Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 is one of the stealthiest major software releases Microsoft has ever released. Several months in the making, and several beta machines later, I'm still surprised that the company didn't do anything throughout 2003 to build excitement for the new version, which ships September 30, 2004 with a variety of new and modified Media Center PCs from a number of PC makers, including notable new additions Sony and Dell. In this review, I'll examine the new software release, its myriad new features, and the various other supporting technologies that are becoming available now to Media Center owners for the first time. So buckle up, digital media fans, it's going to be a long but rewarding ride.

Me and my Media Center

First, let's put this release in perspective. It's been over eighteen months since my first experience with Windows XP Media Center Edition (XP MCE), the first version of which was code-named "Freestyle". Starting in mid-2002, a Hewlett-Packard (HP) Media Center PC (MCPC) has been at the heart of my family's entertainment system, and we've spent the time since locked in a love-hate relationship with this device. The problems are outlined in my review of XP MCE, but they essentially boil down to the pros and cons of using a standard Windows-based PC as a consumer electronics appliance: As stable as the underlying OS is, there're just so many things that can go wrong in a PC. And they do. But there's another side to XP MCE, and it needs to be told: Despite the inexplicable glitches and the occasional crashes, my family has come to rely on the HP MCPC. And as it's changed our TV viewing habits dramatically, we've come to a consensus: We're not giving it up.

In February 2003, I received my first beta hardware with Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 (code-named "Harmony"), an evolutionary update to the original XP MCE release that addresses key customer issues and adds compelling new features. The initial excitement quickly died, however, because that first beta release was far less stable and performance-challenged than the shipping version of XP MCE 1.0, and after struggling with it for a few weeks we gave up and went back to the original. But there were signs of life in all the tumult: The new features in XP MCE 2004 looked interesting, and we were eager to try out the new system in the ultimate real world scenario: The busy den of a family with two kids. Our first chance came in April 2003, when the Beta 1 Update for Harmony arrived, offering performance improvements and bug fixes. Since then, my family has used various beta versions of Harmony full-time, including a stable and very usable Beta 2 release, as our primary TV interface and digital video recorder (DVR), on a variety of beta PCs, and with our original HP MCPC. And in late August 2003, we finally received the final, shipping code. This review, then, encompasses several months of experience with the software and various beta hardware devices.

Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004: The mile-high view

So what is Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004? Like its predecessor, XP MCE 2004 is basically Windows XP Professional Service Pack 1 (SP1) bundled with an additional application, dubbed Media Center, and related supporting services. The Media Center software provides friendly, remote control-capable access to your digital media files, like music and photos, and provides digital video recording (DVR) functionality so that you can record TV shows and watch them whenever you'd like; as with any DVR device, you can also pause live TV and perform other similar tasks.

Again, XP MCE 2004 is only available with new PCs, though Microsoft has supplied the software to PC makers so they can upgrade existing customers (more on that below). And again, there are no plans to offer the MCE software to consumers as a standalone product. For what it's worth, I still believe this is a mistake, though I understand the rationale behind the decision. Microsoft says it's all about the end user experience, and that by controlling the hardware platform and limiting it to a small subset of the available PC hardware out there, they can ensure that less technically savvy consumers will be able to get the system up and running more easily. Thanks to the software's friendly wizards and paper-based instructions, this is somewhat true. But the reality is that MCPCs are still too difficult to set up, depending on your cable or satellite system and accompanying home stereo/TV hardware. And the types of people that would be most interested in XP MCE this early in its life cycle are technical enough to make it work. I suspect many consumers will be befuddled by the systems today, especially if they're not comfortable installing stereos or VCRs.

In any event, XP MCE 2004 is a good upgrade from the previous version, with performance enhancements, UI fixes, and a somewhat dramatic extension of the basic functionality that was available in the original Media Center release. Some key changes include new FM radio compatibility for systems with FM radio tuners, the ability to copy CDs to the computer directly from within the Media Center interface, the ability to edit and enhance photos directly from within the Media Center interface, a new TV calibration wizard that seeks to simplify the process of customizing the system for your particular display type, and new native support for 16 x 9 widescreen displays (but not HDTV).

