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Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 review: Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005

Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005

Matt Elliott Contributor
Matt Elliott, a technology writer for more than a decade, is a PC tester and Mac user based in New Hampshire.
Matt Elliott
10 min read
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.


Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005

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.

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The setup wizard walks you step-by-step through the installation process. It recognized our satellite cable TV connection, and we had a picture within 10 minutes.

Once we had our MCE 2005 PC fully operational, we set up the Extender in another room, connecting it to a 34-inch Sony TV via an S-Video cable. Setup was a snap. We turned it on, and it found the Media Center PC in the Labs next door on our office's 802.11g network. We plugged in a WEP key and soon had access to the contents on our MCE 2005 test system--recorded video and TV shows, photos, music, even live TV. (Since our test system had only one TV tuner, if we changed the channel on the Extender, the channel changed on the PC, too.) Unfortunately, we could neither fast-forward nor rewind when playing a recorded video. And on a large 34-inch screen over a wireless 802.11g network, viewing both live and recorded TV left something to be desired. There's more on video quality on our performance page.

On the whole, MCE 2005 is more visually appealing and responsive than past versions. For one, the Media Center shell itself (more of an application within Windows XP Home than its own OS) looks much improved. Microsoft has made it easier to get to your most commonly used functions--next to each item on the main menu are three icons that are shortcuts to oft-used tasks. For example, next to the Live TV menu item, you might find icons for live TV, recorded TV, and movies. It's easy to close out of the MCE 2005 interface or just resize its window to return to regular Windows XP Home; you can perform either action with a couple of clicks, using the remote control or the mouse.

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Within the program guide, MCE 2005 gives you a convenient snapshot of the movies currently on TV.

MCE 2005 is quicker, too. There's no longer a delay while your selections load, and you can now find cover art for albums and movies. The new Movie Finder--a subset of the program guide--takes full advantage of the cover art; it pulls out all the movies from the program guide, letting you know which movies are currently on and which start within the next hour.

Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005's core functions haven't changed since the OS's conception two years ago. Its basic function is to give you a remote-control-friendly interface for watching and recording TV along with accessing the videos, photos, and music on your PC. Any MCE 2005 system comes equipped with Windows XP SP2 and Windows Media Player 10.0, but the most noticeable change to this year's version is greater hardware support, both inside and outside the PC.

Inside the box, Microsoft has eased its hardware requirements, so there's a wider range of prices for Media Center systems. We are just starting to see a few MCE 2005 systems from manufacturers, one of which, for example, is priced less than $1,000. Unfortunately, however, you still can't get MCE the cheapest way: by buying just the OS. Microsoft hasn't changed the way it is selling the OS: you still must buy it preinstalled on a new system--you can't purchase it separately and upgrade your current PC. Owners of previous-generation MCE PCs will have to check with the PC vendor about how to upgrade. There are rumors, however, that add-in cards such as TV tuners might come bundled in a kit with the OS from graphics card and TV tuner card vendors. We'll update you here should anything come of these whispers around the Web.

The biggest change, however, is Microsoft's added support for dual TV tuners, which give you much more freedom in watching and recording TV. With two tuners, you can record two different shows concurrently or watch one show while recording another. MCE 2005 records TV to your hard drive in a proprietary MPEG-2 format called DVR-MS. In addition to dual-tuners, MCE 2005 supports new HDTV tuners, which let you watch and record high-definition TV on your Media Center PC. Unfortunately, the set-top Media Center Extender devices will not offer HD support, and you'll be able to receive only free, over-the-air HD broadcasts. That is, you'll get the major networks in HD but not HD channels from HBO and ESPN, for example.

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The program guide clearly displays what's on TV and gives a synopsis for each show. You can record your favorite programs with one-button ease.

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.

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You can burn a CD within the Media Center interface with the included remote control. There's no need to reach for the mouse or the keyboard.

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.


Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005

Score Breakdown

Setup 9Features 8Performance 6Support 0