Where Windows Media Center really distinguishes itself, though, is in the programming guide. It loads 14 days worth of programming, with search options that my Scientific Atlanta cable box could only dream of. Being able to search for something by title, keyword, category, actor, or director is a phenomenally powerful tool for finding shows you know you want to see, as well as additional shows you might not even know about.
On the other hand, CableCARD, while a much-awaited boon to Media Centers, still has some real limitations in this and other applications. Because it's a one-way device, you don't have access to any of your cable company's on-demand or interactive services. But perhaps more critical is the fact that more and more cable systems are employing a relatively new broadcast technology called "switched digital video" that can further restrict your ability to play back certain channels via CableCARD. In order to let the cable operator deliver more channels with its available bandwidth, switched digital video only sends to the home those channels that have been specifically requested - which means it requires the two-way communication that only set-top boxes can currently provide. In my case, this meant that I didn't receive more than 20 channels that I normally get via set-top box, including several HD channels. Bummer! Furthermore, anything recorded on CableCARD is protected, so you can't archive recorded programming by burning it onto a DVD.
For watching movies, Windows Media Center provides some sweet browsing options. It starts by displaying the cover art of movies playing right now from your channel lineup. Selecting a cover then reveals the movie's plot and lets you see the director and cast, a full review, and a list of similar movies. Selecting a cast member pulls up a list of all other movies that can be found featuring that actor, while the "similar movies" list shows all movies considered similar, whether they're playing within the 14-day guide period or not. If a title you want is outside the guide period, you can log it to be recorded if and when it does come on. Nice!
Sports fans are going to flip for Media Center's sports options. Within the sports guide, you can jump to Fox News to browse top stories, photos, videos, and scores. With a few button presses, I pulled up a full preview of the big Steelers-Patriots game, including an incredible array of stats and even a list of injured players. If that isn't enough, Media Center can also keep tabs on your fantasy sports teams for NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB.
One of the things I was most excited about was having a single drive to handle all disc formats, and it turned out to be one of the FX's best features. For the most part, it played both Blu-ray and HD DVD titles with aplomb; the picture on both formats is so much better than standard DVD images that the FX should make a believer out of any holdouts. The disc player wasn't without its quirks: Like some standalone high-def players we've tested, it occasionally got hung up on specific titles. S1Digital says this is a function of the third-party high-def player software supplied in the FX, which, like all the unit's software, automatically upgrades via the Internet as new fixes are issued. Another oddity: Due to some vagaries in how it interacts with Vista, the player currently requires you to always press Stop first before hitting the Media Center button when watching either disc format, or else the system locks up. That may also get straightened out in software upgrades.
I also had some problems with standard DVDs. The FX occasionally couldn't recognize or detect those discs, requiring me to close and reopen Media Center or, sometimes, restart the whole system. Reinstalling Vista at S1Digital's direction greatly reduced these problems, though it didn't eliminate them.
Of course, any time you combine a DVD player and a hard drive, the question about ripping movies comes up. Out of the box, the FX will rip unprotected DVDs - in other words, practically nothing that you would actually want to rip. However, if you download some readily available third-party decrypting software, you can turn the FX into a powerful DVD server. Ripping a DVD takes about 15 minutes and produces an exact replica of the original disc. I imported several discs, and they looked and sounded perfect off the hard drive. While the interface is nowhere near as elegant as that of the Kaleidescape Movie & Music Server (see our October 2006 test report), the $15,000 you'll keep in your pocket ain't bad either.
Beyond traditional media, Windows Media Center offers a wealth of online entertainment choices. My wife and I watched concerts by Pink and Michael Bublé, found out about the snakehead fish epidemic, browsed upcoming movie trailers, and watched some viral videos. (I love you, "Ask a Ninja"!) We also caught missed episodes of 30 Rock and The Office at NBC.com and streamed "Watch Now" films from Netflix. Image quality varied, as it does with all Internet video, but watching on our 61-inch HDTV was far more engaging than using a 15-inch PC monitor.
S1Digital selected for the FX an NVidia graphics card optimized for HD DVD and Blu-ray playback, with dedicated H.264 bitstream processing. The card handles resolutions up to 2560 x 1600, and it will pass 1080p/24 to capable displays. Like most reviewers, I use Silicon Optix's fantastic HQV Benchmark DVDs to evaluate processor performance, and NVidia's published test results (scores of 111 out of 130 for the standard-def disc and 55 out of 100 for the HD version) mirrored my own findings.
Of course, tough going on torture tests doesn't always result in poor real-world performance, which was certainly the case here. I watched several movies and a ton of cable TV while the FX was in my possession, and the scaling was generally good, yielding detailed, "jaggy"-free images. The notable exceptions were with some DVDs that were shot on video rather than film. For instance, throughout both James Taylor's Live at the Beacon Theatre and an independent movie called Closing Escrow, the picture exhibited an interlacing artifact known as "combing," where the image would break into horizontal pixel lines that resembled the tines of a comb. The severity of this artifact was highly affected by the speed of the image's movement, and it could be quite distracting. In contrast, the Faroudja scaler in my TV handled the same signals far better.
One of the intriguing things about a media server is that it could be the last component you ever need to buy. With the FX's architecture allowing for virtually unlimited hardware upgrades and online software and firmware updates, the system can be modified to handle new technologies as they become available.
Much has been said lately about Vista's instability, and I did have those infrequent lockups that required system restarts. To be fair, S1Digital says my experience wasn't common and may have been related to bugs introduced by S1's own preloading of the software (an unusual practice) or the intricacies of the still-new CableCARD interface. Still, it has to be mentioned.
The vast majority of the time, though, the FX Edition Media Center performed like a champ, opening up a new world of entertainment possibilities and media browsing - one that points the way to a very exciting future. And the FX's broad mix of features and superb build quality make a great impression. For those ready to experience convergence today, S1Digital is ready to serve.
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