Multi-media PCs improve performance, usability

Years ago, when computer companies first floated the idea of using a Windows computer as the center of a home-entertainment system, I dismissed the concept, saying it would introduce the pain of computer crashes to the formerly simple act of watching television.

But much has changed over the years. The current version of the Microsoft operating system, Windows XP, is pretty stable. And Microsoft has a slick new version of XP, called the Media Center Edition, that allows a PC to be controlled remotely from across the room. Media Center PCs typically include TV receivers and the ability to record TV programs to a hard disk, as well as to play music and videos and run slide shows of photos, all on a large TV screen.

This year, Microsoft and its partners have built on that concept. The latest Media Center computers can beam TV programming, music, videos and photos to televisions in distant parts of a home, using a home network and an add-on device called a Media Center Extender. And more PC makers are offering Media Center computers that look like home-entertainment-center components rather than traditional PCs.

I’ve been testing one of these PCs-in-disguise, a new model from Hewlett-Packard called the z545-b Digital Entertainment Center. It’s a thick, horizontal black box packed with power, capacity and features that costs a whopping $1,900. I’ve also been testing HP’s new Media Center Extender, a slender, pizza-box-shaped accessory that costs a hefty $299.

In general, both worked well. But they also had some drawbacks, and it was impossible to escape two of the worst problems of using a Windows computer – security issues and networking complexities.

The black, brushed-aluminum PC is meant to slip into a home-entertainment center, and it has enough audio and video connectors on the back to please most home-entertainment fans and baffle novices. There are two TV tuners inside, as well as an FM-radio receiver, and jacks on the back for connecting to cable or satellite TV. The multiple video connections include all the popular variations, analog and digital. The 10 audio connections include jacks for up to eight speakers.

The computer itself has 512 megabytes of memory. It also has enough hard-disk storage to hold a lot of recorded TV: a main 200-gigabyte hard disk and a secondary, removable, 160-gigabyte hard disk.

The Media Center software has been modestly upgraded this year by Microsoft. For instance, you can now crop photos and edit the song title and other information in music files using only the remote control. But the software retains its elegant, uncluttered look, and still works well with the remote. This interface is Microsoft’s best software design work in recent years. And underneath, there’s a full-fledged Windows PC with the usual Windows XP desktop.

In my tests, the system worked well. I was easily able to watch and record TV, play music, and view photos and videos. HP, which also sells Apple Computer’s iPod music player, has even added a remote-controlled version of Apple’s iTunes music program.

There are some drawbacks to this PC, however. Despite its high price, it doesn’t come with its own speakers. The keyboard, which is meant for light duty on a lap, is weak, with a built-in cursor control I found clumsy.

And the realities of the Windows security mess can intrude on your entertainment experience. For instance, while I was watching TV, I was repeatedly interrupted by pop-up notices urging me to configure Norton AntiVirus. To do so, I had to exit the Media Center software.

I also tested the $299 Media Center Extender, which uses a wired or wireless home network to stream video and audio from the Media Center PC to a television or stereo system in another room. The basic setup for the extender went well. And music and photos were beamed perfectly over my wireless network, which uses a popular Wi-Fi system, called 802.11g. (The extender doesn’t work with the most common system of Wi-Fi, called 802.11b.)

But video was a problem. When I tried to watch recorded TV shows on the remote TV, the picture stuttered noticeably, and it was grainy. Microsoft and H-P attributed this to the speed of my network, which was being degraded by other computers doing e-mail and Web browsing.

Microsoft says that, for optimal video streaming, Media Center users should buy and install a separate wireless network based on the less-common 802.11a standard and dedicate it to the Media Center extender connection.

This is likely to add another $100 or so to the cost of the setup. Worse, it will plunge users into the morass of installing another network. The complexity of this task is increased by the fact that the H-P computer doesn’t work with the “a” system of Wi-Fi, even though the Extender does. H-P and Microsoft provide instructions on how to do this, but it isn’t simple for nontechies.

The H-P Digital Entertainment Center works well in a single room, as long as you aren’t too bothered by the intrusion of standard Windows irritations, such as security notices and, worse, viruses and spyware. But setting it up to stream video to other rooms is still too difficult for mainstream users.

Walter Mossberg writes about personal technology for The Wall Street Journal.

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