Re-Inventing The Media Center PC
Recently I was asked why there has not been a wider acceptance of the Media Center PC and what could this particular manufacturer do about getting the community to buy more Media Center PC's. After thinking about this question I gave the manufacturer several observations which I will share with you but first I want to talk about what the Media Center PC really is.
Microsoft wasn't the first to introduce the concept of the Media Center PC. In fact it was the average user that was responsible for the inception and creation of the Media Center PC. Like all large companies Microsoft saw what people were doing with their product and their PC and realized that the concept of the Media Center PC was an entirely new market which they had not tapped yet and thus MCE (Media Center Edition) was born into Windows XP. Essentially MCE was plain jane Windows XP with added functionality but still the inability to join a domain. So what you have is an operating system which allows you to record TV shows and digital media (given the proper hardware) and is designed to serve as a single point of contact for your home entertainment needs. In truth it falls far short of this purpose which is what we will discuss later.
Early adopters of MCE were primarily users comfortable with building their own machines and installing the software necessary to accomplish their primary goal of playback and encoding of various types of media. These types being video and audio of course.
Media Center Edition was releasd in four forms:
- Windows XP Media Center Edition beta (codename "Freestyle") Released in January of 2002 the first offering of MCE was based entirely on Windows XP Professional and was only available from OEM Manufacturers such as Dell.
- Windows XP Media Center Edition 2003 (Codenamed "Freestyle") Released in October 2002 added features such as , FM radio tuning among others.
- Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 ("Harmony"). Released in November 2003 as a service pack which served to upgrad all earlier versions of MCE to "Harmony".
- Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 ("Symphony")Released in November 2004, "Symphony" became the first release to be publicly available to non-OEM system builders. It included support for Media Center Extenders, and CD/DVD-Video burning support.
While all of this functionality had been available prior to Microsoft offering Media Center Edition the concept was to offer the functionality as a single software bundle that handled what had previously required several different softwares. The obvious benefit being the support and lack of compatibility problems in addition to a unified look and feel. Essentially MCE converted your PC into a home DVR with the ability to do everything your DVR does and a lot more. Remember this is a PC we are speaking of, so you can browse the internet on your TV in a familiar environment with all of your settings, on software you already know.
So whats the problem right? This is what the manufacturers are asking themselves right now. Why aren't more people purchasing these kinds of PC's?
Here's the short answer "It's still a PC".
For all the same reasons that make the concept of a Media Center PC attractive over the traditional DVR, the problem still exists that it is a PC and therefore the concept exists that it requires maintenance, can be infected with viruses, and will eventually get slow and will experience problems. Additionally come the real life issues that involve the requirement for separate hardware to accmplish all of this functionality which includes:
- TV Tuner Card
- Audio Card for HD Audio
- Encoder/Decoder Card (optional)
- Firewire Card for Video Input
- High End CPU required for ripping content during playback without stutter.
Currently most home owners purhase for their home entertainment needs the following common components:
- DVD/VHS Player
- LCD TV/Plasma
- Equalizer (optional)
If you add all of this traditional equipment up you will find that you spend well more than a standard PC on just the tuner and DVD/VCR, add to that cost the purchae of an additional DVR and you can easily come out to over $1000. The Media Center PC replaces your tuner, DVD player, and DVR recorder all in a single device which will cost less than your traditional setup.
Of course along with a traditional setup comes the problem of often having 3 to 4 remote controls and having to figure out the menus that are present on up to 3 to 4 different devices. I know that I am personally the "designated tech" for my family. When at my parent's home I am often the one who is given the remotes to play movies and even change the channel. It is not that I am more technically adept with TV and audio equipment than they are, it's simply that I have the patience to figure these things out without the desire to smash the remote against the wall. I can just see some of you now nodding your heads in agreement.
So what I identified as a primary problem to the manufacturer had much more to do with marketing cost. It was my concept to separate the PC from the Media Center. People are much more ready to buy a TV, DVD, or Tuner than a PC. A PC requires though, its a complicated device, and there are so many aspects to consider when purchasing one. A concept which has been ingrained into us by the Best Buy's and Dell's of the world now has come back to haunt the Media Center market. It would be my suggestion to simplify the device greatly. First the separation of the Media Center from the PC even if in name only will result in greater acceptance of it as a device. Functionally it remains the same but consumers can now think of it as a device offered in the home entertainment section of their favorite electronics stores. Given the right chassis such as a Thermaltake Mozart or a SilverStone Crown Series the device can even look like a traditional component or better.
Problems Facing a Media Center Migration
- A Media Center Platform still costs too much. Most of this cost is associated with the motherboard and CPU to power the device.
- CPU and Platforms powerful enough to handle video and encoding/decoding or multitasking currently expel too much heat for small form factor chassis'.
- Media Center PC's are still underpowered in the video department. Integrated video is not good enough for tomorrow's applications and will not allow the user to play 3D intensive games. No viable solution exists due to heat and space.
- Onboard Audio is not capable of handling the audio requirements of home theater speakers.
- HD Video decoder required and no HDMI for higher end video unless you purchase extra hardware.
- Reduced platform costs by offering the device as a pre-manufactured component with full warrenty and capable components internally.
- The inclusion of higher end video with discreet memory in an integrated form factor. The ability to either add multiple video cards or an onboard SLI/Crossfire functionality to give consumers the ability to play games on their TV.
- A minimum of 7.1 high definition sound with optical and phono ports and built in amplifier for traditional speaker setup. Use of the power supply to power the speakers could be accomplished.
- Onboard decoding of HD video to eliminate extra hardware required.
- Onboard wireless with the antenna built into the chassis.
- Unified software interface that is simple and easy to understand with a minimum of menus.
- Automatic detection existing hardware (speakers TV, etc) and software wizard to guide users through proper setup. TV tutorial.
- A single easy to understand remote to control all hardware.
Currently there is no offering that meets these ideal resolutions and as such adoption has been greatly limited to the more technically savvy consumers. A lot of these issue cannot be handled by a single OEM or manufacturer and would require modification of the currently available hardware and software to provide an ideal single solution for widespread market acceptance. Microsoft's contribution while a good solution is still a fully featured OS with all of the accompaying issues. It should be noted that Vista has embeded media center funtionality but can be tricky for users to understand and use. Additionally the hardware requirements of Vista are higher than XP as well as driver compatibility that can still be sketchy at times.
Where do we go from here?
What I envision is an embedded solution, yet one that is upgradable. A hardware platform which looks like your traditional tuner yet performs that functions of several components and at a higher level of fidelity and all at a lower overall cost to your wallet. In order to accomplish this task the internal platform including CPU, motherboard, and video are of the utmost importance and would have to be re-invented in terms of performance per watt. It would be fair to say that we need the performance of an Intel Skulltrail or AMD Spider platform in a small form factor accompanied by a very low power processor with a high performance and an amazing amount of connectivity and expansion. Put all of this into chassis the size of your average briefcase and we have a product that people will buy en masse.
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