We're off to London's glitzy Soho, to a huge art-deco bar with no fewer than nine enormous mirror balls dangling from alcoves in the ceiling. The occasion is Microsoft's launch of Windows Media Center 2005, and the company is pushing the boat out. The theme is The Best Of British, so there's a DJ playing hits from the Beatles through to Franz Ferdinand, film loops of Michael Caine and football matches and… er… well, at that point the idea fizzles out a bit. The champagne is Monopole (fair enough - Best of British rarely encompasses sparkling wine), the various bits of kit scattered around the place are more American than UK, and there's a good mix of people from around Europe intent on enjoying themselves.
Last time I went to a Media Center launch I behaved abysmally - I drank MS' booze while rudely pointing out the various flaws in their product. I was assured that this time, it will be different. It has to be said - the interface is slicker, the feature set appears to be better targeted and the kit itself looks more like something you'd have in your front room. Some of it does, at any rate. I was particularly impressed by the fake front room demonstrating the Vivaldi kit - stuff that Harrod's will sell for £25k, thus giving the lie to the idea that WMC is just too expensive.
So, filled with good intentions, I perambulate around the event with the intent of checking out all the vendors. It doesn't take long for the basic problem with this idea to become clear. "And what do you do? A Media Center. Great! And you? A Media Center. Well, that's very interesting. How about you? No, don't tell me, I'm keen to guess…"
It soon got to the point where I fell joyfully into the arms of Hauppauge, who had an unrepentantly geeky display of video cards and what we professional attenders of events call The Right Attitude - ie, they were more than happy to give unvarnished opinions about things. However, I then decided to ask around for a few demos.
You know what the big thing about a Windows Media Center PC is - it has a TV tuner. It was thus unfortunate that Microsoft picked a venue where there was no TV signal, nor was there any possibility of importing one. There was also nothing much by way of Internet connectivity -- especially at Intel's stand, where the techie had forgotten to bring the right drivers for the wireless network card.
Thus, all those carefully set up WMC boxes were reduced to playing back video. Or at least trying to - with loads of remote controls all set up for the same codes, it was more like a game of laser tag. Could you squeeze in a journalist-impressing burst of pre-recorded footie before the next-door stand switched your computer into a game of Reversi? (No.)
But when they worked, they worked. All apart from the Help screen on the main set-top box interface, which popped up as a local Web page that scrolled slower than anything I've seen since Windows 3.1 days. Every box I tried it on behaved the same way, so there's something funny going on.
Would I buy one? Not yet. In the days of the £50 DVD player and the £200 PVR, it would have to be something quite special to make me want to shell out £900 for a PC that did much the same stuff. And I may never quite be convinced that having all my domestic entertainment dependent on a box that has a history of worms, viruses and other nasties is a major step forward.
Still, here's to the 2006 launch.