Microsoft to tune up Media Center PC

The next-generation OS will allow consumers to watch one channel while recording another, CNET has learned.

With the next generation of Media Center PCs, you'll be able to have your TV and record it too.

For the first time, Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition is supporting multiple tuners, meaning that consumers will be able to watch one channel while recording another or record two stations at once, CNET has learned. The feature is one of several improvements Microsoft has made with Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, an update that the company plans to announce next week.

At the same time, Microsoft is also allowing computer makers to create Media Center PCs that lack the TV recording feature altogether, a move that will allow computer makers to offer PCs with the operating system for less than $800. It's all part of an effort by Microsoft to position Media Center as a more mainstream consumer OS.


What's new:
For the first time, Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition is supporting multiple tuners, meaning that consumers will be able to watch one channel while recording another.

Bottom line:
, Microsoft is hoping that an improved Media Center OS can help reignite interest in Windows XP.

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Without an all-new version of Windows until Longhorn in 2006, Microsoft is hoping that an improved Media Center OS can help reignite interest in the 3-year-old Windows XP operating system. The launch of the updated Media Center, along with several new companion products, will form a key part of Microsoft's fall marketing blitz designed to sell consumers on the benefits of XP.

The entertainment-oriented Media Center OS is similar to other flavors of Microsoft's flagship Windows XP, but adds a second interface that can play movies, music, digital pictures or television and be controlled via remote control. In its first two incarnations, Media Center has attracted only a niche of the PC market, largely those interested in recording TV shows onto their hard drives.

Microsoft has thus far been largely mum about the new version of Media Center OS, though details have begun to trickle out. As previously reported, the new version has several new features designed to address current shortcomings, such as the ability to burn CDs and DVDs from within the remote-controlled interface.

Sources tell CNET that the product will also include the ability to exchange MSN-compatible instant messages while doing other things, such as watching television or viewing a photo slideshow. The instant messages appear as an overlay to the TV or other main image.

Media Center Edition 2005 will offer limited support for high-definition television, but only the type of high-definition signal received through an antenna--not high-definition satellite or cable. Microsoft declined to comment on the new version of Media Center or its features.

Much of the focus with the new version, which is code-named Symphony, has been on improving the audio and video quality, with the goal being to rival consumer electronics devices such as DVD players and digital video recorders that cost far less and have outshined the Media Center in quality. With this version, sources say, they believe Microsoft has at least caught up to TiVo. The program guide has also been improved, including the ability to browse upcoming movies using "cover art" images.

New products for the Media Center family
Microsoft has also announced plans for two products that will complement the new OS. One is a handheld device known as a Portable Media Center that will allow content from a Media Center PC to be taken on the go. The other is a type of set-top box known as a Media Center Extender, which allows consumers to view content in one room that is stored on a Media Center PC in another room.

The company is expected to use next week's "Experience More" event in Los Angeles to tout other digital home efforts, including several moves designed to make it easier to move content around the home while still offering digital rights management. For example, Microsoft has been developing technology, code-named Janus, that paves the way for a new class of portable music devices capable of playing music that is rented on a subscription basis rather than purchased. And, in addition to Media Center extenders, which work only with Media Center PCs, Microsoft has a broader Windows Media Connect effort designed to let many different living-room products grab video, music and photos that are stored on a Windows XP computer.

Some details have come from the companies making Media Center products. Two tuner manufacturers, Hauppauge and Vixs have announced dual-tuner products that are designed specifically to work with Media Center 2005.

Computer makers are also starting to tip their hand. Sony, for example, posted several new models to its SonyStyle Web site. Best Buy has also started listing at least one of the new Sony models.

The machines are part of Sony's existing "R" series of Vaio Desktops. In addition to sporting the new OS, the machines add faster processors and larger hard drives as well as the option to automatically create a backup of data using RAID. For now, Sony's machines stick to offering a single TV tuner.

Hewlett-Packard has announced its Digital Entertainment Center, a Media Center device that is designed to look more like a consumer electronics device than a PC and is also expected to offer dual tuners, among other features. HP has yet to announce pricing or when the device will be available, though. The company is also expected to have more traditional Media Center PCs and is expected to offer an upgrade program for existing Media Center PCs, but details are not yet available.

Dell, Gateway and Toshiba are among the other big-name computer makers expected to offer machines with the new operating system, sources said.

As for the Media Center extenders, HP has announced plans to offer such a device and online retailer has started taking orders for a similar product from Linksys. Creative and Samsung recently started selling the first Portable Media Centers.

All of the Microsoft devices find themselves competing, at least to some degree, with non-Microsoft alternatives. In the portable category, RCA and Archos offer competing portable video players that do not interface directly with Media Center. There are also other companies that offer features similar to Media Center both for Linux and Windows-based machines.

Intel showed off many such designs at its recent developer forum, though it is unclear how many big-name PC makers will choose to offer entertainment-oriented PCs that are not Microsoft-based. Instead, the challenge may come more from consumer electronics makers.

Devices that could both burn DVDs and record TV shows were once rare but are increasingly more common. Cable and satellite operators are also starting to ship digital video recorders in larger numbers, again potentially challenging Microsoft's Media Center ambitions.

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