Additionally, Microsoft has opened up the Media Center interface for third party software developers, leading to a dramatic increase in the number of software titles and services designed to work only with Media Center PCs. Thanks to a new XP MCE 2004 software development kit (SDK), you'll soon see a variety of interesting Media Center-specific applications, including Sonic's PrimeTime DVD maker, music and video download services such as CinemaNow, Movielink, and Napster, and an interesting selection of Media Center-games. These, too, will all be examined later this review.

Finally, there are a number of new hardware advances which aren't necessarily XP MCE 2004 specific, but are coming of age during this product's lifetime. First, a number of PC makers are now shipping notebook computers running XP MCE, and this trend will expand with the release of XP MCE 2004. Today, you can purchase XP MCE notebooks from Toshiba, HP, Alienware, and a few other PC makers. In the months ahead, several new notebook machines will become available from these and other companies. The price of MCPCs is also coming down: When the original XP MCE debuted last October, only HP's $1800 system was widely available. Today, a variety of MCPCs are available from numerous PC makers at a number of price points. Now, we finally see systems for under $1000, and with XP MCE 2004, there are more than 40 PC makers signed on to release the devices. In Europe and the Far East, especially, we will see some innovative and exciting PC form factors, a design aspect of the Media Center that Microsoft's hardware partners foolishly never realized in the US market: Most of today's MCPCs are stolid, boring looking PCs for the most part, a far cry from the cool form factors Microsoft anticipated and explicitly requested. While that situation doesn't seem likely to change much for the foreseeable future in the US, customers in other countries will have a far wider range of machine types from which to choose.

Setting up your Media Center PC

Let's not mince words here: Setting up a Media Center PC is still a difficult task for most people. That said, setting up a TiVo or other DVR is equally difficult, and Microsoft has made great gains over the first version, so it's at least easier than it was. The big issue here, of course, is the complexity of interjecting a Media Center PC--or any device--between your television set and your TV signal, which could be cable, satellite, antennae (God forbid), or whatever, and the inevitable set-top box it requires. This is a world enveloped in an endless series of wires, all of which must be matched carefully with the correct inputs. Things don't work at all when everything isn't matched up correctly. And frustration sets in very, very quickly.

So unless you were an AV geek in high school, get ready for a lot of heartache. I found it tough, at least: As the XP Media Center Edition 2004 beta wound down, I ended up with two different Media Center PCs, and I tested both in completely different situations, each with unique wiring needs. The first PC was the original HP MCPC that's in my den; I upgraded this box to XP MCE 2004 and my family continues to use it as our primary TV interface, sans computer display. This TV gets an HDTV feed from RCN cable. The second PC was a loaner unit from Microsoft that I used as my main PC in the home office. This box features a screaming 3.2 GHz Pentium 4 CPU with Hyper-Threading Technology and an amazing Mitsubishi HDTV widescreen LCD display, the LT-2220 (see sidebar). TV output on this second PC went to a small 13" television for testing purposes only, and the TV feed, also from RCN cable, was directly cabled, sans set-top box.

In the box with the MCPCs I've seen are the PC itself, a remote control, the IR interface box with USB cable, an IR blaster cable, a coaxial cable, an S-Video cable, an S-Video-to-RCA adapter, plus all the normal cables and devices you expect to find with any PC, including power, keyboard and mouse. To understand how these pieces fit together, consider a simple den arrangement like the one in my home. We have a cable feed from the floor that goes into a cable box via coax. Because it's HDTV-enabled, the cable box feeds the TV via five monstrous component cables. To put a MCPC in this setup, you need to drive the display from the set top box to some kind of IN on the MCPC; in machines I've seen, coaxial is the only option. To get the MCPC back display out to the TV, I've seen several options, but only one has worked, and it's the lowest quality option of the bunch. This is the infamous S-Video-to-RCA adapter, and it's the only way I can get the Media Center to display on my primary TV. Depending on your setup, and the MCPC you buy, you might be able to drive the display with straight S-Video or coax, either of which would offer better video quality.

Either way, we're stuck with analog video on most of today's TV sets: XP MCE 2004 doesn't natively support HDTV, and that's a shame (Microsoft tells me they're working on it for a future release). That's because the MCPC downgrades the quality of the TV signal as it passes through the box: My HDTV signal is gorgeous when I shoot it directly to the TV. But when I pass it through the MCPC, the colors are muddier and less vibrant. On the other hand, it's recordable. And as I mentioned previously, this makes a big difference.

