Computer Geeks and Couch Potatoes

Computer Virus, generic, 020307, GD.
When I hold the remote control in my hand and gaze at the 17-inch flat panel screen across the room, I feel as if I'm watching TV.

But if I look just below the desk that it's sitting on, I see a rectangular box that reminds me that this is actually a PC. It's also a digital jukebox, a DVD player, a personal video recorder, a recording studio and a video editing suite.

The device under that desk is the HP Media Center PC 873N from Hewlett-Packard. It's the first PC to come with Microsoft's new Windows XP Media Center Edition -- a souped-up version of Windows XP enhanced to support TV and other home entertainment features.

The new PC/TV does everything any Windows PC can do, along with its laundry list of entertainment features.

The prices of the machines are actually pretty close to what you'd pay for similarly equipped HP Pavilion PCs without the Windows Media Center edition, but much higher than you need to spend for a basic Windows PC that starts at under $500.

To me, the system's most useful and impressive feature is its personal video recorder, which lets you record shows to the machine's hard drive for later playback. Like the TiVo and ReplayTV stand-alone PVRs, you get an onscreen program guide that provides a grid of the shows on television so you can schedule what you want to record. It is much easier than using a VCR, and the quality of the digital recording is superior to VHS tape.

Like many new PCs, the new HPs have a DVD drive that lets you watch movies and, of course, you can listen to CDs or MP3 files that you download or "rip" from CDs to the PC's hard drive.

There is nothing unique about any of these features. It's long been possible to hobble together a PC with a built-in tuner and even the ability to schedule and record shows. But sometimes the whole literally is more than the sum of its parts, especially when it's elegantly packaged and integrated.
For example, all Media Center PCs come with a TV-like remote control, which almost makes you think you're working with a TV rather than a PC. You can use the remote to control most aspects of the audio and video experience, including turning the PC on and off, changing channels and selecting the media you want to watch or listen to.

Setting up the new system was easier than I expected and using it is a breeze. The interface is very well-designed. If you're versatile enough to use a PC and watch TV at the same time, you can definitely master this device.

There are some rough edges to the system. To begin with, despite the look and feel of the monitor, it is really a PC, and even though it's a bit more fashionable than most, it's still a big rectangular box that looks fine under a desk or table but not all that attractive in a living room.

Also, it's still Windows. As I was watching a TV show, a Windows system message started flickering in the lower right corner of my screen and the only obvious way to get rid of it was to get up from my chair, walk over to the machine and click on the message with the mouse.

Also, I had some trouble with the video itself. For some reason I was able to get some but not all of the channels from my cable TV system. The quality of the video was OK, but not superb.

HP has three versions of the new PCs. All come with 512 megabytes of memory and a pair of high-end speakers with sub-woofers. The $1,349 model has an 80 gigabyte hard drive, 2.4 gigahertz Intel Pentium 4 processor and a DVD player plus CD-writer that you can use to record your own CDs. The $1,649 version comes with a slightly faster (2.53 GHz) processor, a 120 GB hard drive and a DVD burner so you can create your own video DVDs from home movies or record TV shows onto DVDs.

For $1,999 you get a unit with an even faster 2.66 GHz processor. All versions also have Ethernet and a built-in modem, and none come with a monitor. For this review, HP loaned me the $1,649 model along with a stunning HP Pavilion F70 17" flat-panel display that sells separately for $599.99 (after a $150 mail-in rebate).

So, now that we know that it's possible to create a well-integrated PC/entertainment system, the big question is whether anyone cares. Some will but most people, I suspect, don't really need this level of integration.

Personally, I have no plans to install this in my living room, and I can just imagine my wife's reaction if I proposed putting it in the bedroom. As for my office -- well, I have a small TV in a corner of the room that I use to watch news programs on CNN, C-SPAN and other channels, and that's just about all the video I need while I'm working. Besides, if I had this thing in front of me eight hours a day, I might never get any work done.

Having said that, there is a place for an integrated PC entertainment center. I can envision devices like this in dorm rooms, kids' rooms and small apartments where space is at a premium. I can also envision this concept for people who are serious about creating and editing their own video and then burning video DVDs.

For them, the XP Media Center edition could actually simplify their lives by bringing everything together. But some of us would just as soon separate our work lives from our lives as couch potatoes.

HP and Microsoft did a nice job, but I'll keep my old PC for writing, e-mail and Web surfing, and retreat to my living room when it's time to kick back and watch TV and movies.

A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."

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By Larry Magid