Outside the box, two developments take center stage. First, the aforementioned Media Center Extender, which is a set-top device that allows you to access an MCE 2005 PC's multimedia files over wired or wireless networks. This development allows you, for example, to connect the MCE 2005 system in your home office and stream content from the system to the TVs in your living room and bedroom. You'll just need to purchase an Extender for each screen you want to be able to share files with. MCE 2005 PCs can support up to five Extenders, though you'll probably run into problems if you have more Extenders than TV tuners: our test system had only one tuner, so if we changed the channel on the Extender, the channel changed on the PC, too. Other files--videos, recorded TV, photos, and music--can be accessed independently, however. What you can't do with an Extender is watch a DVD. Microsoft is right in saying that it would be a poor user experience to have to run to one room to load a DVD in order to view it in another. Our question is, then, why not build a DVD drive in the Extender itself?
MCE 2005 also now lets you share content with new handhelds and smart phones. You can copy a sitcom to your cell phone, for example, to watch during your morning commute or take a couple of wallet-size photos to share with your mother at dinner after work. We were able to quickly sync a smart phone with our MCE 2005 test system. Even a 30-minute sitcom is too large a file for a tiny smart phone with a flash memory card, but Windows Media Player 10.0 compressed the video on the fly and moved the file over to the phone within 10 minutes.
MCE 2005 makes it easier to burn content to a CD or a DVD, too. Both actions require a third-party app, but any system manufacturer should include such software on the MCE 2005 systems that it sells, and you don't have to leave the Media Center shell to create a disc. Just a few clicks on the included remote control, and you can burn a music or photo CD. The same holds true for burning content to a DVD.
Similarly, you don't need to leave the MCE 2005 interface to use MSN Messenger. You can IM with friends while watching TV, for example. You'll just have to get used to your conversation scrolling up instead of down. If you want to use another IM client or check your e-mail, you'll need to leave the Media Center interface. It's easy to switch between the two, however, and you can use AIM or Yahoo's IM and still watch TV in the corner of your PC screen simply by resizing the MCE 2005 window.
You can't browse the Web within Media Center (Microsoft learned its lesson with WebTV), but Online Spotlight will give you severely limited access to the Internet, should you find yourself much too comfortable to reach for a keyboard or a mouse. With a couple of clicks on the remote, you can scan the headlines and watch video on MSN TV or ESPN Motion. Of more use are the on-demand, movie-download services from MovieLink and CinemaNow. And music fans can quickly find an Internet radio station via Live365.com with the Media Center interface or hunt for MP3s using the new Napster.Microsoft put in a lot of work to improve the quality of TV playback with Media Center Edition 2005, but we're still not completely sold. We saw fewer dropped frames and artifacts than what we saw with MCE 2004, but it was still far from ideal on our tests. We connected the MCE 2005 system itself to a 17-inch digital LCD, then connected the Media Center Extender in an adjacent room via S-Video to a 34-inch Sony TV. The two devices were connected over our office's 802.11g wireless network.
Wireless interference and the large Sony screen conspired to make for some rough sledding with watching TV on the Extender. We attempted to watch play-off baseball (TV programs that were both live and recorded) on the Extender. Sporting events are a tough test, granted, with the detail in the crowd and the cameras quickly panning to follow the action. The Sony TV was fully calibrated before our tests (unfortunately, the MCE 2005's display calibration tool can be used only with the screen attached to the PC), yet the image we got using the Extender was overly saturated. The red in the St. Louis Cardinals' uniforms and hats bled profusely. And any foul ball into the crowd created artifacts that were very apparent.
Microsoft suggests you use an 801.11a connection or, better yet, a wired connection for the Extender. We also tested the Extender over a wired connection, however, and didn't notice much improvement in image quality. For a set-top DVR, your best bet is still TiVo.
TV looked crisper on the 17-inch LCD that was connected directly to our MCE 2005 test system, which uses an Nvidia NVTV tuner card. The color was better, but ample artifacting was still evident. Only when we resized the TV window from full screen to a smaller window that filled about a quarter of the screen did the image appear crisp.
MCE 2005 lets you control the quality of your TV recordings to some extent, at least. There are four settings, from Fair to Best. Our test system's 180GB hard drive could hold 64 hours on Best mode and 142 hours on Fair. We set up a recording on the Fair setting and another on Best and noticed a discernible difference. Our advice: get yourself a large hard drive (200GB or more) and use the Best setting.