Center of attention

2nd January 2004 at 00:00
The Media Center could be about to take over our lives, says George Cole

If the computer was invented today, it would probably be called something like a "multi-function digital machine". Not a snappy title I admit, but one that more accurately reflects its role today.

Everyone knows that a computer does much more than simply run conventional productivity tools like a word processor or database. Today's machines can also play music CDs and DVDs, store music files and digital photo albums, as well as access the internet and edit digital video, such as footage from a digital camcorder. Some people even watch television on their computer, using a plug-in TV card.

So it's no surprise to find that PC companies are keen to invade the space occupied by organisations that make home entertainment equipment.

Positioning the PC as a home entertainment device is a good way of persuading many people to upgrade their computers.

It's also no surprise that Microsoft is keen to make its mark in this growing sector. It has developed a technology called Windows XP Media Center - a super-set of Windows XP Professional. This means it's Windows XP with bells and whistles added on, as is the Tablet PC operating system.

Media Center has gained the support of many PC companies, including Time, Packard Bell, Sony and Dell. These have launched, or are planning to launch, Media Center computers and hope the new features will tempt consumers.

So what exactly is a Media Center PC? Well, Microsoft hasn't set a standard in stone, preferring to offer PC manufacturers the freedom and flexibility to offer a range of Media PC models. But as a rule of thumb, a Media Center PC will include a fast processor, lots of memory (usually at least 512Mb), a massive hard drive (120Gb or more), CD and DVD burners, TV tuner (and sometimes a radio tuner too), a memory card reader (for transferring images from a digital camera straight to the computer), high-quality graphics card, multi-channel sound, modem and ethernet port for networking. Oh, and there's a remote control handset.

Switch on a Media Center PC and you get the familiar Windows XP interface and can run all your Windows programs and applications as normal. But press a button on the supplied remote control handset and the interface changes, with a menu that fades in and out of the screen. The remote control handset has four coloured buttons labelled My TV, My Video, My Pictures, and My Music. If you press the TV button, you can watch a live television broadcast on your computer screen (some PCs even include a Freeview digital TV tuner). You can also record a TV programme on your computer's hard drive, turning the PC into a personal video recorder.

Anyone who has ever used a Tivo or Sky+ box will know that a hard drive is a great medium for storing video. For example, you can pause a live TV show, so that if your viewing is interrupted by, say, a phone call, you can pause the programme and then return to watch it at the point of interruption - while the remainder is being recorded. You can even watch a recorded programme while a live broadcast is being recorded simultaneously.

Media Center PCs can also have an electronic programme guide for planning your TV viewing and recording. The My Music feature is used for creating your own music library and the My Pictures button controls your personal photo library. My Video lets you watch video programmes stored on the hard drive or played from a DVD.

Opponents of the Media Center PC make the point that a PC is not as friendly as a TV or DVD player, pointing out that hi-fi systems never crash. They add that few people would want a PC in their living room, and they're probably right. But many children would probably love to have a single box in their bedroom that lets them watch TV, play music or games, watch DVD videos, download entertainment from the internet and more. In other words, the younger generation is growing up with this kind of technology and will expect many of these features to be on their school computers too. And with schools using so much digital content these days, a remote-controlled PC could make it easier to access.

And the Media Center PC is just the beginning. Many homes are now awash with digital content - music CDs, DVDs, digital TV, digital radio, digital images, digital music files like MP3s and so on. What is needed is a system for storing and sorting all of this content, and the computer industry says the PC is the best device for the job. In the home of the future, all our digital content could be stored on a home server, which would distribute it to devices around the home. The Media Center PC is a big step on the road to transforming the computer from being a productivity machine to a home entertainment centre.

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