If you were watching ABC tonight and caught Extreme Makeover Home Edition you might have caught a 60 sec spot following the program for Digital Joy, The Microsoft, Intel and HP vision of what your home entertainment could all be routed through a new HP powered Media Center PC.
While I don’t doubt the power of the PC, or the marketing, I think the product itself actually falls short on a few ends…
First of all. A new computer? Do we really need to believe a new computer is required to enable this experience? Why can’t this stuff just work on my (or your) existing machine? Oh that’s right, you can’t really buy the Media Center application (more in a sec) without the box, even if you just bought a new PC with XP on it. I know times were tough and the industry is always pushing to find a new reason to get us to believe we need a new computer, but is this it? And if we do need a new computer, does it have to be the one we sacrifice to the living room? $1000, is the starting point for this stuff, and only gets you access in one place. You can spend much more (you can always spend more right?) on the computer itself, before factoring in any of the additional costs required for an extender set-up to allow the sharing promoted in the marketing messages.
I was at Circuit City last week cruising for goodies and actually wanted to play with some of the newer Media Center stuff as well as potentially play with any other Media Adapter they might have in stock and connected (none). I was surprised that Media Center 2004 was the latest product out on the shelves this close to the holidays (and given the big push at Digital Life). I was also very surprised that there were no Media Centers or adapters (or TiVos for that matter) actually connected to any of the TVs. There was certainly a huge array of TVs (and you’ve probably seen the big push from Circuit City these days as well) but only the usual video loop… There was nothing interactive to see which was a real letdown.
I found a few Media Center PCs on the shelves, 2 of the 3 were rendered helpless – powered off or without online connections which left them unconfigured and not very good samples to sell me on the concept. The one Media Center PC I found that not only worked, but that actually had an internet connection, gave me a taste for how things might work, though frankly going back to me previous point about not connecting to the TV, it fell pretty short. The remote was missing, I presume hidden or stolen, so I was left to my own devices and with mouse in hand I explored the way things worked.
I think the Media Center concept is very interesting… I just don’t get why it works the way it does. It’s really just an application – or perhaps a suite of applications. You can launch it with a double-click from the desktop and voila, you are in the media center UI. When I think about this, it makes me just shake my head. In my home we have two computer literate adults and an baby… The last think my wife wants to do when she sits down on the couch is launch an application! She wants to cruise easily with the remote, not worry about blue screens of death and just watch what’s on, or what has been recorded. If there’s other stuff we’ve collected (OK, what I’ve ripped to the machine, or downloaded) it’s my job currently to manage the remote since our home theater, while not too crazy … can get a bit complex. While the Media Center would all work on a single video input on our set (a real bonus) it would drive her batty .. and me as a result as well.
Beyond batty, if I spent over $1000 (you pay extra for 2 tuners as well by the way), just to replace a DVR we already have for one not capable of HD, I’d be questioning myself very seriously. That’s what’s been leading me to the next big thing… why do Media Centers even have DVRs? Tomorrow we will probably learn of Microsoft’s joint development with Comcast, though it will be some time (as usual) until this rolls out on a mass level if ever. I would think that a Media Center would want to better integrate with an existing system, rather than overlap in function for something you might already be using well. Imagine viewing material recorded through your TiVo or Cable provider DVR over your home network… What happens when the Microsoft capable cable boxes come and people are already running their Media Center PCs? Does one cancel the other out? Will the box enable itself as an extender? Is it actually going to even work without a great deal of labor from the consumer — of course taking into effect that you already run the most current home networking tech.
Taking all this in, it hit me that while there are many products in this Media Center / Adapter category, they’ve all been niche players for various reasons… complexity, cost, geekery, software issues or poor marketing — you know like over promising and under-delivering. No one has nailed the simple – and that’s a relative term given the basic installation requirements for any of this stuff. To me simple is basically plug and play. My Eyehome comes closest – though short on some software UI and some multitasking capabilities, but close. It cost me under $200. There’s no DVR (already have that anyway), but it handles pictures, music and video content across my home network. An equivalent capability in Microsoft, Intel and HP terms would cost over 5 times as much.