Computer companies have been trying to get off your desktop and into your entertainment rack for a decade. Ever since the invention of tuner cards for PCs and giant computer monitors that doubled as TVs, they've been pushing the "convergence" of entertainment and computing on a wary public. The reception from A/V enthusiasts has been, to put it politely, less than enthusiastic. Do we really want to put our home theater in the hands of a component with a cooling fan that drowns out dialogue, or that's prone to crashing?
But the PC makers haven't given up. In recent years, Microsoft and its hardware partners have led the assault through a series of increasingly more capable Windows XP Media Center Edition PCs that you control from across the room via a wireless remote or keyboard. Attached to a big conventional or HDTV display and a surround sound system, these computers are actually better suited for sofa-centered leisure than desk-based productivity (though you can use them for work, too).
While they might differ in some details, all Media Center Edition PCs use the increasingly familiar blue Start menu with its alluring, lifestyle-driven buttons: My DVDs, My Pictures, My Videos, My Music, My TV - you get the idea. From this screen, you can wander down many paths of entertainment.
As an A/V component, one of today's Media Centers can replace your DVD recorder, TiVo digital video recorder, and FM radio. It ingests all your CDs, home videos, and family photos, stores them on its hard drive, and lets you access them from the couch through intuitive onscreen menus. You can download movies or albums, or stream music videos from MTV and music from Napster.
And all Media Center PCs come with what is arguably the most comprehensive, searchable, and cross-referenced onscreen TV guide available - a Microsoft service that's updated automatically and quickly via your broadband connection. The guide offers two weeks of listings and gives details like a show's original air date, so you'll know if an episode is new or a rerun. Best of all, it's free and unencumbered by ads.
A Media Center PC hooked to a cable box or antenna is more viewer-centric than the DVRs offered by cable providers. The fastest speed for scanning through your recorded programs is really fast - 15 seconds to scan an hour - and each whack of the quick-skip button vaporizes a commercial.
Copyright © 2013 Bonnier Corp. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.