Fans of Windows XP Media Center now have two disappointments to face. First, for the first time since the original XP Media Center Edition shipped in 2002, Microsoft doesn't have a major update to the popular operating system, but is instead shipping a free but minor update. Second, Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 is the final version of Windows that will be specifically devoted to Media Center; in the Windows Vista family of operating systems, Media Center software will instead be bundled with a number of Windows Vista product editions (See my guide to Windows Vista product editions for the full details). This review deals largely with the former disappointment, though it's not fair to refer to Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 Update Rollup 2 (UR2), as that update is named, as a disappointment. Instead, think of it as a final victory lap for a product that invented a new market category that even Apple is now copying.

A year after its release, I still feel that Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 (see my review) is a huge success. My family has been using Media Center as the sole interface to our television for over three years now, and while there have certainly been issues, we'd never give it up. Our experiences with hardware- and Xbox-based Media Center Extenders have been less successful, but it's clear that Microsoft is on to something. Digital video recording (DVR)--and the consumption of music, photos, and home movies on the best television in the house--is the wave of the future. Heck, it's here now.


UR2, codenamed Emerald, builds on the success of XP MCE 2005 and adds a number of minor new features. None are particularly notable, per se, and one might argue that the biggest point of this release--making XP MCE 2005 compatible with the HDTV Media Center Extender that ships with Xbox 360--will be hidden from most users anyway. And Microsoft is using UR2 to extend MCE 2005 to many more locales, opening up the wonders of Media Center to a much wider range of potential users. Let's take a look.

Installing Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 Update Rollup 2

Installing UR2 is a straightforward procedure. After downloading the update (see below for details), make sure you've got no pending recordings scheduled (Figure) and run the executable from within Windows. As is the case with so many Media Center updates, the UR2 setup application resembles Media Center visually but is instead a standard Windows application (Figure). You have to agree to a EULA (Figure), and then it creates a restore point, installs various Windows and Media Center hot-fixes, and then installs UR2 (Figure). After about 10 minutes, setup completes and prompts you to reboot the system (Figure).

When you boot into Windows, you won't see any changes per se. However, the first time you run Media Center, you'll be asked to join Microsoft's Customer Experience Improvement Program, a feature you might be familiar with in products such as MSN Messenger or Microsoft Office 2003 (Figure). Now it's time to dive in and discover what's new.

New features

In October 2004, Microsoft released Update Rollup 1 (UR1) for Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005. That minor update added support for external ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee) HDTV tuner cards as well as stability and performance improvements. As such, I felt it didn't warrant a full review. UR2 is a different story, as it adds a number of new features.

Xbox 360 Media Center Extender support

Microsoft's upcoming Xbox 360 video game console (see my preview) will include, among other things, a fully functioning software-based Media Center Extender experience that offers a number of additional features when compared to today's standalone Extenders (see my review) and the Xbox Media Center Extender product (see my review). To interface your Media Center PC with an Xbox 360 over a home network (wired or wireless), you will need XP MCE 2005 with UR2 installed.

While I don't yet have an Xbox 360 to test this, here's what's new. Today's Media Center Extender devices are standard definition (SD) only, and don't natively support HDTV. With UR2, Media Center 2005 owners can transmit HDTV broadcasts to an Xbox 360 in full-fidelity, full screen HDTV, with no down-sampling. Furthermore, because Xbox 360 displays natively in HDTV, its Extender experience is far nicer than the muted SD experience today's Extender owners get. And depending on the type of PC you have (i.e. what type of screen you output the Media Center experience to), the Xbox 360 Extender experience might even be more attractive than the display from your actual Media Center.

As with the initial version of XP MCE 2005, you can theoretically connect up to five Extenders to a single Media Center PC. Now, you can theoretically have up to five connected Xbox 360s, or any combination of Xbox 360s, hardware Extenders, and Xbox 1 devices with the Extender software. I say theoretically because most PCs and home networks can't really handle that many simultaneous video streams.

I'll have a lot more to say about the Xbox 360 Media Center Extender experience when I review Xbox 360. Stay tuned.

Away Mode

The second big new feature, Away Mode (codenamed "Always Ready"), also requires special hardware. Specifically, to take advantage of this feature, you need a new kind of Media Center PC that hasn't even been released yet. You might recall that most Media Center PCs sold to date have utilized traditional PC form factors, and not the consumer electronics-type devices that Microsoft has been begging PC makers to explore. But over the past year or so, more den-friendly Media Center PCs have begun appearing, most notably HP's successful Digital Entertainment Center (DEC) models.

Next generation Media Center PCs, which will very likely consist almost entirely of den-friendly devices, will feature a new type of power management that will enable them to behave less like PCs and more like consumer electronics devices. Away Mode takes advantage of this technology, allowing these PCs to appear to turn on and off instantly, providing an interesting half-way house between today's Hibernation and Standby modes. In Away Mode, a PC isn't really off, it's just mostly off (the video display and audio are shut down, most obviously). But a small trickle of electricity allows the system to maintain a faint heartbeat and perform tasks--like recording TV shows and streaming content to Extenders--while appearing to be off. In Away Mode, a Media Center PC is virtually silent, another huge benefit. You can reactivate a Media Center PC in Away Mode by pressing the power button on the Media Center remote: Any other button presses will be ignored.

