Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition kicked off in Australia with plenty of hype and hoo ha, and for good reason. The concept of a single home entertainment station that provides all the functionality of digital television, a PVR (Personal Video Recorder), DVD player, stereo, radio and more, is certainly an appealing one. However, the first generation of Media Centers were somewhat of a disappointment and fell well short of the digital entertainment station aspiration.
Thankfully we're not solely reliant on Microsoft to make this vision a reality, and there are other companies making pioneering moves in this area, such as Victorian-based Development 1. D1's Home Media Centre (HMC), besides sporting the correct spelling of "centre", is the first device that actually achieves the lofty aspirations of a digital media centre.
Possibly the most impressive factor of the HMC is that it truly is a media centre that just happens to be a PC. To a computer aficionado, it's clear that the HMC is a Celeron-powered PC with 256MB of RAM, but this fact is entirely irrelevant to the HMC user. Once you lift it out of its packaging, an excellent installation manual steps you through setting it up, and you need know nothing about PCs to get it working with your TV and stereo.
The HMC itself comes in a tidy small form factor chassis, which is still a bit chunky in terms of living room aesthetics, but is infinitely more appropriate than the midi tower cases provided with some Windows Media Center PCs. The metallic silver facia at the front is punctuated only by the DVD bay and a colourful LCD display, which can show the time or temperature inside the case. At the back is a range of outputs, including composite and S-Video, 3.5mm jack and digital audio output, along with a conventional VGA port. There is also the usual range of PC connectors, although as the manual aptly states, these are left unused.
Once hooked up, the HMC boots into an impressive custom Linux OS in about 60 seconds, which is longer than switching on a DVD player or your television, but is still acceptable. The software then prompts you to configure the HMC to your liking, which is a simple task, and should have you watching TV within minutes of powering it up for the first time. In fact, the Linux developers should get a big pat on the back for doing what Microsoft is still struggling to achieve.
Besides watching television, the HMC gives you full PVR functionality, such as pausing live TV and recording programmes to hard disk. Another coup that makes the HMC stand out from the crowd is the integration of a slick EPG (Electronic Programme Guide). This is easily accessed when watching live TV, and you can browse and select programmes for recording. When you do select a programme, you're also given a range of options, from recording once through to recording any programme with this title if it appears on any channel at any time during the day. The HMC doesn't automatically edit out ads, but it does have a Skip Ad button that jumps forward 28 seconds, and will get you through an ad break in a jiffy.
You do need to have the HMC plugged into an Internet connection in order to update the EPG, though, so some PC networking knowledge is required. Once connected, though, you can also share music and videos over your Windows network, and the HMC will let you listen to Internet radio, and even download weather updates.
Other functionality includes watching DVDs as well as videos and music or viewing images stored on the hard disk. Video playback is compatible with a range of formats, including DivX and XviD.
The HMC is entirely controlled via a remote control via the on-screen interface. This is in no way an hindrance to the HMC, and most controls are simple and intuitive, which is a rarity for a device with so much functionality.
The only major drawback to the HMC is the noise it generates. Hopefully D1 will introduce a variable speed fan system, or even better, silent passive cooling, in future models.
Given all its features, the HMC is, not surprisingly, fairly expensive. However, for the outlay, you're getting one of the most feature rich home entertainment devices around, and one that beats the pants off any existing Windows Media Center PCs.
It's not 100 percent perfect, but D1's HMC is the closest it gets to the dream of a digital home entertainment centre. If you want one device that does it all, the HMC comes highly recommended.