Led by Microsoft Corp., the computer industry has been trying for years to invade the living room with PCs designed to serve up TV, music, home movies and photos. So far, the makers of standalone set-top boxes have held their ground both in desired features and price.
But the battle to become your entertainment center hub is starting to get very interesting.
With the latest version of Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition, PC makers are armed with their strongest weapon yet -- one that just doesn't just mimic TiVo recorders, DVD players and other gadgets but merges their features into a single program.
The software takes advantage of the fact that a PC -- unlike most set-top boxes -- is well connected, high-powered and open. Media Center PCs play well with other computers and push the envelope of what's possible when a home is networked.
Still, the living room PC does carry some old burdens. You probably never had to update the virus protection of your DVD player or had to restart your stereo because it froze up. The last time my old analog TV crashed was when it fell off its stand.
The latest Media Center software version is far more polished than the program's earlier generations, and glitches were relatively rare after I installed updates. Overall, the features far outweighed any problems.
For more than a month, I've been testing a Hewlett-Packard Co. z545-b Digital Entertainment Center ($1,899) on HP's 42-inch plasma TV ($3,999). I've also been watching content from the PC in another room from a TV that's wirelessly connected through HP's Media Center Extender ($299).
(HP and other computer makers offer a range of Media Center PCs, some of which are considerably less expensive. Microsoft also announced, at this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, partnerships to extend its Media Center software's reach, including into DVD recorders.)
If I were designing a fancy new entertainment center, I wouldn't mind paying extra for the borrowed HP unit, precisely because it looks nothing like a PC. The z545-b closely resembles one of the very high-end components it's likely to be elbowing out of the living room. It's got a black, brushed aluminum case and a slick front display that identifies what's playing.
Behind its well-concealed front doors are slots and ports for connecting USB and FireWire devices like cameras, camcorders and printers as well as memory cards used in cameras. There's a double-layer DVD burner and room for HP's slide-in external hard drive.
Though it doesn't look like a PC, it's got the guts of one, including a 3 gigahertz Pentium 4 processor, a half a gigabyte of memory and a 200 GB hard drive. It has built-in support for Wi-Fi, both the 802.11b and 802.11g standards, as well as wired gigabit Ethernet.
The PC's back side has nearly every imaginable audio or video port, allowing users to go crazy with sound systems and video displays.
Once set up (the process is complicated but the instructions are very good), the system first boots into Windows then loads the Media Center program, which is a layer on top of Windows that can be navigated with a remote control. You can access TV, video recordings, music, photos, home movies, FM radio and a slew of other features.
The Media Center program can be minimized, revealing the regular XP desktop, which is best controlled with the included wireless keyboard, which has a built-in trackball.
My testing focused mainly on the Media Center application.
Like any digital video recorder, the Media Center program allows live television to be paused, rewound and fast forwarded. It's very simple to search or browse programming through the free, 14-day programming guide that's updated over the Internet. TiVo, by comparison, charges $12.95 a month for its service.
The picture quality of live TV is noticeably better than previous Media Centers. Still, I was disappointed with the splotchy look of analog cable and satellite on the big-screen plasma TV -- a problem caused by the quality of my incoming signals.
I was much more pleased with the crisp look of DVD movies and high-definition video files I downloaded from the Web.
Unlike some of its competitors, HP doesn't include an over-the-air high-definition TV tuner, something the Microsoft software can support. HP says models to be released later this year will have it.
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