Gadget Freak: TV, Microsoft Style

Illustration: Tim Bower

Remember Microsoft and Intel's "Digital Joy" ad campaign, which touted Windows Media Center PCs as the perfect holiday gift? Well, if that's joy, I'll take heartbreak.

Personally, I would rather be trapped in a bomb shelter with Donald Trump than plant an ugly, noisy Windows machine in my living room (see "Keep the PC--I'll Take TiVo," March 2004). But over the past year, Microsoft has spiffed up Media Center--the OS can now stream live TV, recorded shows, music, and pictures from a PC to your home entertainment gear via a third-party set-top box. And companies like Creative and IRiver have come out with portable players that let you carry around your favorite TV shows (provided you record them on a Media Center PC).

So I decided to give Windows another shot at my living room. I got my hands on a Dell Dimension 8400 Media Center PC ($3200), which comes bundled with a Linksys A+G Wireless router ($100 to $150 separately) and a Linksys Media Extender ($250 to $300) to stream content across a wireless network. And then I held my breath.

Killer Install

Setting up the system was joy incarnate. All I had to do was tear out my old Wi-Fi network and install an 802.11a/g one using the Linksys router, reconfigure my cable splitter, troubleshoot a half-dozen niggling problems (including a faulty system fan that sounded like a Cessna revving for takeoff), and act as marriage counselor between the Dell and the Linksys Extender, which disagreed about everything.

Three days later I got it all working, sort of. I could play music and view photos on my TV, but the video stream still skipped frames occasionally or went blank, and there was a lag when I changed channels. When Bill Gates touts "seamless computing," I doubt this is what he has in mind.

Another hitch: When I attempted to watch a Disney film on HBO, I got a screen declaring the Extender was unable to play back "restricted content" (probably the only time The Mighty Ducks has ever earned that sobriquet). Dell says the problem affects only HBO, and a patch should be available by the time you read this.

Managing digital content on a computer makes sense, the Dell system is otherwise pretty slick, and the Windows Media Center interface isn't half bad. But I like my household appliances to work when I plug them in, not after three days of troubleshooting. Spending thousands on a Windows Media Center 2005 PC is silly when there are cheaper, easier alternatives, like set-top boxes with DVR functions or the simple-as-pie Prismiq MediaPlayer. (A MediaPlayer with DVR capability should be available in mid-2005.)

The real problem is that Gates & Co. want to own the software that runs the networked homes of the future. They won't stop at your living room--they want your garage, your kitchen, and your bathroom, too. I keep having nightmares where I can't cook dinner because My Microwave won't work until I upgrade the firmware on My Toilet.

Until these things work as seamlessly as my stereo or my TV, I don't want them running my house. Microsoft may yet conquer the living room and more, but it'll do so the way it always has--with marketing muscle and bullying tactics, not necessarily with superior products.

Joy? Not in my world.

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