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December 9, 2002

2003 and beyond. NOTES

Media Center” is Microsoft’s term for a superset of features added to Windows XP Professional. The most important of these is a remote control (like a TV remote) to control audio, video, and still-image playback and recording. This remote is paired with a new Media Center application. One of the core functions of this app is a user interface that, with the remote control, lets you work with the PC from a distance. This has been dubbed the “10-foot” user interface, to contrast it with the “2-foot” user interface we’re all familiar with.

It seems to me that Media Center should be about the 10-foot user experience and Media Player should be about the 2-foot experience. That means some features–like support for live TV and the program guide–need to be added to Media Player. It also means that advanced media-management features (like detailed organization of a large library) could reside in that program rather than Media Center. Photo viewing, of course, would be done from within the file system as it is today.

THE SPECIFIC SYSTEM I’ve been testing is HP’s Media Center PC 873n. Costing about $1700 (less monitor), it’s built around a 2.53GHz Pentium 4, with 512MB RAM, a 120GB hard drive, CD-ROM drive, and combo DVD+R writer and CD-writer combo.

It also has a four-slot adapter that accepts six different kinds of removable media: SmartMedia, MMC/SD, CompactFlash I and II, and the Sony Memory Stick format (which I wish would just go away). And, oh yeah, there’s a floppy disk drive, too, which doesn’t seem to work properly.

The machine also includes support for USB 2.0 and IEEE 1394/FireWire peripherals–an example of how the HP includes everything I’m likely to use, not just the Microsoft stuff. These two ports, for example, give me high-speed access to things like digital cameras and MP3 devices.

This unit, however, sits on my desktop–which is where I think most of these machines are ending up–and is being used almost entirely in 2-foot mode. Media Center’s 10-foot mode won’t really come into its own until systems are designed more specifically to fit into an existing home entertainment center. I’ve seen designs for these living-room-friendly boxes. But those designs won’t matter much until wireless capabilities are added, allowing the Media Center device to store and feed content to an entire home.

Nevertheless, the 10-foot UI is a critical first step toward making that happen.

WHOEVER’S SELLING the hardware, Media Center is Microsoft’s way of turning the PC into the digital hub that sits in the middle of your entertainment, be it TV, music, digital photos, home video, radio, or the Internet. It is also a way to get a home server into your home slowly and by degrees.

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