The Good Attractive, easy-to-navigate interface; HDTV and dual-tuner support; works with set-top and mobile devices.
The Bad TV still looks second-rate on large screens.
The Bottom Line Media Center Edition 2005 is the best desktop DVR app out there, but it's not yet ready to play hub for your digital home.
Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005
Editor's note: On Friday, October 14, Microsoft released an update for Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005. Called Rollup 2, the free update is available for MCE 2005 users via Windows Update. While not a major revision of the operating system, Rollup 2 includes some significant changes. They include: support for the Media Center functionality built into the Xbox 360 game console; support for up to four TV tuners, two standard-def, two over-the-air high-def; support for new (but rare) 200-disc DVD changers; a new power-management mode, called Away Mode, which provides instant on/off functionality; tweaks to the DVD-burning engine included in MCE; new zoom modes for stretching images to fit the aspect ratio of your display; and support for various languages and localities around the world. Other improvements long sought after by users, such as CableCard support, will likely not appear before the release of Windows Vista. (10/18/05)
When Microsoft first introduced the Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE) two years ago, the biggest complaint we had about the operating system was that it held recorded TV captive and produced poor-quality video playback. Last year's MCE 2004 OS improved on both fronts: video, while not perfect, looked watchable, and the OS gave you a sensible method for burning DVDs in a format that played on consumer DVD players. Now in its third iteration, Microsoft's remote-controllable, multimedia OS, Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, continues to provide more freedom with your PC's digital-media content. With support for new set-top Media Center Extender network devices, you can now use MCE 2005 to access files on your PC from displays in the other rooms in your home--the TV in your bedroom, for example; each MCE 2005 PC can support up to five Extenders, over wired or wireless networks. Plus MCE 2005 also now supports dual TV tuners, which means you can watch one channel while recording another. MCE 2005 is the most polished and tightly integrated desktop DVR we've seen, but we'll have to test the image quality on more Media Center PCs and Extenders as they are released before we give it the thumbs-up for broad use throughout your home. Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 looks polished before you even install it. The printed instructions contained clear illustrations for connecting our test PC to a variety of display types, along with details explaining how to connect the PC to wired or wireless networks and add set-top Media Center Extender devices into the mix. (PC vendors and networking companies such as Linksys will sell Extenders as standalone products.) We connected our test system to a digital LCD and a digital satellite cable box, then connected it to an 802.11g wireless router for use with the Extender we received.
After we powered on the PC and started up the MCE 2005 interface, the setup wizard walked us through the setup process, the majority of which we could easily navigate with the included remote control. Within 10 minutes, we received a live TV picture and had downloaded the program guide for our area. The only hitch along the way was getting MCE 2005 to recognize the IR blaster we had connected to the PC and placed in front of our satellite cable box. After repeated attempts, we were finally successful (we're still not sure what we did differently to get it working properly), and we could control the satellite box with the Media Center remote. The IR blaster is essential for the Extender; without it, you can't change the channel when sitting in front of the Extender. This version of MCE adds an audio setup wizard, which simply asks you which type of speaker set you'll be using, from a two-piece set to 7.1 speakers.
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