Another thing that makes a big difference is a computer display. If you happen to use a computer display of any kind, or a display with a DVI interface, as the main display for the Media Center, you'll notice a dramatic improvement in quality over a standard analog TV display. That's because MCPCs are Windows PCs, and they can display digital video wonderfully over digital connections. On the Mitsubishi display I tested, video was sharp and clear, and the computer display was wonderful, with the excellent landscape aspect ratio that is only now beginning to become common on desktop and notebook displays. Users with plasma or LCD displays will love XP MCE 2004.

And then there's the IR blasting issue. If you're not familiar with this process, it basically involves sticking a little hardware nubbin in front of the set top box, wiring it to the MCPC's IR box, and then "blasting" the set top box with the remote for the Media Center. This lets your Media Center PC drive the cable box, albeit slowly. With the original Media Center edition, you had to scroll through a list of set top box manufacturers and find your exact model, then test it to make sure it worked. With XP MCE 2004, Microsoft has created a friendly wizard called Set-Top Box Learning Mode that learns which system you have by investigating your set top box's remote control via IR. In my tests, this system didn't work very well, but to be fair, I had recently upgraded to HDTV, and have a brand new cable box that might not be natively supported by XP MCE 2004 yet. There's always manual control.

As with the previous version, XP MCE 2004 needs a network connection of some type to download your channel guide information. If you're a typical XP user and have libraries of digital music, photos, or videos, Media Center 2004 will automatically consume these files and make them available to you via remote control, assuming you've placed them in the normal XP folders (My Music and so on). At this point, you're free to watch TV, record shows, listen to music, or perform any other entertainment or computer-oriented tasks.

Using Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004

The XP MCE 2004 interface (figure) is still beautiful and slightly evolved from the previous edition. Because Microsoft is allowing so many third parties to write add-on applications and services for XP MCE 2004, the Start menu is now rooted to the middle of the screen, with the middle option always selected (My TV is the default option). But as you move the selection up and down, the Start menu revolves around the centered selection point (movie), allowing for many more Start menu items than the previous version. And as you add programs and services to XP MCE 2004, they add a launch point to the Start menu. Nice!

New to this release is 16:9 support, which looks wonderful on large-screen TVs and LCDs and Plasma screens. On the Mitsubishi display I tested, XP MCE 2004 is visually stunning, but widescreens have practical implications as well. Thanks to the added width, it's possible to view 30 minutes of additional Guide Content on a 16:9 display, for example.

Remote navigation remains identical with the previous version and the basic UI is very similar to the previous version. But this is a case of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." The XP MCE 2004 is attractive, well-laid-out, and easy to navigate, both with the remote and the mouse.

Let's take a look at the various Media Center experiences, and see how they've evolved from the previous version.

My TV

As the linchpin of the Media Center experience, My TV is, perhaps, the place where most users will spend the most time (figure). The main My TV interface, like the rest of XP MCE, has been changed in very subtle ways. On the left side, the Guide, Recorded TV, Search, and Settings choices have been augmented by a Live TV choice; previously, you could simply select the video image in the center of the screen to go to Live TV, and yes, this still works. But by adding an explicit choice for this option, Microsoft has made obvious a very common choice. Likewise, on the bottom of the screen, a list of the three most recently recorded shows has been added, and the title of the current show is now overlayed on the video display for space reasons. These changes make the My TV interface more usable and complete.

The Media Center Guide has likewise been improved (figure). Now, TV station names are more clearly displayed (previously, they faded to the right for some reason) and you can filter the Guide on the fly by hitting the Guide button a second time; this lets you choose between All on now (the default), Movies, Kids, Sports, News, and Special (figure). As with the previous version, you can filter channels manually, which is great, but this new change lets you see what's on right now more easily, and it's especially helpful if you want to see what kids shows are on, as we often do. There are other small changes. You can press FWD to jump ahead 3 hours in the Guide, and SKIP to jump 12 hours (similarly, you can jump back with REW and REPLAY). To help you with some of the more obscure new navigational features, Microsoft even throws in a few helpful tips, on screen, from time-to-time.

