No end of choice: Media Center's hidden bonus

The latest evolution in home entertainment, says Microsoft, is the Media Center PC - but is it the switched-on user's choice?

When television started up in 1940s Britain, the only choice the viewer had was walnut or Bakelite cabinets. There was one transmitter, one channel, one announcer in a dinner jacket. You took what the BBC gave you, and were thankful. Things got more complicated when a second transmitter got going in the Midlands -- then you had to buy either a London set or a Birmingham set. Over the next twenty years, a couple of extra channels were added, someone invented colour telly and you could opt for a remote control -- but that was about it.

Fast forward into the 70s -- the first decade that you could fast forward anything -- and things got decidedly more complex. Betamax, VHS or Video 2000? Teletext? Then the 80s, and satellite: the 90s and digital. Has it got any simpler in the Noughties? Hardly. In fact, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the simple business of couch potatodom was as complex as could be. Choice -- another word for uncertainty -- must be at an all-time high.

But wait, as they say on cable. There's more. Think of the factors that should be going through your mind when you stare in awe at a Media Center PC. If I buy this, will it work with my cable or satellite subscription? My terrestrial digital TV converter? My digital radio? If I download music onto it, can I then listen to that music on something else? What if I buy a new computer, can I move my recordings over? What if I want to save them onto tape? I want to send email while the other half wants to watch the footie: who wins? Why can't I download the open standard electronic programme guide that the BBC transmits?

Those are the easy worries. Here are some more: do I really want to sign up for the enormous legal document that's the end-user licensing agreement? Does it cover everyone else in the household -- what happens if my charming children download something naughty? And why am I buying yet another copy of this blasted operating system at full price?

The reason that you can only buy Microsoft's Media Center software pre-installed on a new PC isn't to hide the cost of the software, goodness me no -- just because nobody will tell you doesn't mean they want to keep it a secret. It's so that Microsoft can ensure what it calls positive user experience, which only a cynic would interpret as the darn thing being so flaky they can only let it out of the labs if they've locked down the hardware as well. Yet one of the benefits of buying a PC instead of a set-top box is that it's expandable, configurable and upgradable. So, here are more choices: if I plug something new into my Media Center PC, will it stop working? How can I be sure?

And so on, and so forth. Microsoft, Sony and everyone else who sell this sort of thing have answers to all those questions, and you can choose to believe them or not as you wish. It boils down to one simple fact: if you want to spend £2,000 on a computer that'll live most of its life pretending to be a £150 set-top box you're entirely at liberty so to do -- at least until you break clause 44, subclause 3, para D of your EULA and the men in black body armour kick in your door at dawn.

It's when the PC bit can pretend no longer that things could get awkward. You're just home after a long day in the office, aching to slump in front of the box -- well, panel -- and watch your favourite soap. You stab at the remote control with work-numbed fingers, and up comes the message: "There are two critical security updates to download. Do you wish to do this now?" Hey, interactive TV!

And this is what choice is all about: click on NO, watch your TV programme now and hope the hackers don't turn your box into Death Worm City in the meantime. Click on YES and hope the downloads finish in time for Dirty Den's Return. Let's say you're a responsible user and choose the latter course of action: you'll be rewarded with a wait for the download, a wait for the installation, a wait for the reboot, a brief pause for a prayer to whichever dark gods decide whether the update will crash your configuration, and at last you can watch your TV. Even slower than waiting for the valves to warm up in 1949.

There are those who will say that this is bad. That if you really must watch TV on your PC, go and buy an Adaptec or a Hauppauge converter for less than the (probable) cost of the operating system alone. Do it with Linux, and really take control. That making any single company the sole controller of all your household data and media may not be a wise decision, long term: all it takes is one successful virus or lawsuit, and you're back to reading novels by candlelight. But foo to that: if freedom means anything, it means the right to buy a television that can run SoBig. Take it, and be thankful.