Microsoft Media Center 2005... Underwhelmed
"Microsoft has had clear competitors in the past. It's good that we have museums to document them."
- Bill Gates, at the Computer History Museum (former SGI HQ)
Ok… so to start with, how can Media Center 2005 NOT have HDTV capability for satellite and cable receivers? What the hell? TiVo announces back in January 2003 and delivers earlier this year and MCE has an opportunity to do a major release on their product and it doesn’t include HDTV support? Something is seriously amiss in Redmond. Although the product allegedly will support the ATI HDTV Wonder card it is my understanding that this card only supports OTA (over the air) HDTV broadcasts. WTF? You mean I can watch NBC in high def but not HBO, Showtime, Bravo, ESPN HD, Discovery HD, etc. etc.? Obviously they have not seen Discovery HD Theater yet.
As much as everybody in all the media user groups have been screaming and clamoring for HDTV for the past three years to not include full satellite or cable HDTV support in this latest release is a colossal misstep. I mean I already gave up my MCE television responsibilities to my HDTV TiVo in June of this year – but I’m an early adopter. I guess they want to let the rest of the world do the same thing -- so much for dominating the living room.
To be fair, it’s not entirely Microsoft’s fault. Microsoft is simply taking the broadcast flag very seriously and doesn’t see the point in creating HDTV capability just to have it shut down by the broadcasters. On the other hand TiVo seems to be doing this today without any problems… of course Time Warner (who broadcasts beautiful high def versions of Six Feet Under and The Sopranos) also owns 8% of TiVo, and even more significantly, there is no easy way to get content off the HDTV TiVo box… yet. My point is though if a little upstart software venture named TiVo can somehow find a way to do satellite HDTV, certainly the big giant cash rich Microsoft can find a way.
I still think that Microsoft should use some of those high priced attorneys that they have left over from that little scrap with the Justice Department and say screw you to the content providers and just make the damn box anyway and defend it in court just like Sony defended the Betamax years ago. But the present trend seems to be more Ballmer wanting to make nice with the studios and refer to iPod users as thieves of music than really being the defender of the end user and the consumer. Then again, hopefully the EFF will have more success in this venture with regads to the broadcast flag.
Well, now that I got THAT off my chest lets talk about what is included in MCE 2005.
First off MCE now supports more than one tuner. More details will be emerging on this in the upcoming days. This is pretty significant. I don’t know about you but I like shows on different networks and channels. Sometimes, just to try and screw with me, network executives will try to put two shows I like on at the same time – trying to pit me against myself. With the previous version of MCE it only supported one tuner (wayyyyyy archaic). Now you can have MCE tackle the task of recording two shows on at the same time. Kind of like what TiVo did back like three or four years ago. But BRAVO guys (oops or is that like HD BRAVO on my DirecTV HDTV TiVo) better late than never.
With Windows Media Player 10 and service pack two built in the music and pictures do seem faster. I’ve harped on MCE for a while for being inadequate for my large digital library. It still is but not as badly as before. If I stick to genres and playlists I can get by – but try to sort by album or artist or especially song, or god forbid, an actual search and you are dead in the water. With a large digital mp3 library MCE 2005 is damn slow. Not as slow as MCE 2004 but not all that much better either. For the life of me I just cannot understand why the engineers at Microsoft simply don’t index the Windows Media Player library (the real culprit behind MCE’s slow music load times).
Pictures. Ok the picture transitions are really cool in MCE 2005. It looks like it might be video. They float across the screen in an animated way. A great effect and creative work on this part. Still missing though is a comprehensive way to filter pictures like I can do with playlists in music. I can only filter by folder and file structure. So if I want to see say all of the pictures of my son in September 2005 that were taken at the park I can’t do this. Microsoft should allow you to build basic filters with my pictures so that you can easier create custom slide shows.
