Vista Media Center has moved on significantly from XP MCE 2005. Performance in general is improved, as is the reliability of the system as a whole, the new XAML based applications are a much needed improvement from the hosted HTML of 2005 as is the Xbox 360 integration.
Vista MCE has a few other new tricks under its bonnet: Microsoft have now integrated a decent MPEG2 codec so third party DVD decoders are no longer needed, as is the DVD burning software. This allows the user to make use of some of the most important parts of the MCE experience. You can now backup your favourite TV or video to a DVD disk and watch it back at any point, on any DVD player.
So, should you build a Media Center PC or just pop out and buy a TopField or another set top box? Well yes; it offers all of the functionality of a standard set top recorder, but with extensibility just a plug-in away.
People have asked me in the past why a product that I and many others believe is one of Microsoft's best has not taken off like it should have done. My feeling for this is it is due to the way it has been marketed in the past and the difficulties of not having an EPG. In addition Companies like Hewlett Packard have been selling Media Centers in cabinets that I would not use as a door stop let alone in a lounge.
Microsoft used to only sell MCE 2005 to OEM vendors (HP/Dell) and those vendors supplied Media Center PCs, they were usually expensive and underpowered machines. Also compounding the problem is the lack of downloadable content in Australia. We are now years behind the US and the UK.
Things are changing however. People now require a more integrated experience, with the like of the Xbox 360 / Wii and PS3 on the market where a lot of diverse media can be integrated into one experience; people are looking for an all in one solution for all their digital media. This is where MCE excels; it has good integration of all sources of media, and be it TV, Music or WebCasts.
Also there has been agreement in the USA with the Fox Cable network that a cable tuner card will be available for Vista MCE allowing access to the full spectrum of programming in the USA. If Fox's sister company in Australia (Foxtel) allow a similar card for Satellite television Australia, it could really mean that MCE would become a common site in lounges all around the world.