Recorded TV has been improved dramatically. The UI is slightly modified, losing the day headings from the previous version, allowing for more recorded show titles to appear without scrolling. Sort by name has been changed to Sort by title, and is now the second choice in the Recorded TV options list, ahead of Sort by category and below Sort by date, the default. Microsoft has removed the Recording errors option and added a new Add recording option, which I'll get to in a moment.

But the biggest changes with Recorded TV are under the hood. Now, XP MCE 2004 allows you to pad your recordings automatically, allowing for shows that annoyingly start a bit before or after the hour to record in full. It's also much easier to assign priorities to TV recordings that are important to you; this helps with conflict management and is a much nicer system than that employed by the previous version (which basically amounted to setting the priority only at the time you configured the recording). XP MCE 2004 even handles line-up and channel changes, and if you decide to record a new show during a time in which another show was set to record, it will attempt to find the cancelled show at another time and quietly record it for you automatically. Little changes like this that really add up, and they make this version a huge improvement over the previous one.

When you attempt to set up a show recording from the Recorded TV interface, you're presented with a new interface. Now, Add recording includes Record from Search, Record from Guide, Autorecord, and Manual Record options. The first two are pretty straightforward. Autorecord, however, is interesting: It configures XP MCE 2004 to continually find and record shows based on preferences such as actors, directors, or keywords. So if you're a Clint Eastwood fan, for example, Autorecord could, for example, find and record any Western movies with that actor. It's a nifty feature. Manual record lets you manually enter the channel number, frequency, date, start time, and end time for a recorded show.

My Music

As before, My Music (figure) aggregates the digital music on your system and displays it in an attractive manner, using your automatically generated album art images (assuming you used Windows Media Player 8 or 9 to record them). And as before, the main My Music interface displays recently played music along with a list of options. This options list has been slightly enhanced. In addition to Albums, Artists, Playlists, View Songs (now just "Songs"), Genres, and Search, XP MCE 2004 adds a Settings option that navigates directly to the My Music section of Settings, naturally. Album view is basically unchanged over the previous version, as is Artists and Playlists. But the Now Playing screen has been enhanced with more meta data information, including publisher, year, and length (in addition to track number, song title, artist information, and album title).

The big change here, however, is that XP MCE 2004 can copy music to your digital music collection, using the familiar remote interface, meaning you don't have to drop down to Windows and Windows Media Player to do so (figure). This is a neat feature, and it's nicely implemented. One gets the idea that a large percentage of users specifically asked Microsoft to add this feature, however, since it violates the Media Center "consumption" mantra (that is, Media Center is about consuming media, not creating it). Whatever the reason, I'm sure many users will be happy to see it's been added.

Thanks to integration with Windows Media Player 9, XP MCE 2004 also supports that program's Auto Playlists feature. When you navigate to the Playlists section in My Music, the new Auto Playlists page lists the familiar set of WMP 9 playlists, including "Favorites -- 4 and 5 star rated," "Favorites -- Listen to at night," and so on. XP MCE 2004 also displays WMP 9 visualizations optionally in Now Playing mode, a nice addition.

My Pictures

If you've been following along since the beginning, you won't be surprised to discover that My Pictures (figure) has also seen some subtle improvements. The main screen now sports a slightly reordered options list (Play slide show, Sort by title (instead of "sort by name"), Sort by date, My Pictures, Shared Pictures, Other media, and Settings. Other media is new to this release, and it allows you to access digital pictures found on removable media devices, such as the memory cards used by digital cameras. This is a handy feature, made even handier when you consider the fact that most MCPCs ship with an integrated 6-in-1 media card reader.

When you view a photo slideshow--still the same mesmerizing experience it was when we first discovered this feature--the transitions between images are nicely animated, as are the images themselves, ala Plus! Photo Story from Plus! Digital Media Edition. Optionally, you can select more pedestrian cross-fade transitions or no transitions.

My Videos

The final major section that's been carried over from the original version is My Videos, and again, there are some interesting if subtle changes. Now, XP MCE 2004 automatically displays the first viable frame of each video as its thumbnail image (figure), a nice touch (previously, video icons had plain images). Like My Pictures, My Videos now sports an "Other media" option that lets you consume movies on a removable storage card. My kids are particularly taken with the My Videos section these days because that's where we store their little Web cam videos, which invariably includes them seeing themselves on screen and laughing in delight. Whatever makes them happy.

