Originally created 12/15/03

Multimedia PCs still not at home in the living room



Personal computers are powerful enough to replace just about every electronic component in the living room entertainment center. Yet the PC still doesn't quite seem at home there.

It's not that PCs can't handle TV, music or videos, but those are usually enjoyed at a distance, while you're relaxing on a couch or recliner. Other computer jobs, like Web-surfing or e-mail, are more comfortably done up close, nose-to-screen.

A new batch of computers running Microsoft Corp.'s second-generation Windows XP Media Center Edition seek to end that disconnect, but their success is limited.

The machines work great as entertainment centers or as regular computers. But not both - at least under most circumstances.

Microsoft is making the Windows XP version available only for new machines and as an upgrade to older Media Centers. I tested one from ViewSonic Corp. and another all-in-one unit from Gateway Inc.

Both sport speedy processors, voluminous hard drives and memory card readers and are packed full of all the add-ons to watch TV, listen to radio, record programs, display pictures and watch videos.

Both were so powerful that it seemed a waste to devote them just to entertainment. But that's exactly what they'd be used for if they were kept in the living room, which is about as amenable to work as an amusement park.

The $1,999 Gateway 610XL and ViewSonic M2100 ($1,999 with monitor) would work well in a cramped dormitory or a studio apartment where people might use either of them as a computer and an entertainment center. Elsewhere, it makes more sense to buy separate components, which would probably be less pricey anyway.

Though I don't buy the premise of media centers, it's difficult not to like the software and hardware they combine.

Microsoft's contribution, besides the core operating system, is an umbrella program that controls a variety of entertainment-related tasks. The software can be controlled from a comfortable distance with a simple remote control.

The latest software includes TiVo-like digital video recorder functions as well as features for organizing music, pictures and videos. It also includes support for FM radio, including the ability to pause it. (But that's as far as it goes. Radio shows can't be scheduled to record.)

More importantly, Microsoft has opened the doors to other companies that created software that works in the Media Center environment. I tried the Napster 2.0 music store, and it was easier to use than its regular PC software. Other programs enable burning music or video files to CD or DVD.

I set up the Gateway 610XL in the bedroom, and cord clutter was nonexistent. The all-in-one unit easily fit on the dresser, and setup was as easy as plugging it into the wall and screwing in the cable for TV and radio signals. No networking cables were needed, because it supports Wi-Fi. Even the speakers are built into the unit.

The 17-inch wide screen display was dazzlingly bright and vivid. It did seem to make my crummy cable reception worse, though it was clear as can be when playing a DVD.

But inevitably, I ran into Media Center dead ends, where running a help program or an installer launched me out of the flashy entertainment software and dumped me into the regular world of Windows, where the keyboard and mouse are required.

Gateway makes it easier by supplying a wireless keyboard and mouse, but that doesn't help out with tiny text that's a blur from a distance even on a good display.

And in the bedroom, I could never get comfortable doing regular computer work like surfing the Web or typing e-mails, though the mouse did make for an excellent back massager. I'd think twice before shelling out $1,999 for an otherwise fantastic machine - at least until I knew exactly where and how I'd be using it.

The ViewSonic M2100 Media Center is a more traditional machine with a case that can be positioned either horizontally or vertically. My review unit shipped with a 17-inch wide-screen flat-panel display that, like the Gateway, was stunning.

The M2100 also has a wireless keyboard with built-in mouse control, which makes a separate device unnecessary. I found it worked fine within the Media Center software, but tricky to use in the regular Windows environment.

You could, of course, create a "media center" of your own without further enriching Microsoft.

I turned the PC in my home office into a media center by installing the $199 Adaptec VideOh! DVD Media Center USB 2.0. The external device includes a TV tuner as well as sockets to plug in a VCR to make digital copies of tapes.

The picture quality was excellent, though the software was clunky compared to the Media Center. To fix that, I installed the latest version of SnapStream's Personal Video Station (free to try; $65 to download; $75 for a CD). It's just as pretty as Microsoft's Media Center.

For organizing music, I loaded up Apple Computer Inc.'s free iTunes. For movies, there's Microsoft's Windows Media Player. And for pictures, Windows XP does a fine job with slideshows.

In the living room, I'm content with my standalone TiVo, satellite box, stereo, DVD player and their tangle of cords.

Plus, my TV doesn't crash or need to reboot, and my TiVo never asks me to download a security patch to keep episodes of "Days of Our Lives" safe from hackers.