In a recent "60 Minutes" commentary, "Why Computers Are Screwed Up," resident curmudgeon Andy Rooney blames Bill Gates for all those pesky problems that plague PC users. He concludes by pointing out that "it's a good thing Bill Gates didn't invent television. If it took as long to start up a television set as it takes to start up a computer, you'd need two hours to watch '60 Minutes.'"
Well, I've got news for you, Mr. Rooney. Though Bill Gates didn't invent TV, he is trying to reinvent it. Microsoft has recently released the second iteration of the Media Center Edition of Windows XP that transforms PCs into, among other things, TVs. And, thanks to Gates' technology, it won't even take 60 minutes to watch your show. Media Center PCs are also personal video recorders (PRV), which means you'll be able to zip through the commercials and watch a one-hour show in about 48 minutes, assuming your TV set doesn't crash in the middle of the program.
For years, Microsoft, Intel and other PC industry companies have talked about moving PCs from the den to the living room. For most consumers, the pitch has fallen on deaf ears. People don't want ugly beige boxes in their living rooms. What's more, people want consumer electronics that are reliable and easy to use. When was the last time you had to load anti-virus software on your TV? Has your CD player ever been attacked by a hacker?
Still, the industry continues to push forward. Specially equipped PCs running the new version of Microsoft's Media Center Edition can not only be used to watch and record TV, they can play DVD movies, audio CDs and FM radio, as well as let you view your photographs and home movies and listen to MP3 music files. Depending on the configuration you can also use them to edit home movies and burn DVDs.
Unlike Tivo, which costs $12.95 a month, there are no usage charges associated with using the machine's PVR function. The program guide that you use to select TV shows to watch or record is downloaded from the Internet for free.
And these PCs don't necessarily come in ugly beige boxes.
Gateway's 610 Media Center not only acts like a home entertainment system -- it looks like one too. In fact, it looks like a very cool flat-panel TV.
It really is a stunning piece of equipment. All you see on your table is a brush silver-colored 17-inch flat panel LCD screen with built-in speakers on each side, sitting atop a pedestal. You have to look carefully to see the DVD player/recorder on the left side of the unit. If you look at the back, you'll see all the usual audio video ports plus an Ethernet port for a local area network and two USB ports. Although you could plug a wired keyboard and mouse into the USB ports, the system comes with a wireless keyboard and mouse along with a TV-style remote control for the media functions.
By the way, it's also a high performance computer. The 610XL model I'm testing ($1,999) comes with a 3 GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor, 512 megabytes of RAM, a 200 gigabyte hard drive and an optical (DVD-RW/CD-RW) drive that can both read and write both CDs and DVDs. Versions with less memory, smaller hard drives and slightly slower processors are available for $1,499 and $1,699.
The Windows XP Media Center Edition operating system is a superset of Windows XP, which means it can also run all the same software as any Windows XP computer. I'm writing this column on the machine using Microsoft Word and surfing the web in Internet Explorer while I have a TV show playing in the background.
Like any high-end TV set, the Gateway accepts multiple types of input including RCA, S-Video and coaxial cable. I tested it with both my Comcast cable TV input and my Dish Network satellite receiver. The Gateway has an infrared controller port that enables the PC and its remote to control satellite and cable set top boxes. Although this system is not a high-definition TV, the quality of the picture is still pretty amazing when connected to the dish or when playing a DVD.
It has a wireless (802.11) network adapter that makes set up a breeze for anyone with a wireless home network. Thanks to that and the wireless mouse and keyboard, the only wires I had to deal with were the power cord and the TV cable.
In addition to the video function, the new machine can also display personal photographs as a slide show and serves as a very nice audio player. Of course, you can play CDs one at a time, but if you copy (rip) your audio CDs to its hard drive; you can use it like an electronic jukebox, playing all your music without having to handle CDs.
Although the Home Media Center machine looks and functions like a home entertainment system, there are still some telltale signs that it's a Windows PC. Like most Windows systems, it goes into sleep mode after a period of non-use and sometimes it would fail to wake up on a command from the remote control. Also, the machine simply crashed on me a couple of times, which has never happened with my TV set, DVD player or VCR. Because it's connected to the Internet through Windows and Internet Explorer, the machine is subject to the same dangers as any Windows PC including spyware, hackers and viruses.
Don't worry Andy Rooney. Microsoft has left you with plenty of material for future curmudgeonly commentaries.
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