Although there are many hardware and software solutions that try to lay claim to managing your media content, it's Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition that continues to grab all the headlines.You already know that it can organise your pictures and music and record your TV, but what you may not know is that it's becoming rather popular. Over five million systems have now been sold. It's nowhere near the level that standard XP is at, but people are beginning to get the hang of having a PC under their TV. Products such as the Shuttle system (below) help, but Media Center still has a long way to go. Media Center functionality is also expected to be a big part of Windows Vista, which is due early next year.
|HP's new media center could use a good pimping|
So, we all know that the Xbox 360 is Microsoft's next-gen gaming console, but were you aware that it has an integrated Media Center Extender?
This means it will play multimedia content including live TV from your Media Center PC - and this, in turn, means that you'll be able to keep your PC in another room and stream music and video to the Xbox in your living room.
The new console also has a portable hard disk that you can rip music to, and USB ports for connecting your digital camera or MP3 player. It also supports High-Definition TV and movies, too. The Xbox 360 includes a Media Center-style remote control, complete with standard Media Center green button. The multimedia functionality will work alongside the gaming, so while you're watching TV, you'll be able to accept an invitation from a friend to play a game.
Media Center Shuttle
Barebones system specialist Shuttle has several models designed specifically for Windows XP Media Center Edition, including the new XPC SD36G5M. It's ViiV compatible and includes a front display, so you'll be able to see what music you're listening to even when your TV is off. Shuttle cases haven't been the best for cooling efficiency in the past; but here the company has used the ICE cooling system to keep the noise level to a minimum.
The design is familiar Shuttle-territory, while the chipset is 945G, so it will take any Socket 775 Pentium and Celeron processors. Graphics are integrated into the chipset, but there's also a 16x PCI Express graphics slot should you want to add a card of your own, plus USB and FireWire ports on the front of the unit. Expect to pay about $580.
Media Center Programming guide
One of the greatest supposed benefits of Windows Media Center over ordinary PVRs was the inclusion of an Electronic Program Guide (EPG), which would enable users to easily record programs from a TV guide-style interface. And though it was promised at the Australian launch in early 2005 it still hasn't eventuated.
So it's IceTV to the rescue then, after producing an EPG for the Topfield PVR and also specific TV tuner cards, IceTV introduced its own EPG designed to integrate completely with Windows MCE. Of course this doesn't come for free, with a subscription fee of $146 a year, but it's still the most complete free-to-air guide available in Australia. And this week they announced extra functionality in the form of PIMP (Personal Interactive Media Planner), which lets users program their IC box from any browser in the world.
Most manufacturers of Media Centers have now taken the Ice baton and run with it by announcing new systems which ship with the Ice EPG pre-loaded.
Read on for some further ways to pimp your Media Center experience ...
Get some plug-ins!
IMPROVE THE MCE ENVIRONMENT WITH SOME HANDY THIRD PARTY EXTRAS
Microsoft clearly isn't rushing to finish Media Center just yet, so other developers have stepped in to plug the gaping holes. See www.thegreenbutton.com for these and even more Media Center downloads.
mceWeather is a plugin that displays the weather for most regions of the world using the resources of the Weather Channel. It shows the forecast for the next few days, and can display show a satellite weather image of your region. http://www.cbuenger.com/mceweather/
RSS enables you to incorporate newsfeeds within Media Center. You don't need to scan through loads of web pages to find what you need. Simply add the feeds you want to find and they'll be ready for you. Get it at http://mcerssreader.oabsoftware.nl/index.php
This clever application enables you to change the time that Media Center goes online to get a Guide update. You'll then avoid the possibility of your Media Center waking itself up in the middle of the night and attempting to retrieve data. Go here: http://blogs.msdn.com/peterrosser/archive/2005/10/20/483349.aspx
Not as complete or reliable as IceTV, but BladeRunner Pro has one distinct advantage - it's free! It integrates better with Media Center than other 'freebie' EPGs, and comes with a helpful installation guide. See it at http://www.xpmediacentre.com.au/brp/index.html