Play DVD

DVD playback appears to work similarly to that of the previous version. There's no Play DVD section per se; when you select this option from the Start menu, the DVD just starts playing. As with any other video content, you can perform the standard navigational actions--pause, fast forward, and so on--with DVD movies as well.

Radio

New to XP Media Center 2004 is the Radio section (figure), which shows up only on machines with an integrated FM radio receiver (new MCPCs should include this feature, but you can purchase a USB module if you're interested). This feature natively supports FM radio only, but with the addition of optional third-party paid services, such as those offered by MusicMatch or Napster (see below for more information), you can access Internet Radio as well. This is another feature that was high on customers' wish lists, and Microsoft responded, albeit without adding native Internet Radio support, which would have been preferable. I'm told there are technical reasons for not having this feature in XP MCE 2004, but hopefully it will appear in a future release.

Online Spotlight

Also new to this edition is Online Spotlight ("Media Online" during the beta), which presents a Web site about Media Center content, applications and services (figure). This content includes digital on-demand movies, digital music distribution services, and games. Some of it is free, some subscriber-based, and much of it is shipping from third-party developers. I'll have more about XP MCE's Online Spotlight services in the next section. But the thing to remember here is that Media Center is suddenly a platform, in the sense that Microsoft and other companies are building products designed specifically for this OS. These products will be highlighted in Online Spotlight going forward.

Extending Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004

In the initial release of XP Media Center, it was possible to run applications from the Media Center UI using barely supported and pretty hokey methods, such as adding a shortcut to the Accessories--Media Center folder in the Start Menu. And though Microsoft released a few small Media Center utilities--notably a remote-enabled version of Solitaire--XP MCE was, for all intents and purposes, a standalone application. It was good at what it did, but that was all it did.

Flash forward to late 2003, and this new release, XP Media Center Edition 2004, is quite a different beast. Now supported by a full Software Development Kit (SDK) aimed at third party programmers (it's available for download from MSDN as you read this), XP MCE 2004 is fully extensible, and Microsoft will announce a variety of add-on applications and services from a variety of third party companies the day the software is release. Best of all, more is on the way.

During the XP MCE 2004 beta, only a few of these applications and services were available to me for testing, and I'll present a few quick notes about them here. In the future, I hope to highlight various Media Center add-ons in technology showcases on this site. In the meantime, here's what I've seen so far. I suspect there'll be more in the days ahead as well. Note that all of these services work completely via remote, so you can use them from your couch, and that's the way I tested them (typing in name and address information with a remote, I should note, is not a lot of fun, but it works).

CinemaNow

An online digital movie rental service, CinenaNow (figure) currently offers over 700 movies at prices ranging from about $2 to $10 (new releases are $4.95; adult titles are $9.99). Here's how it works: You download the content, and then generally have 24 hours to view it once you start viewing the film. Until you start viewing the film, it sits on your hard drive, ready to go. While online services such as this are a relatively small market today, the potential is huge when you combine a Media Center PC with a broadband connection, and it offers the best of pay-per-view with video on demand. The quality of the movies was fantastic from both the TV and the LCD; the audio, however was a bit tinny, like a low-quality MP3. Regardless, the overall quality was quite acceptable and the service is certainly more convenient than NetFlix or standard video rentals. On the minus side, 700 movies isn't a huge selection. Hopefully, that will improve over time.

MovieLink

Like CinemaNow, I had tested the MovieLink digital movie rental service previous to the Media Center 2004 version, so I was familiar with the service. MovieLink (figure) is very similar to CinemaNow, offering customers downloadable movie rentals. After downloading a movie from MovieLink, you have 30 days to begin viewing it, and you can then view it as often as you like for 24 hours. Prices are similar to that of CinemaNow, with new releases going for $4.95.

MSN TV

Essentially a Web-like front-end to MSN and MSNBC, MSN TV presents news, weather, and stock quotes in a simple, remote-accessible interface (figure). You can configure weather for your home and favorite locals, and navigate several types of news stories, including Top Stories, Business, Technology, Sports, Entertainment, and Travel. The interface presents blurbs for the stories you select and then loads the MSNBC Web site when you choose to view the whole story. It's unclear to me how many people will want to consume news in this fashion, but the interface appears to work well, including what could have been a jarring transition between the sterile MSN TV interface and the MSNBC Web site.

