely does any PC technology leach out into our lives in a positive fashion. The headlines are full of stories about viruses and worms and other electronic attacks, or about the latest machinations of powerful corporation bent on world domination. And yet here, amidst the release of a Windows revision, of all things, I find true satisfaction. This isn't technology for technology's sake. This is technology that makes things better. This is technology for people--like my family, and, I suspect, your family--who just don't care about technology. I know Media Center is something special because people come into my home and see it, and without any prompting, they ask about it. They want to know more. They want to know how they can get this wonderful thing. And they are so blown away by how well it works.

Well, I'm blown away too. You can call this release a minor revision, a point release, or whatever. I can't hear you. From where I stand, this is a lifestyle revolution. And from here on out, life will never be the same.