Ok the online spotlight was part of MCE 2004 but just to recap: Online Spotlight. Napster downloads are available via MCE. No big deal though. I wouldn’t buy a DRM crippled audio file if my life depended on it. You just start putting one or two of those into your mp3 library and it is bound to screw everything up. No thank you. I’ll buy (err… borrow) the CD and rip it myself into a DRM free mp3.
Movielink. Ok so now you can order movies and have them download to your hard drive and watch them. The problem? The picture quality sucks -- certainly not worth watching on a 43” HDTV Plasma and certainly no comparison to the crystal clear pay per views I get off of my HDTV TiVo. It is pretty cool though how MCE 2005 now has little icons for all of the movies on tv -- fancy. It also is a pretty large selection of movies to "rent." But if you are a picture quality fanatic and have a large HDTV this service will leave you sorely disappointed. It takes about 20 minutes to download a movie.
Online Spotlight integrates an RSS reader into the app via Newsgator. The only problem here is that Newsgator wants to own the RSS and charge you monthly fee for using it in MCE. Geez. Whatever happened to "news is free." No thank you. I'll stick with Bloglines on my regular PC for now. It has been suggested that Microsoft might be willing to put a different RSS reader in the app if one was made available. Is anyone from Bloglines reading. Make this thing happen. It would be great exposure for Bloglines to be the reader in MCE. News really should be free.
Ok, what else? There is a little subsection in the system for "other applications." You can now use a little plug in called HTML mail and see your hotmail on the screen. That’s pretty cool if you use hotmail. I use powweb though for my internet based email and could not get it to work with powweb. I think this plug in also worked with MCE 2004... theoretically.
The user interface is slightly better in my opinion but I have not tested it out long enough to comment on stability yet. The first version of MCE was horrible when it came to stability. It may have well still been a beta. By MCE 2004 Microsoft had at least gotten most of the bugs out. I can’t really see too many new bugs as they haven’t really done much of anything significant with the software by way of changes. The user interface improvements mostly have to do with little things like shifting animations on the title page and things like that.
I still can’t get the DVD player to work 100% of the time. Most of the time it works which is better than before but it still freaks out every now and again. Then again, with all those high def movies I've TiVo'd off of my HDTV unit and pay per view, who really needs DVDs anymore.
So those are the first initial thoughts. I’ll update things as I figure them out. All in all I would have to say I’m disappointed with the MCE 2005 release -- but in the same way that a parent of a B student is disappointed when they know that their student has A student potential. I was really hoping for more from the guys at Microsoft. The initial concept was so amazingly cool back when it was first released in October of 2002 and I can't believe that they have not executed on so many important items - HDTV especially - here in the 4th quarter of 2004.
The HDTV thing is my biggest gripe. Recently someone commented to me that watching the Tonight Show in high def is no funnier than watching it on regular televsion. For me, however, I find that given the choice between watching non high def television or not watching at all I'm more and more choosing the later. Pretty much these days if it's not in high def I just won't watch it. But that's just me and I'm whacked that way. I can understand that to a certain degree Microsoft's hands are tied because of the media companies but if TiVo can do it I have to believe that Microsoft can somehow find a way.
Hopefully I'll be looking forward to writing a much more positive review for MCE 2006.
Update: One thing that I didn't spend any time on in my MCE 2005 review a few months back was the start page and the new recently opened buttons next to the various main menu items (my music, my pictures, etc.). Essentially if you move to the right on any of the main menu items it gives you the three most recently opened menu items for that type of media. This is turning out to be invaluable for me.
As "my music" is panifully slow in MCE with my large mp3 library, being able to have a coded shortcut that goes directly to my 4 and 5 star rated songs or some of my recent genere plays has me avoiding taking the long slow trip through the "my music" menu path.
Although the music is still slow to load I can click the recently used button and go do something else and when I come back it's on vs. having to go through 4 or 5 different steps to get my common playlists which takes even longer. It is also a nice feature for my pictures as well.
I missed this the first time around and hope you find it useful. It would be nice to have MCE list 5 or 6 most recently used "my music" or "my pictures" items instead of only three. If anyone knows how to modify it to do this let us know.