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Multimedia Comes of Age

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Multimedia is a term that’s been thrown around in computer circles for years now. Originally it reared its head around the time of the first CD-ROM drives, indicating that a PC was capable of processing images, video and music as well as spreadsheets and Word documents.

As things moved on, sound, video and digital imagery became standard features on PCs and the ‘multimedia PC’ label was used less often. I find this strange however, since I feel that we’re only starting to see true multimedia PCs now.

PCs are generally ugly beasts, and no matter how well dressed they appear, few consumers would welcome one in their living room. Apple tried to address this issue with the iMac and in some ways succeeded, but the fact still stands that although today’s PCs are pretty much complete entertainment systems in a single box, few users take advantage of this fact.

Think about it. Your PC can store thousands of hours of music with the ability to playback any number of custom play lists.

You can watch DVD movies on your PC, as well as DiVX encoded movies, QuickTime videos and any number of other movie formats using a plethora of codecs.

You can play games. Not just any games though, if you’ve got a decent enough graphics card and processor you can play the latest groundbreaking games incorporating the most advanced 3D environments. Not only that, you can play online against people from all around the globe, changing computer games from being insular and lonely to being a multi-cultural social experience.

You can store thousands of digital images and file them into your own specific albums. You can then sit back and watch automated slide shows of your images without having to lift a finger.

You can communicate with friends and family around the world via video conferencing, so not only do you get to talk to your friends, you can see them as well.

You can use your PC to watch TV and record the programmes digitally to your hard disk. You can pause live TV if you want to go and make a coffee and start the action again from where you left off. You can download electronic programme guides and teach your PC to record your favourite programmes, so that it will remember to record the next season of 24 even if you forget.

And let’s not forget that you can still use your PC for office applications, email, Internet browsing and all of the more mundane tasks associated with it.

So, why are so few PCs used to their full potential? Part of it is to do with the complicated operating nature of a computer. As much as PC manufacturers have tried to convince people otherwise, a PC is not a consumer product. A consumer product is something that you plug in, switch on and use. A PC doesn’t work that way, or at least it never used to.

Over the last couple of years great leaps have been made to make the PC more consumer friendly. The proliferation of USB peripherals for example has made attaching things to a PC far simpler than it ever was. But getting PCs into the living room takes more than easy connectivity.

What we’ve seen is a quest to turn a PC into the home entertainment system that it’s so obviously capable of being. A major push forward has been the introduction of Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition. This new version of Windows has a complete home entertainment environment built into it. With Windows Media Center you can boot your PC up, press a single button on your remote control and gain simple access to TV, DVD, images, video and music.

Machines built around Windows Media Center are created to take advantage of all the aforementioned abilities that every PC has. The result is pretty impressive, but it’s the implementation that’s important. Since Media Center launched at the end of September 2003, I have only seen one machine that I consider a worthy implementation of the technology, and that’s the Elonex eXentia.

However, great as the eXentia is, not everyone wants a machine with a built-in screen. I have a large widescreen TV in my living room, and if I’m going to use a PC to record and playback TV programmes, I want to do it on my television. The key therefore, is to create a media based PC that sits unobtrusively under or next to your TV just like a VCR.

This fact is not lost on PC manufacturers and many are in the process of designing and marketing just such a device. Hi-Grade Computers has just launched its Digital Media Station which looks more like a DVD player than a computer, and I’m sure that there will be many similar devices hitting the market soon.

But not all manufacturers sold on Windows XP Media Center Edition and there are many out there that are putting together media PCs that aren’t reliant on Microsoft’s new OS. I’ve spent the last few days playing with a Tranquil Media PC from Tranquil PC. It can do pretty much everything that a Windows Media Center solution can do and it’s a beautifully designed and totally silent machine.

Regardless of whether a PC is based on Windows Media Center or not, if it’s going to reside in your living room, it needs to be good looking, reasonably small and silent. And from what I’ve seen, we’re getting pretty close to filling all those criteria now.

Peripheral advancements have also helped the media PC cause. Reliable wireless keyboards and mice are now widely available, making it easy for you sit on your sofa and send emails or browse the web. Also, the increased availability and lower pricing of broadband services make it easier to have a PC connected to the Internet 24 hours a day. This is particularly important with a media PC since you will always have the latest TV programme guides downloaded.

Just imagine it. A well implemented media PC in your living room will replace your DVD player, your VCR, your CD player and your radio. You’ll just need one box next to your TV that not only replaces all your other entertainment devices, but adds loads more functionality as well.

So, multimedia PCs are finally coming of age, although the ‘multi’ seems to have disappeared in the process. I believe that 2004 is going to be the year of the media PC and consumers will find themselves using a computer in ways they’d never thought possible.

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