One nice feature of Away Mode is that it essentially pauses many of the experiences Media Center users have come to expect. For example, while recorded TV shows continue to record when a Media Center is put into Away Mode, photo slideshows or music playlists stop running. When the PC comes out of Away Mode, these activities start up again as soon as the machine comes back on. Likewise, you can also turn on a PC that is currently in Away Mode by inserting a DVD movie or audio CD.

For many people, the biggest benefit of Away Mode is that the PC will appear to almost instantly turn on and off. This appearance of consumer electronics-like reliability will likely make these devices more welcome in people's homes. But as I noted above, you have to get a specially designed Media Center PC to use this functionality. That will limit its appeal--and impact--for the short run.

DVD changer support

Some newer Media Center PCs will also support a unique new feature that's exposed by UR2: They will support DVD changers that let you load in hundreds of DVDs. This is a potentially exciting feature, because it allows users to manage massive collections of DVD movies, simultaneously inserted in a Media Center-connected changer, in the same way that they manage digital video collections or their recorded TV shows. Each DVD will display DVD album art and, when available, rich media information, providing a fairly seamless experience.

DVD burning improvements

Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 includes a Sonic DVD burning utility that allows Media Center owners to burn DVD movies of their recorded TV shows. In UR2, that utility has been updated pretty dramatically. First, it now supports HDTV recorded TV shows, down-converting those shows to SD format so they can be recorded to DVD. Second, the utility supports dual-layer DVD media. And you can trigger DVD recordings remotely from an Extender from the first time, though one might wonder about the convenience of having to run over to the actual PC to make sure it is loaded with blank media first.

New HDTV features

Microsoft's support of HDTV in Media Center has always been somewhat mixed, but the situation improves, if only a little, with the addition of UR2 to XP MCE 2005. In the original shipping version of XP MCE 2005, Microsoft allowed users to add a single ATSC HDTV tuner card in addition to two (identical) SD tuner cards. With UR2, it is now possible to configure a Media Center with a total of four tuner cards, two SD and two HDTV. This enables you to record four shows at a time (2 HD, 2 SD), assuming you have that many inputs. You could even theoretically record four shows and watch a recorded show (HD or SD), simultaneously.

UR2 also adds a minor change that should please HDTV owners. Now, when HDTV shows are made available through an ATSC tuner, they are specially denoted in both the Program Guide and in the Recorded TV list with a unique HDTV icon. This visual cue will help you easily discern HDTV shows from SD shows. That means you can choose the higher quality shows easily, when browsing for something to watch or record.

And, for whatever it's worth, it's entirely possible to record HDTV content off of an HDTV tuner (such as the cable set-top box I use) using a normal SD/NTSC tuner card. The recorded content will be in 720 x 480 SD (not true HDTV) but will still look excellent and will transmit properly to all types of Extenders. This isn't new to UR2, but I just wanted to point it out.

Improved TV picture zoom

In the initial version of XP MCE 2005, Microsoft provided a new zoom feature designed to help widescreen TV owners find a display mode that looks best on their set. That system supports three zoom modes: normal, zoom, and stretch. In UR2, Microsoft has added a fourth zoom mode, intelligent zoom. In this mode, the edges aren't actually pushed off the side of the screen; instead, the center of the picture is stretched less than the edges. All of these modes are accessed with the More Info/Details button on the Media Center remote, and are only available when viewing Media Center on a widescreen display.

Digital radio support

For customers in countries such as Australia, England, France, and Germany, UR2 adds support for DVB-T (Digital Video Broadcast Terrestrial) digital radio signals.

Automatic optimization

With UR2 installed, XP MCE 2005 can now be configured to automatically optimize the system for the best possible performance (Figure). This option is pretty limited: You can basically just assign a time (say 4:00 am) each day when the system will perform optimization. So what is optimization you ask? You'll laugh when you hear the answer: Basically, Media Center does a "soft reboot," shutting down and restarting the eHome Shell background services (which control TV recording and scheduling). It's sort of a cure-all software enema, I guess. It seems to work wonders for stability and reliability, however.

Bug fixes and stability and performance improvements

As with previous updates, UR2 includes many bug and security fixes, and stability and performance improvements. For example, the close captioning system has been completely overhauled (finally), as has the way closed captioning is rendered to Extenders. You can also configure the system to automatically download and install updates for your system from directly within the Media Center interface (Figure). This appears to be a very simple front-end to the Automatic Updates functionality that's built into Windows XP.

Timing and pricing

Though it was completed in August, Microsoft released Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 Update Rollup 2 to the Web on Friday, October 14, 2005. Media Center PC owners running Windows XP MCE 2005 should now be able to download the update via Windows Update/Microsoft Update or from the Microsoft Downloads Web site. UR2 is a free update available to all owners of Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005.

Conclusions

It is with a certain amount of sadness that I bid farewell to Windows XP Media Center Edition. Though a minor update, Update Rollup 2 is the final significant enhancement that Media Center will receive before it is subsumed into the wider Windows client project known as Vista. During Media Center's short lifetime, I often advocated that Microsoft open up this software to more users by making it available for purchase separately from XP Media Center Edition. That won't happen per se, but at least more users will be able to experience Media Center as part of more mainstream Windows Vista editions. For now, existing XP Media Center Edition 2005 users have a wonderful and free update that gives them new capabilities and better stability and performance. And potential Media Center PC buyers no longer have any reason to hold out. Either way, UR2 will give you the best possible PC-based DVR and digital media experience available today. Highly recommended.