For me, the biggest advantage with Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 is the support for dual tuners, but there are a few other new additions that make the environment a little bit slicker than it was before. For a start, the main menu selections now have a short history trail to them. This means that if you scroll down to My Videos, the last three videos you watched will be instantly selectable without having to actually dip into the My Videos environment.
Another feature that Microsoft was keen to talk about at it’s Media Center preview was “Online Spotlight”. Online Spotlight gives you access to websites that have been tailored to the Media Center environment. Normal web browsing does not lend itself to the “10ft Experience” – this being the environment of you sitting on your sofa with your TV around 10ft away from you. As such, Microsoft is working with web content providers to construct tailor-made sites that are easily navigable with a remote control, rather than a mouse and keyboard. This is nothing new, and at CES earlier this year Philips announced a deal with Yahoo to create tailor made content for its Stremium TV platform. How successful Online Spotlight is will depend entirely on how many sites Microsoft can convince to sign onto the project.
Of course, Online Spotlight requires Internet access, and brings me back to my usual gripe with Media PCs. Most people don’t have their broadband set up in their living room, so you will need a way of connecting your Media PC to your broadband. Since most consumers won’t want CAT5 cable draped through their house, the obvious answer is wireless functionality, but unfortunately Evesham hasn’t included a WiFi adapter in the e-box. This is a real shame since it wouldn’t add a lot of cost, but would add a lot of functionality, both for Online Spotlight and EPG download. In fact the best solution would be a wireless bridge like the Netgear WGE101, which makes any device with an Ethernet port wireless compatible – this is ideal for a living room environment since you can use it for your Xbox and PlayStation2 as well.
I’m generally not bothered by seeing PCs without modems inside them these days, since the broadband is finally starting to see mass adoption. However, the lack of a modem in the e-box does mean that you can’t make use of one of the more novel features in Media Center – Caller ID. If you have a modem in your Media Center PC and it’s plugged into the phone line, you can configure it to display the phone number of the incoming call on the screen for you. This means that if the phone rings when you’re watching a movie, the caller will be displayed on the screen, letting you instantly decide whether to ignore the ringing or pause the movie and answer the phone. I’m not going to criticise Evesham for not installing a modem though, since despite the novelty of Caller ID, I’d rather have the twin TV tuners.
The big problem with any media PC, is that it doesn’t lend itself well to the low, interlaced resolutions of a television, so unless you have a large LCD/Plasma screen or a projector, you’re never going to fully appreciate the environment. But, the whole point of Windows XP Media Center Edition is to create a device that blurs the boundary between IT and consumer electronics, so it’s going to have to integrate with standard TVs as well as it can, since that’s what most of the population are still using.
All in all Evesham should be congratulated on two counts – for learning from the mistakes it made with its first Media Center box, and for having a twin TV tuner solution ready to ship on the launch date of Media Center 2005.
However, the problem with the graphics card is disappointing to see from an experienced PC builder like Evesham, and the lack of SCART support may yet prove to be a stumbling block when it comes to mass market consumer adoption.
I like the Evesham e-box and I’m glad to say that it’s a huge improvement over the eMedia that I looked at last year. Unfortunately it’s still not quite perfect – the attention to detail needs a bit of work and a single SCART connector for pumping sound and video to a TV will make it more consumer friendly.
Evesham has informed me that in the production e-box systems, a motherboard with three PCI slots will be used. The customer will then be able to choose between a modem or 802.11g WiFi adapter as an option. Also, a SCART pack will be available to give users SCART functionality.
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