Revamped Media Centers Debut

FRAMINGHAM (09/30/2003) - Microsoft Corp. continues its push into the living room with an update to its Windows XP Media Center Edition launching this week. Appearing on an array of new products, the update promises to improve on the original's TV, photo and music features, while adding new functions such as an FM radio tuner and online links to music, movies and games.

Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 (formerly code-named Harmony) will be on PCs from more than 40 computer makers worldwide, including Dell Inc. and Sony Corp. --notable holdouts from last year's introduction. The first version launched last October exclusively on Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) systems and was gradually adopted by other vendors.

These new Media Center PCs will vary in form from Gateway Inc.'s all in one and Dell's microtower to laptops from HP and Toshiba Corp. But they all have to meet Microsoft's beefy hardware requirements, including a TV tuner and plenty of processing power to encode and decode video. (The FM tuner is optional.)

Beyond the Dorm

Though Media Center PCs were first billed as all-in-one devices well-suited for studio apartments and dorm rooms, Microsoft is aiming more at the living room with this update. The new Display Calibration Wizard, for example, helps users optimize settings for traditional cathode ray tube (CRT) televisions as well as for digital projectors and wide-aspect liquid crystal display (LCD) and plasma TVs.

Media Center doesn't yet support dual TV tuners for picture-in-picture mode or for recording one program while watching another. Still, that feature "has bumped up high on the list" of features to add next time, along with support for high-definition television, says Tom Laemmel, Microsoft product manager.

Other TV enhancements include a "remote learning wizard" that Microsoft says allows the Media Center infrared remote to work with more set-top boxes for digital or satellite cable. It also sports Tivo/ReplayTV-like "genre filters" that let viewers browse the program guide by categories such as sports and movies.

You can also burn recorded shows to DVD (via a plug-in application). This capability is not brand new; it became available in the first version as an incremental update and is now built into the 2004 version.

New Functions

The Media Center update further challenges the home stereo. A basic FM tuner includes a "pause" feature that records the preceding 20 minutes of programming for immediate playback, similar to its pause capability for live TV. Unlike television broadcasts, however, Media Center does not allow users to schedule radio recordings in advance. The radio tuning is new to Media Center 2004, but not all vendors are implementing it.

In addition to playing music files and CDs, Media Center PCs can now rip a CD to the hard drive at the touch of a single button. It rips to WMA format by default, and supports other formats such as MP3 when you install the necessary codecs.

The last major new feature, Online Spotlight, is designed to provide links to other companies that supply digital entertainment, such as games from WildTangent, on-demand movies from CinemaNow and Movielink, and paid music downloads from the soon-to-be-launched Napster 2.0.

Owners of older Media Center PCs needn't be jealous, because Microsoft is providing upgrade software to PC makers that sold the original systems. Each vendor will determine upgrade procedure and cost, says Microsoft's Laemmel. Gateway and ViewSonic, for example, will offer the upgrade disc for free.

Ready to Play

A number of vendors will ship products supporting the Media Center update.

Gateway expects to release in mid-October the all-in-one Gateway 610 Media Center, which includes a 17-inch wide-screen LCD, a wireless keyboard, and a wireless optical mouse. Like all Media Center PCs, it also includes a TV-style infrared remote control.

The Gateway 610 Media Center is available in three configurations. The $US1,499 Gateway 610S is powered by a 2.4-GHz Intel Pentium 4 with hyperthreading, 256MB of DDR RAM and an 80GB hard drive.

At the high end, the Gateway 610XL has a 3-GHz Pentium 4, 512MB of DDR RAM, and a 200GB hard drive, plus a DVD-RW drive, a 128MB ATI 9200 graphics card and 802.11g wireless support, for $1,999.

Gateway also is updating its Media Center support on the upcoming Gateway 510 and Gateway 710 Series lines of minitower and tower PCs, which can be used with plasma displays or LCDs to take advantage of Media Center functions.

ViewSonic is adding another model to its NextVision M Series of Digital Media Centers to support the updated OS. The M2100 carries an estimated street price of $1,599, and features a 2.8-GHz P4, 512MB DDR RAM, a 160GB hard drive and a 128MB NVidia GeForce FX5600 graphics card. It also has DVI, VGA S-Video, and composite video outputs that support multiple display devices.

The company also is offering the PC with a variety of options, such as a high-end plasma or LCD monitor, or including a projector or a speaker system. For example, the high-resolution plasma bundle is priced at $5,999 and includes a 42-inch plasma display along with the M2100 Media Center PC.

ViewSonic will continue to offer its older Media Center PC, the M2000. It will not include any new hardware offerings, such as the FM tuner card or the new graphics card, but will include a free upgrade to the new OS.

Dell and HP, Too

Dell is introducing the revamped Media Center for the first time on its Dimension 4600 and 8300 minitower systems and its 4600C small form-factor model.

At the low end, the 4600 will start at $999 with a 2.6-GHz Pentium 4 processor, 256MB of DDR SDRAM, a 40GB hard drive and a 17-inch CRT monitor. Dell will offer its 4600C with a similar configuration and a 15-inch LCD monitor for $1,369.

At the high end, Dell's Dimension 8300 will start at $2,099 with a 3-GHz Pentium 4 processor, 512MB of DDR RAM, a 250GB SATA hard drive, a DVD+R/+RW drive and a 17-inch LCD.

HP is also shipping a triad of Media Center PC models. The entry-level device is the m370n, priced at $1,499; it is powered by a 2.8-GHz P4, and comes with 512MB of DDR SDRAM, a 160GB hard drive and an ATI Radeon 9000 graphics card with 128MB of RAM.

HP's mid-level m380n features a 3-GHz P4, 512 MB of DDR SDRAM, a 160GB hard drive, and a 128MB GeForce FX 5200 AGP8X graphics card. It will retail for $1,599.

At the high end is the m390n, priced at $1,999. It features a 3.2-GHz P4, 512MB of DDR SDRAM and a 200GB hard drive, plus a 128MB GeForceFX 5600 AGP8X graphics card.

Entertainment Alternatives

Though Microsoft is pushing Media Center Edition, some PC makers--even those carrying Media Center systems--are also offering other entertainment software options.

Sony, for example, will continue to offer its Giga Pocket audio-video technology on several of its VAIO PCs. Giga Pocket has both hardware and software components, so Sony is splitting its support in several cases.

Three systems in Sony's RZ series of desktops will feature Giga Pocket hardware but will run the Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 OS, and not the Giga Pocket software, says Todd Titera, VAIO product manager. These systems will not have an FM tuner, and pricing will start at about $1,599, he says.

Sony will retain the Giga Pocket hardware and software combination on other PCs, such as the recently introduced RS430G, starting at $1,150.

On its non-Media Center PCs, Dell is promoting its own Media Experience software, which resembles a "lite" version of the Media Center OS without TV- and radio-tuning capabilities. It features a similar interface (and includes the ability to be controlled via an infrared remote), which allows easier access to the multimedia capabilities built into the standard version of Windows XP. Dell's Media Experience will be loaded on all non-Media Center Dimension desktop PCs.

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