The problem is that people use computers and televisions in very different ways. They sit right in front of a computer, usually alone, and type into it. They sit back from a TV set, often with company, and control it with a wireless remote. Satisfying both needs with a single machine seems fraught with difficulty.
Yet the convergence PC is with us once again, backed this time by two giants of computerdom Microsoft and Hewlett Packard. And having lived with one of HP's new Media Center PCs for a couple of weeks, I can report that it's surprisingly good.
The Media Center isn't meant to replace your big-screen TV. Think of it as a smaller, second TV screen for the study or a component to hook up to your primary TV to play home movies, DVDs or slide shows. It's also perfect for students in dorm rooms who don't have space for both a TV and a PC.
At its core, the Media Center is a pumped-up Pentium 4 system with a gargantuan hard drive and oodles of memory. (O.K., that's 120 gigs and 512 megs, if you want to get technical about it.) It has a combo DVD/CD burner, a TV tuner card, a dynamite pair of 200-watt speakers and a subwoofer the size of a breadmaker. This standard system, model 873n, costs $1,649, plus $500 for a 15-in. flat-panel monitor or $750 for a 17-incher.
It also comes with a remote control that launches special "My" software (My TV, My Music, My Videos, etc.) designed by Microsoft. The idea is that you sit on the couch to use these My features and then switch to the desk and keyboard to do your real work.
With My TV you can watch live TV on your PC or record and save shows to your hard drive to watch later, much as with the personal video recorders made by Replay and TiVo. My Music launches your digital-music collection, complete with album covers, playlists and great search features. My Pictures lets you view digital stills and create digital slide shows. And My Videos handles home movies.
One of the best things about the Media Center is how easy it is to get multimedia content into the computer. Four slots on the front of the machine, for example, let you plug in all the popular formats for saving digital pictures, including Memory Stick, Smart Media, Compact Flash, Secure Digital and MultiMediaCard formats. Just snap some pics with your digital camera, remove the card, and insert it in the appropriate slot. The Media Center takes over, automatically starting an application that will save the photos to your hard drive in seconds. Importing digital video is just as easy, thanks to the FireWire port also accessible from the front of the PC.
For me, the fun really started when I launched My TV. I have always wanted a TiVo, but couldn't quite bring myself to pony up $400. Suddenly, I was recording all those oldies I missed because they aired in the middle of the night and all those cooking shows that began at dawn. An onscreen TV guide helps me search for shows by genre, time or title. With the push of a button, I can save up to 33 hours of programming (at top quality) on my hard drive; and if I run out of space, I can copy a show to DVD. With an extra cable, I can hook my PC to the TV and watch any show or DVD on my big screen.
Setting up and using the Media Center wasn't all fun and games though. Today more than a dozen ugly cables tangle around my TV, system unit, speakers and monitor. And while programming the TV to record shows was easy enough, I would never have figured out how to put a show on DVD without a call to HP. Another bug: you still have to switch from the superfriendly Media Center interface to the less intuitive Windows XP in order to copy music CDs onto the computer. And why do people with dial-up connections have to log on manually to the Net every week to download local TV listings?
The Media Center isn't perfect, but it certainly makes the PC a lot more fun to hang out with.
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