Over eighteen months ago, when I received my first preview of Freestyle, the technology that became Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition (XP MCE), an obvious question arose: How would Microsoft deliver this exciting front-end to digital media tasks such as digital video recording (DVR), digital photos, digital music, and digital video to customers? At the time, Microsoft told me that it had not yet determined how it would distribute Freestyle. But after the software evolved into XP MCE, Microsoft had an answer: It would ship only with a special new type of PC the company called Media Center PCs, and it would not be made available to existing Windows XP users.

At the time, I opined that this was the wrong decision, and I still feel that way today. Since then, Microsoft has upgraded XP MCE to a new version, Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004, an evolutionary upgrade that fixes major customer complaints, improves stability and performance, and adds numerous new features. XP MCE customers can upgrade to XP MCE 2004 cheaply, through their PC makers, but that doesn't help existing XP Home and Pro users, as there is still no upgrade path to XP MCE from those versions. You must still buy a Media Center PC if you want the new software.

Apparently, I'm not the only one who believes that Microsoft is wrong to limit the market for this type of software. Last month, Dell CEO Michael Dell revealed that his company would provide its Dimension desktop users (and some Inspiron notebook buyers) with new multimedia software, dubbed the Dell Media Experience, for free when they bought a new Dell PC. Though the preview was brief, Dell's Media Experience software appeared to be very similar to XP MCE. Had Dell partnered with Microsoft to finally deliver XP MCE to the masses? What was this new software, exactly?

At the XP MCE 2004 launch event in New York on September 30, 2003, I discovered the answer. It turns out Dell didn't partner with Microsoft, but the software it's delivering does bear a suspicious similarity and functionality to XP MCE. Here's what Dell is doing with its Media Experience software, and why it's going to be a viable alternative to XP MCE for many people.

Dell Media Experience: Digital media for the masses

In a meeting with Dell Chief Marketing Officer and vice president Michael George, I discovered that the Dell Media Experience was designed as a great entry vehicle for consumers to experience digital entertainment free of charge on their PC. "Our view is that it's the right time to get the mainstream consumer market acclimated to digital media," George told me. "For more savvy people, or those with more disposable income, we now offer a Media Center PC, [the Dimension 4600c]." The Dell Media Experience software will be provided free of charge only with new computers for now, though Dell is looking at upgrades for existing customers. All Dimension desktops, and most Inspiron notebooks, will eventually ship with the software, starting later this month.

"The Dell Media Experience offers a simple UI that is roughly comparable to XP Media Center in terms of music, photos, videos, and DVD," George said. "It's been dialed one step down. But it's a great entry vehicle for people without a lot of experience managing digital media." Looking at the Dell Media Experience for the first time, we were stuck by how much the software resembles XP MCE. After using it a bit, however, it's clear that the Dell Media Experience isn't as clean, finely-tuned, or technically advanced as XP MCE, and it's more similar to the old version of XP MCE than it is to XP MCE 2004 from a performance standpoint. Still, you can't beat the price, which is free. Or, for $30, you can order a Cyberlink remote control and USB-based infra-red (IR) interface, which installs on XP without the need for any drivers (photo). In fact, it was Cyberlink that created the underlying Dell Media Experience software; Dell created the look and feel of the software, or the UI, in-house, George told me. The engine that drives the Dell Media Experience, likewise, is Cyberlink technology, not Windows Media 9 Series.

I tested the software on a new Dell Latitude D800 notebook, using both the Cyberlink remote control and standard mouse/keyboard control. The Latitude (essentially identical to the Inspiron 8600, a consumer product) features a 15.4-inch widescreen 1280 x 800 LCD driven by a 64 MB NVIDIA graphics chip, a 1.6 GHz Pentium-M processor, 512 MB of RAM, a 40 GB hard drive, 802.11g wireless networking, and a DVD/CD-ROM combo drive. It's a multimedia monster, equally at home with today's most advanced 3D games, DVD movies, and other multimedia tasks as it is pushing pixels in PhotoShop, Word, or Excel. In other words, it's the perfect complement to the Dell Media Experience. Let's take a look.

Dell Media Experience: A hands-on report

Dell Media Experience is designed to provide a friendly, remote-capable front-end to digital media tasks such as a music, pictures, video, and, optionally, DVD. In other words, it does everything XP MCE does minus its DVR/TV functionality, which is obviously a major selling point of Media Center PCs. Like XP MCE, the Dell Media Experience presents a simple UI to the user, with large colored buttons representing each of the digital media tasks you can perform. There is also an XP MCE-like title bar with navigational and help controls, and you can run the application full-screened (the default) or in a window. Amazingly, Dell supports both the more typical 4:3 displays and widescreen 16:9 displays, such as that found on the Latitude D800. I tested Dell Media Experience in 16:9 mode.

In general, Dell Media Experience is attractive, if suspiciously similar looking to XP MCE (figure). The software lacks the graphical niceties of XP MCE, however. For example, when displaying a video or DVD movie, the title bar and navigational controls on the bottom of the screen stumble clumsily off-screen, in sharp contrast to the smooth fading effect found in XP MCE. And while you can configure photo slideshows to cross-fade between pictures, Dell Media Experience doesn't offer the smooth, fun, photo animation effects or the nice song title overlay effect Microsoft added in XP MCE 2004. In other words, the basic functionality is there, but it's a bit rough around the edges.

