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Media Center PCs: picking the right one

Before you drop a bundle on a media center PC this holiday season, make sure that it’s exactly what you want instead of sort of what you want.

Media center PCs are the next step in PC/CE (consumer electronics) convergence and they are the hot thing in personal computers this holiday season. However, there are a lot of choices this year and picking the right system has never been more difficult.

A year ago this wasn’t the case; virtually everyone was building desktop PCs using many of the same components, throwing on the usual Microsoft software. The result showed promise but clearly had a long way to go. What was interesting was that Apple, which traditionally has led in initiatives like this, wasn’t even in the game—and still isn’t.

The belief was that these machines would be used instead of TVs for small apartments or dorms and also be the primary PC in those situations. However, we learned over the last year that the initial belief that people would be using these the same as they would a PC was wrong. It turned out that people were integrating (or trying to integrate) these products with their existing audio-video (A/V) equipment and the tower designs were less than satisfactory in this regard. Even folks wanting to use them as intended complained of the set-up time and complexity of a traditional PC. As a result, this year, there are two new form factors for these machines: The all-in-one and the stereo component classes are what is new this year.

The all-in-one products, led by Sony and Gateway put the media center capability in the same package as a wide-format LCD monitor. They provide a TV-like experience in that you only need to connect them to power, your network, and your TV antenna to get them up and running. Sony and Gateway went down different paths; Sony’s design, called the W series, favors the PC, and its multimedia functions are separate applications. Its industrial design attaches the keyboard and, depending on how you fold it, the keyboard transitions the box into a music player or a TV. It’s actually very cool, but currently the product doesn’t ship with Microsoft’s Media Center software, and as a result it was harder to use at a distance. However, it makes up for this with a unique feature that anticipates the media servers we should be seeing next year, and it allows you to move programming around the house to other PCs (which don’t have to be Sony products).

The Gateway 610 was designed to be primarily a media center with the PC function as secondary, and ships with a wireless mouse and keyboard (as do most of the current generation of media centers). It uses Microsoft software to transition between modes, and while it lacks the admittedly cool mechanicals of the Sony it seems more practical in use. The Gateway also has built in wireless 802.11G networking as an option, making it slightly easier to set up (in a wireless environment) then the Sony, although you can add a wireless PC card to the Sony.

In the end, the Sony is more impressive in use and the Gateway is easier to set up and move, and is arguably cleaner looking. Also, right now the Gateway has the integrated Microsoft Media Center PC software package. Either will do the job, and both are easy to set up, but they are when used for a balance of PC work multimedia and 17-inch aspect ratio TV that will impress the neighbors. As a bonus, a wide screen PC, according to a study from Carnegie Melon, will actually improve your productivity. (Wide aspect-ratio displays allow you to do more work in a shorter period of time because you can put more stuff on the screen at the same time which, evidently, makes you more efficient).

The other new design is the stereo component form factor. This product looks like a piece of A/V equipment and stacks nicely on top of your receiver. It has plugs out the back that are consistent with the rest of your A/V gear, and it is generally less expensive than the other types. You tie it into your existing A/V setup and use your TV (preferably a high-definition projection set or flat-panel display) and your usage model is primarily as a media product — in other words, you really don’t do any work on it. This showcases the multimedia aspect of the media center and, while you would expect this product from Sony, only Gateway’s 901 currently ships these.

If you plan to use the media center primarily as a PC, the tower form factor still exists. Based on its Comdex best-of-class award, HP builds the best one of these. Its improvements include an HP camera dock on the top and much-improved performance. You can now use the HP m300 as a decent media authoring and management platform as well as a strong PC; however, this use is clearly where the PC capability of the platform is strongly favored and where you can trade the easy of setup and industrial design of the all-in-one for the flexibility of a traditional tower design.

One new form we should mention is the laptop media center. These are basically high-end desktop replacement laptops running the Media Center software. Similar in use to the all-in-ones with the added benefit of being mobile, they would seem ideal; however, they break the usage model in that they cannot capture programming in PVR mode while mobile. This suggests that they are not yet a complete solution, and are best used in conjunction with one of the other types (preferably the stereo component form factor, which best dovetails with a mobile offering). No one has set up a sync function, so moving programming between the devices, while possible, isn’t easy or automatic. HP and Toshiba currently lead with the best mobile implementations of the media center products.

If you want to try a media center experience but don’t want to buy a new PC, you can pick up the Adaptec VideOh! Media Center or the InterVideo Home Theater. Of the two, the InterVideo offering is less expensive and provides an experience closest to the Microsoft Media Center offering, while the Adaptec has more complete photo and video editing tools. Cost is about $100 for the InterVideo and about $200 for the Adaptec.

The current class of products is still not ideal, though, and next year should bring a number of improvements. First, the entire product line begs for the use of a centralized server for larger homes where the media can be collected and distributed to lower-cost devices like the Gateway Connected DVD player. While keyboards and mice this year are wireless, only the new Gateway 901 has a mouse you can use without a table. Finally, even the all-in-one designs need to allow for a second high-definition monitor — like an HDTV or plasma screen — and this is simply not the case today.

In addition, several early adopters of this technology also had digital cable, satellite receivers, and/or HDTV, and the current crop of media centers does not integrate well with these technologies.

Finally, the need to take the programming with you has not been fully addressed. A small mobile device (which could be a modified Pocket PC or Palm device) is needed to complete the family so you can more easily take your programming with you. Products like this are expected from a variety of vendors using Microsoft, Intel, and Apple technology by this time next year. Strangely enough, Sony has the most compelling offering of this type this year, with the combination of one of their CLIE handheld computers and their memory-stick video recorder accessory.

In the end, you have a number of choices, and a number of things to look forward to for next year. Have a wonderful time shopping!

Rob Enderle is president of the Enderle Group, a technology research firm based in San Jose, Calif.

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