Vista Media Center: Ready for the living room?

Summary:Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 is the best version of Windows Microsoft has ever released. That's why I’m holding my breath when I look at the big upgrade to Media Center that’s due at the end of this year in the Home Premium and Ultimate editions of Windows Vista. Will Microsoft ruin a good thing? Will its revamped interface just add unnecessary flash and bog down performance? See for yourself in this exclusive image gallery and review of Vista Media Center Beta 2.

Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 is decidedly un-Microsoft-like. For starters, it has a gorgeous interface. It’s a poster child for usability, actually beating TiVo at its own game. It’s fast. And, at least in my household, it’s been surprisingly, almost shockingly reliable.

So, you can understand why I’m holding my breath when I look at the big upgrade to Media Center that’s due at the end of this year in the Home Premium and Ultimate editions of Windows Vista. Will Microsoft ruin a good thing? Will its revamped interface just add unnecessary flash and bog down performance? Will they fix the typo (Media Center techonologies?) in the copyright screen?

 

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  Image Gallery: See Vista Media center in action

Last week I took the plunge and switched my Media Center setup to Windows Vista Beta 2. It was an eye-opening experience that left me cautiously optimistic and acutely aware of a dark cloud on the horizon. I’ve put together a gallery of screenshots to help you see it in action.

Setup

My initial plan was to install Vista Ultimate Edition on a spare PC that had previously been my primary Media Center box. It’s a 2002–vintage machine that’s been extensively upgraded through the years, and it seemed to have enough resources to handle the task. Alas, that turned out to not be the case. Was it the three-year-old 2.8GHz Pentium 4? The Radeon 9600 AGP card? The anemic IDE bus? Who knows, but after an uneventful setup I discovered that recorded TV and movies skipped and dropped frames.

So after a token effort at troubleshooting, I switched to Plan B. Or, more accurately, Plan D, as in Pentium D. Vista’s version of Media Center was much happier running on a recent-vintage system with a 3GHz dual-core Pentium D, gobs of RAM, and an Nvidia GeForce 6600 PCI Express board with 256MB of video memory.

Installation was effortless – the Media Center features are installed by default with the operating system, which is a huge improvement over the OEM-only configuration of XP Media Center Edition 2005.

Setup detected and installed the drivers for my AVerMedia Purity-3D MCE 500 dual-tuner card (it also recognized the Hauppauge card in the other system). The AVerMedia card gets a big thumbs up for its ease of configuration and excellent inputs. I connected two DirecTV tuners to the box with component cables and finished the Media Center portion of setup in less than 15 minutes.

A new (but familiar) face

Visually, Vista’s Media Center is much more ambitious than its predecessor. The blue color scheme and green logo are still there, but the system puts a heavier load on the video subsystem. For instance, there’s the effect you get when you’re watching a recorded program and you press the green button to display the main Media Center menu. Instead of shrinking to a tiny window in the corner, the program fades to the background and continues playing, with the menu options in the foreground.

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The new Vista interface is designed to be driven by a remote control, but unlike the 2005 edition, this one is optimized for widescreen displays. Media libraries that were organized as lists or grids before are now designed to scroll from left to right. The effect takes some getting used to, but it works.

Just about every media item has an accompanying graphic element: cover art for ripped CDs, poster art for DVDs and movies on TV, thumbnails of a random scene from recorded TV programs. When you pass the highlight over the art, it zooms out and provides additional details about the selected item at the bottom of the screen. One glitch that mars the otherwise stellar appearance is the all-caps text that acts as a placeholder for missing art. It’s especially jarring when the movie or album or TV program has a long title that fills the box with ugly text.

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TV with a dose of DRM

The most eagerly awaited new feature in Vista Media Center is its support for CableCARD-equipped hardware, which will make it possible to record and play back HDTV. Unfortunately, the hardware hasn’t hit the market yet, nor is the OS ready for ittoday, so I can’t tell you whether CableCard support is worth waiting for. But my two analog connections produced an excellent standard-definition image; played on a 50–inch Sony monitor, it was virtually indistinguishable from the original broadcast.

The nuts and bolts of Media Center’s DVR features are unchanged. The program guide still contains two weeks’ worth of data and updates itself silently in the background. Recording options are easy to use and highly configurable, esespecially for series.

During the course of testing, I switched the video connection from a VGA cable to a DVI cable. The monitor didn’t change, nor did the video card, but that simple action was enough to trigger a nasty bug in Beta 2. After making that change, whenever I tried to view any content from HBO or other premium channels I saw this “Restricted Content” error message, which I’ve dubbed the Blue Screen of DRM. Microsoft says this bug should be fixed before release, but it’s a reminder that Vista’s Media Center has much more stringent DRM code designed to prevent high-definition content from being copied and shared.

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Music, Movies, and More

Media Center has always shared its media database with Windows Media Player. In the 2005 edition, that spelled sometimes painfully slow performance with large media libraries. In Vista, Microsoft says the performance of searches should be dramatically improved, thanks to the improvements in Windows Media Player 11. I loaded up roughly 15,000 tracks in the library and tried a few searches. The results appeared almost instantly, a huge improvement over Media Center Edition 2005.

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The Music library offers more views than its predecessor, including a welcome Album Artist view. Unfortunately, both the Album Artist and Artist views in Vista suffer from a bug that has been around for years: entering a letter or two should jump to the first artist whose name begins with those letters, but the jumps don’t work as they do in Album or Genre view.

For movie lovers, Vista’s Media Center doesn’t unroll too many new tricks. Its Movies on TV search feature is still the best way for a film addict to sift through dozens of movie channels in search of the best stuff. By the time it ships, Vista should support HD-DVD and Blu-Ray discs as well as pricey media changers, but I didn’t have the hardware to put either of those capabilities to the test.

As with previous editions, Vista’s Media Center is ideal for showing off digital photos. You can do some basic editing – remove red eye, crop an image – and display the contents of a folder or an entire picture collection as a slide show, complete with musical soundtrack.

Extenders

To play back content from a Media Center PC, you have three choices:

  • Watch on the computer monitor. That’s a perfectly good solution in an office, a den, or a dorm room, but it’s not so good for a home theater.
  • Connect the PC directly to a high-definition TV. You’ll get an image as good as your video card can deliver, but unless you pay big bucks for a home-theater style PC you’ll have a large, probably noisy box cluttering up your living room.
  • Connect a Media Center Extender to your TV and stream Media Center content over a wired or wireless network. For Vista, the only extender option is an Xbox 360. The noisy PC can stay in the office while you watch TV in the living room or den.

The process of setting up an Xbox 360 as a Media Center Extender isn’t as simple or as elegant as it should be, but after a few tries I was able to get it working. The results were a huge improvement over the first-generation Linksys and HP extenders. An Xbox 360 is a pretty powerful PC in its own right, and as a result it can deliver the full Media Center experience.

The success of the Xbox 360 suggests that it’s probably the best way to bring PC-based media into the living room. If Microsoft can simplify the process of setting up the Media Center-to-Xbox connection, early adopters will be able to bring TV and music and movies to their home theater without having to pay for any extra hardware.

For Vista’s Media Center to be successful, it has to be easy to use and exceptionally reliable. Beta 2 is a step in the right direction. Now, if Microsoft can only tame the dreaded DRM…

Topics: Windows

About

Ed Bott is an award-winning technology writer with more than two decades' experience writing for mainstream media outlets and online publications. He has served as editor of the U.S. edition of PC Computing and managing editor of PC World; both publications had monthly paid circulation in excess of 1 million during his tenure. He is the a... Full Bio

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