Music

Like XP MCE, the Music section of the Dell Media Experience displays a list of music you've recently listened to and provides a task list of links to common music-related actions, including Recent music, Album, Artist, Playlist, All songs, Audio CD, and Update music (figure). The Recent music doesn't provide album thumbnails like XP MCE, but it is otherwise similar; Album and Artist also forego album art until you mouse over or select items (figure). Dell Media Experience appears to be compatible with MP3 and WMA songs, including protected WMA files I downloaded from MusicMatch Downloads, an online music store.

One major conceptual difference between Dell Media Experience and XP MCE rears its head in the Music section. In XP MCE, you can launch a song, group of songs, a video, a recorded TV show, or a DVD movie, and it will continue to play as you navigate around the XP MCE interface, displaying in a small peak-through window in the bottom left of the screen. In Dell Media Experience, when you launch a song or songs from the Music section, and then navigate away from that page, the music stops playing. You can still add customized music to photo slideshows, as we'll see below, but you do that from Pictures, not Music. My suspicion is that this was done on purpose, to keep things simple. But it makes the product a little too simple-minded, in my opinion. Simple doesn't have to be stupid.

That said, the basic functionality is there, and Dell Media Experience did a nice job of finding my music media and playing it accurately.

Pictures

Like the My Pictures section in XP MCE, the Dell Media Experience displays photo thumbnails of your graphics files by default, along with a list of picture tasks (figure). While XP MCE forces you to navigate between My Photos, Shared Photos, and external photo sources such as memory cards (the latter was added in MCE 2004), Dell Media Experience searches your system for all media files and displays them automatically from a single view. Only external media on a CD or DVD drive is handled differently, through a From CD/DVD option. You can sort pictures by name or date, and rotate them, a feature Microsoft didn't add to Media Center until XP MCE 2004 (which also features simple editing capabilities like removing red eye).

In Picture Settings, you can determine how long photos display in a slideshow, and what sort of transition effect to use (None, Wipe, Slide, Page, Fade, or Random). To play music during a slide show, you must first select Slide show music, pick a song or group of songs, and then click Play slide show. It works, and it's simple enough.

Video

The Video section of the Dell Media Experience displays thumbnails of the video files in your My Videos folder (figure) or, optionally, from CD or DVD, a feature Microsoft didn't add until XP MCE 2004. The software can play back MPEG-1, AVI, WMV, and ASF files, and, if a factory-installed DVD drive is included in your Dell, MPEG-2. Playback includes the standard navigation controls (Play/Stop, Pause, Previous Video, Next Video, Rewind, and Forward), as well as volume controls (Mute, Volume down and Volume up). If you don't move the mouse for a few seconds, the controls move offscreen. However, that's it for control: There's no movie timeline or way to move arbitrarily around a video.

DVD

If you have a DVD drive installed and compatible DVD playback software (Dell supplied Cyberlink DVD), you can play DVD movies from the Dell Media Experience. For the most part, DVD movie playback is similar to that of videos (figure), but Dell adds a few additional controls, Title menu, Subtitle, Language, and Angle. The software appears to work well, and like advanced DVD players, such as NVIDIA's NVDVD, Dell Media Experience offers unexpected niceties like resume play, so you can simply restart playback from the point you were at when you last watched a DVD. Cool.

Extras

From the main menu, you can launch a choice called Extras (figure), which offers you to connect to the Dell Media Experience Web site (hosted by Cyberlink), a place where you can find software updates, information, special offers, digital media news, and the link. Obviously, you have be connected to the Internet for this feature to work.

Settings and Help

In Settings, you can configure four types of configuration options (figure): General, Display, Pictures, and DVD. General settings includes Startup destination (so you can configure your PC to launch Dell Media Experience on first boot, if desired), and an option to restore all configuration options to their defaults. Display options lets you switch between 4:3 and Widescreen (16:9) display types and determine if movies are displayed in Pan & Scan or Widescreen (on 4:3 displays) or Widescreen or Stretch (on 16:9 displays). We discussed Picture Settings in the Pictures section, above. DVD Settings are fairly complex. You can determine speaker configuration (the software supports a variety of output types, but not Dolby Headphone, sadly), and a number of other options.

Conclusions

Dell Media Experience is a decent replacement for XP MCE, especially if you're not interested in the TV/DVR features. The performance isn't as good, and the overall experience isn't as refined, but the price is right. I've exclusively used and recommend Dell Dimension desktop systems since 1995, and Dell Media Experience is just another reason to continue this trend. Whether it's enough to make you consider a Dell over another system is unclear, however. Users interested in displaying the Dell Media Experience should spring for the $30 cost of the Cyberlink remote: It works well and offers a Media Center-like experience when combined with a TV set.

In short, Dell Media Experience is an excellent first effort, and a kick in the pants to Microsoft, which should have had the foresight to release at least a subset of its Media Center software, at low cost, to all XP users. XP MCE minus its TV/DVR software would be preferable to Dell Media Experience in its current state, but since that isn't happening, the Dell offering is worth considering. This is what Microsoft should have done long ago.