MusicMatch

Launching later this fall, the MusicMatch Online Music service (figure) will offer PC users a way to purchase and stream music online. The beta interface for XP MCE 2004 looks nice, integrating seamlessly with the Media Center and presenting choices for searching, browsing, radio stations, and the like. It's radio station feature emulates a real radio station but lets you jump forward to new songs. The interface also supplies nice links to related artists, regardless of where you are at the time, a nice feature for people trying to find new music.

Napster

The controversial Napster service is going legit this fall (figure), and it appears to be very similar to MusicMatch Online Music, with searching and browsing functionality, streaming music, and recommendations. Napster's interface seems a bit more technical than that of MusicMatch, and it will probably appeal more to hard core music fans as a result.

Sonic Primetime

This much needed application from the makers of the best DVD recording software on the planet allows Media Center users to burn DVD movies of their recorded TV shows. Sonic Primetime (figure) works wonderfully, though it's pretty light on features: You can't modify menus or themes, or anything like that. But if you're looking for a straightforward way to backup or archive your recorded TV shows, PrimeTime's a hit. I'll be examining this application more closely for Connected Home Magazine in the near future.

Games

A handful of Media Center 2004-compatible games from Wild Tangent will ship with most MCPCs, including Gem Master (figure) and Otto's Magic Blocks (figure). Both are colorful and whimsical and both, of course, interact solely with the remote control. I'm a big game player, but I favor first person shooters like Halo and Quake, so neither of these were particularly interesting to me.

PC vs. consumer electronics, round two

In my initial XP Media Center review, I noted the problems with using a Windows-based PC in the living room. Oddly enough, since writing that review, Microsoft has confided in me that a startling number of users actually use the product in precisely this way, despite marketing efforts aimed at emphasizing its use a PC and not a consumer electronics device. Doubtless, these users have run into some of the same problems we've experienced. After all, Windows is Windows, and it crashes occasionally, often without warning or apparent cause. It's no toaster.

That said, XP Media Center Edition 2004 is far more stable than the previous version. It crashes and hangs less, stutters and pauses on its own less, and experiences fewer general issues. It's still Windows though. So if you're thinking of using a MCPC as a TiVo replacement, keep this in mind. I recommend investing in a wireless keyboard and mouse: Otherwise, you'll find yourself getting up to access their wired counterparts too often. There are few problems a CTRL+ALT+DEL can't fix, even in the more stable world of Windows XP.

Price-wise, XP Media Center Edition has improved dramatically since its initial release last year. No longer premium priced super computers for the tech elite, there are now Media Center PCs at virtually any price point. What you lose as you move down the price range, of course, are things like hard drive capacity and DVD recorders. But it's your choice, and there is now a machine for almost any potential customer.

Timing and delivery

Microsoft finalized Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 in mid-August 2003 and shipped it to its hardware partners soon thereafter. The company will launch the product on September 30, 2003 and we should see new Media Center PCs featuring the new software soon after that date from a variety of PC makers. As 2003 comes to close, a variety of new hardware form factors will also become available. More on that when I'm cleared to discuss details of these new machines.

Conclusions

In the year since Windows XP Media Center Edition was first released, my family's HP Media Center PC has become a fixture in our home, and the primary means through which we interact with the TV. Despite the various issues we've had with the software, we'd never give it up, and that is perhaps the highest complement one can pay to any digital device. Thanks to improvements in Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004, these devices are even more valuable and reliable, and with price points falling, I have fewer reservations about recommending Media Center PCs to typical consumers. Setup is still confusing, but that's true for any DVR device, and the extras you get with a full-fledged Windows XP PC should not be overlooked. As the reigning multimedia champ, Windows XP is still the best way to interact with digital music, photos, and videos, and with its neat ten-foot interface, XP Media Center Edition 2004 brings this content out of the home office and into the more comfortable living spaces of your home. Few people now doubt that computer technology and home entertainment are merging, and Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 is the clearest indication yet of that trend. This release is a winner, and an exciting preview of the future.