Microsoft has announced a massive upgrade to its Media Center operating systems that fixes over 500 known bugs.

 The upgrade won’t make Media Center’s startup screen look any different, but under-the-hood improvements are supposed to make the operating system more stable.The update, called Windows XP Media Center Edition Rollup Update Version 2, will also add support for sending high-definition video over a home network to Microsoft’s upcoming Xbox 360 game console. and will include more than 500 bug fixes.

The upgrade will allow a Media Center PC to run two ATSC television cards (versus one for the previous version). Each card can carry two tuners, so theoretically you could play and/or record up to four TV programs (two high-definition and two standard-definition) at once. You can stream HD or SD programming from the PC to a Media Center Extender or to the Xbox 360 , due in Australia next year. The old version of the OS would stream only standard-definition content.

However, you’ll still be limited to accessing only over-the-air high-definition programming: While Media Center PCs usually come with infrared blasters for use with cable-television set-top boxes, they will allow access only to standard-definition broadcasts. Furthermore, even if you can access over-the-air HD programs, if you try to burn one to a DVD, Media Center Edition will downcode it to standard definition.
Tom Laemmel, product manager of the Windows Client Division, says Media Center Edition does not support the CableCard standard, but that “there’s a lot work going on by Microsoft and others in this area.” A CableCard is a PC Card-like device that you insert into a slot in a compatible television to decrypt digital television broadcasts; the main advantage is that you don’t have to use a cable set-top box. If you could insert such a card into a PC, you could then bring in HD cable broadcasts, not just over-the-air ones.

Media Center Edition Rollup Version 2 will also add support for PCs with Away Mode, a new power-management feature that cuts off the speakers and display, and perhaps lowers CPU power, but still allows the computer to perform unattended tasks (such as streaming video to an Extender). Laemmel cites having a babysitter over as an example of the mode’s usefulness: You don’t have to show how to start up or shut down the PC; just pressing the off button on the remote control will put the PC into Away Mode.

A big complaint about the Media Center OS is that it hasn’t been as reliable as the consumer electronics devices it’s supposed to compete with, mainly because it is, after all, a Windows OS. Laemmel admits that, with any version of Windows, periodically “it’s best just to restart the darn thing.” To this end, a new setting prompts the PC to restart Media Center-specific services. The default is for it to perform that task at 4 a.m.; but you can change the time, and the PC will skip the restart if it’s busy.

A new Optimisation setting added in Media Center Edition Rollup 2 periodically restarts Media Center services to improve stability. Laemmel reveals that the majority of the Windows development team has moved to work on Microsoft’s Vista operating system , expected out next year, and its media-specific features, so some Media Center elements–for example, music playback–were deliberately left alone. Vista will have all of the new features in Rollup 2, yet Media Center Edition will live on after Vista appears.

Microsoft recently introduced the Remote Keyboard for Windows Media Center Edition , which will sell for about $90. The wireless keyboard will have a built-in scrolling device (not quite a trackpad, because it has only up/down/left/right, with an OK button in the middle), plus dedicated buttons for Media Center functions. Your Media Center PC will need at least Rollup Update Version 1 for it to work.

Windows XP Media Center Edition Rollup Update Version 2 will be available via Windows Update or Microsoft Update ; the download is about 30MB.

To access the upgrade go to: http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/mediacenter/upgrade/rollup2.mspx

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