This is one of several notes on testing Windows Vista final version in various scenarios.
One of these is Media Center. This is an alternate, simplified user interface to your TV and other media content, intended to be operated with a remote rather than mouse and keyboard. In XP days this was offered as a separate, dedicated version of Windows, but now it is part of Vista Ultimate. A side-effect handy for journalists and others who run multi-purpose networks is that Media Center PCs can be joined to a Windows domain.
The tricky part of Media Center is the prerequisites. Ideally, you need:
- A PC in your living room or wherever you prefer to watch TV*
- A wide-screen TV with a high-resolution screen (eg LCD TV)
- This PC also connected to broadband internet
- This PC also connected to a hi-fi or equipped with very high-quality PC speakers
- This PC also quiet enough not to be annoying when in stand-by
- A TV card with BDA (Broadcast Driver Architecture) driver
- The special Media Center remote
I tested Vista on a home-assembled machine which more or less conforms to the above. The soundcard is a Creative Audigy Platinum ZS; the TV card is a Nebula DigiTV, for which there are beta BDA drivers. I’ve been using this for a while with XP and Nebula’s own TV software.
Vista RTM went on as a clean install in its own partition. Next, I had to download the beta Vista drivers from Creative, and the beta BDA drivers from Nebula. This is the Vista life right now: the OS may be finished, but the third-party drivers are far from done. The Creative drivers actually time-out in January. Nevertheless, after a restart or two I was able to setup Media Center and successfully scan for TV channels. I also pointed the media library to a folder of ripped CDs in MP3 format. Media Center downloaded a TV guide and also found artwork for most of the ripped CDs, making for a polished presentation.
Overall, Media Center is a delight to use. The UI is easy to navigate, though scrolling through lists can be ponderous. Shortcuts to important screens like “My music” and “Live TV” work well, and the reassuring big green button always brings you back to the media center home screen. It really is not too geeky, provided that everything works as it should. Browsing through the guide works great, recording programs is a snap, and so is browsing and playing your ripped CD library (or, I presume, “plays for sure” downloads, though I don’t have any).
Not sure yet how Zune fits in here.
A neat touch is that you can play games with the remote. For example, the new 3D chess game works beautifully played from 10 feet back.
Microsoft has built in some interesting download options, most of which don’t seem to be enabled yet. A link to an online store got me a page not found error. Clearly the foundations are in place for a complete integrated home entertainment system based on download rather than purchased CDs or DVDs.
But does everything work perfectly? Not quite. From time to time yesterday I got “Unknown Audio error” with an error code, though it seemed to be harmless. The system has problems waking from sleep, and on one occasion the audio went silent. Another issue is that occasionally Media Center starts continually flashing, making it unusable, and there is no way (that I’ve found) to stop it other than to restart the application.
Are these errors the fault of Vista, or Media Center, or third-party beta drivers? My guess is mostly the last of these; but it still tarnishes the overall experience.
So how do non-geeks get this lot set up and working? The best way is to buy a complete Media Center system with the software pre-installed, and then to have an expert come to your home and set it all up. That’s expensive. Plus, can you trust the cheaper OEM PC vendors not to mess things up with sub-standard hardware, dodgy drivers, noisy fans, and third-party foistware that wrecks Microsoft’s carefully-designed user experience?
By contrast I imagine Apple will come into this space with a couple of boxes that plug in and just work. However it will likely be more expensive and will tie in to iTunes and iPod with Apple’s lock-in DRM. Of course Vista is DRM-laden as well, though at least Microsoft will license its DRM to third-parties. Note however that Media Center works fine with unprotected MP3s and standard CDs and DVDs – and no doubt Apple’s system will as well.
Time will tell who wins, or whether both get a decent market share. And there is also Sony to come. In the meantime, and despite the hassles, I’m impressed with Media Center so far.
*Note on Media Center Extenders
You can avoid the requirement for a PC in your living room by using a Media Center Extender instead. This could be an XBox 360 or a dedicated hardware device, hopefully smaller and quieter than a typical PC. A Media Center Extender has most of the same features as Media Center, a bit like a remote desktop to your Media Center PC. You can have multiple Extenders for a single Media Center PC. You need a fast network (802.11b won’t cut it), and you still need to be able to connect a TV aerial (or cable TV) to the Media Center PC, which could be a problem in some homes.