Living Room PCs Come of Age
As hard as we've tried to shoehorn it over the years, most of the time a PC connected to a TV in the living room was pretty much out of place. Sure, plenty of us did it because we liked the pure power, versatility and control that a computer connected to the Internet added to our primary media centers, but it never fit like a glove.
Between cable riggings that looked like bad guys from The Matrix and the navigational contortions required to get our copy of Windows working from the couch, it may have been worth it, but just barely sometimes. One thing for sure -- it was definitely not for everyone.
Steadily over the past few years, there have been vast improvements in the living room PC category, from cosmetics, to the graphics cards to wireless networks and personal video recorders. It seems the ability to get true PC power in the living room has finally come of age. But even with all the cool technology, what's been missing is an easy way to harness this awesome power from a couch, using a remote, primarily for entertainment purposes.
The coup de gras that should catapult the living room PC into the realm of the truly fashionable and easy use is the introduction of products such as Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition. Add to this the fairly recent offering of a slew of Media Center PCs available from most of the major manufacturers and a host of smaller, custom-build shops, and you've got the formula that has folks like Bill Gates claiming that 2005 will be the year that digital media entertainment will "go mainstream."
So what makes a living room PC different from all your other computers? Several features need to be included for a PC to be considered "living room capable."
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005
For starters, any PC you see from a major dealer called a Media Center is sporting the new Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 (MCE) operating system. You can order an MCE computer from Dell (priced from $800-$2,500), HP (priced from $1,100-$2,300) Gateway (priced from $800-$2,200), Sony (priced from $1,200-$2,500), Alienware (priced from $1,500-$2,500), Niveus (priced from $2,500-$4,000) and a host of other custom shops (for a complete list, see the Product Showcase at the Media Center Edition website on the Microsoft homepage).
The MCE version of XP that is available on these machines still has the core functionality of your desktop version, but the interface is substantially different.
The start page, for example, has only six options available from a single drop down menu. The screen also has an inset box that shows what's currently playing. Essentially, it looks like an electronic program guide, with the only options being My TV, My Music, My Pictures, My Videos, Play DVD, and Settings. Subsequent pages are similarly structured like an electronic on-screen guide, with just a few options available from a scroll-up, scroll down menu, so it's easy to select your options with a basic remote.
There are similar products on the market that sit on top of the Windows XP operating system and perform basically the same functions. A couple notable examples include PowerCinema from Cyberlink and MediaCenter from Pinnacle Systems.
This leads to a discussion of another critical addition required to call your PC living room ready -- a TV tuner. TV tuner cards are nothing new, but improvements in technology have made them more powerful. For one thing, they usually come as part of a media graphics card package from companies like ATI or Matrox. You'll want to compare hardware performance based on memory, pixel output and number of tuners on-board. The ATI All-in-Wonder series seems to be the standard in Media Center bundles from most manufacturers. You can expect the latest, greatest two-tuner ATI All-in-Wonder will cost from $400-$500, with the competitive Matrox Millenium running in the same range. Another dual tuner card is Happauge's WinTV-PVR-500MCE. If you are installing your own card, you will often have the option to buy a product with a USB breakout box, as opposed to having to crack the case to install a PCI card.
Digital Video Recorder
The DVR is another key component of a living room PC system. Everyone knows about TiVo these days. The DVR functions pretty much the same on a living room PC, allowing you to record programs to the hard drive, pause live TV and otherwise manipulate your viewing experience so you can super-charge your time-shifting and fast-forward through unwanted commercial breaks. The DVR functions with a tuner and software that is included in Windows XP Media Center Edition. You can also get the software as an add-on from other companies such as MythTV (which is free), SageTV, and SnapStream.
Electronic Program Guide
The on-screen electronic program guide is fundamental to using the digital video recorder as it allows you to select what it is you want to watch and/or record. An EPG comes integrated with Media Center and is also available for download via the Web from providers such as MCE, TitanTV or Zap2it. An EPG usually comes integrated in any digital video recording software package you install.
Hard Drive Size
To record all those TV programs and movies, you'll need space -- lots of space. Fortunately, it's easy to find hard drives in capacities upwards of 250GB as standard equipment. If you need to upgrade your existing system for storage, you can get 200GB drives for less than $100.
DVD-ROM. DVD-RW and DVD Portability
A DVD-ROM drive is required to playback DVDs, so you've got to have that in your integrated system. Most systems also add a DVD burner, and this is where the living room PC really shines compared to any other type of set-top box PVR, A/V client or home theater networking rig. You can record your content onto the hard drive and then burn it onto a DVD that you can play on any other consumer DVD player.
Other options for portability include downloading your media to a Portable Media Device, which is a lot like an MP3 player, only it plays recorded TV, online MPEG video and JPEG slideshows as well.
Video outputs come as part of the graphics/tuner card. Options include coaxial, composite, S-Video and component. The better the card, the more robust your output options. It's pretty common to find S-Video and digital audio outputs on a Media Center PC.
The Media Center interface is designed to be used with a remote control. You can also get wireless keyboards and joysticks to compliment your system. If you're rolling your own system, there is a variety of wireless mouse products available on the market. Pre-packaged systems come with IR remote controls that can learn the codes from your other remotes, giving you a true universal remote.
Of course gaming is one of the main reasons many folks may want a living room PC. You can configure the living room system to have as much gaming power as you desire, including super-charged graphics cards, wireless joysticks and super high-resolution LCD flat screen displays. As usual, all that's going to cost a bit extra.
Wireless Extension Capability
If you already have a wireless network, or you plan to add one in the future, a few companies offer Media Center Wireless Extenders, small external black boxes that will allow you to easily send your digital media across your wireless network.
Support for HDTV
You can download a patch for Windows XP Media Center that will allow your living room PC to support HDTV broadcasts, but you'll need to have the hardware installed in your machine to support it. At the moment, both Alienware and Niveus make HDTV-capable living room PCs.
As the centerpiece of your living room media center, looks matter. Get yourself a sleek design in black or silver that matches your TV and stereo tuner and you won't have to hide it on the bottom rack anymore.
As you can see, if you are considering a Media Center PC, you have a lot to chew on. Luckily, if you have a preferred manufacturer that you like to buy your stuff from, you can probably get one through your usual channels. As always, you should shop on price, features and service. Common wisdom says to buy as much memory and power as you can possibly afford. Even if you don't know what you'll do with it now, with the versatility you get, you'll definitely find cool ways to use it.
Jim Mikles is a freelance technology writer and a digital culture enthusiast.