Media Centers NOT ready for primetime

The Inquirer reports that Media Center doesn’t sell. In Great Britain, only 150 000 have bought a Media Center PC, while over 2 million have bought a DVD recorders.

Although the comparison is a bit unfair (DVD recorders are much cheaper, and also typically sold almost everywhere. Even my grocery store at the corner sell them…), it proves a point: Media Centers are not for most people.

I got a Media Center four months ago. I love it. And hate it.

Media Center – things I like

The concept. The fact that we’re now able to record and time-shift programs. The kids can watch their favourite shows when they want, and don’t have to stop playing or eating to watch tv. And we can sleep when we should and still see those late-night movies later if we want.

Clean. I like the interface. The Media Center interface is the nicest thing Microsoft has made. It looks a zillion times better than Windows, and people I show it to, figure it out immediately.

The guide. The program guide is a great feature. After it’s set up (see the hate-list below too), it gives me quick view of everything on tv the next days.

Always something great to watch. If I’m bored and tired, I don’t have to watch “Walker Texas Ranger” reruns, but can choose between a bunch of Simpsons episodes, 30+ movies recorded that last months and interesting documentaries that always are aired when I’m sleeping or at work (why is primetime so filled with crap?)

Quiet. Thanks to Eirik, I got a Media Center with no fans. And so should you if you want one. It’s ok listening to the fan of the Xbox when you are running around shooting green monsters, beacuse – well, you can’t hear the fans. But when watching a quiet movie, it’s very annoying listening to the fans spinning and spinning. The only thing coming from the Media Center is the ticking of the harddisk. I can live with that.

Then – the things I don’t like…

Media Center – can be (much) better

Stability. I have to restart the Media Center every second day. It’s very unstable. It freezes, doesn’t display colors (goes to black and white for no reason), plays audio but not video, and the opposite, loose the connection to the net, and slows down to the point when even arrowing up and down feels like syrup. “It’s probably not set up right”. Yes, I hear you. Maybe it is. But it’s set up by clever people, and why should I have to tweak and tweak to make it work? I have this philosophy: Things should just work. The Media Center does not. I feel like I’m running a bad beta.

The guide. It sucks. Yes, it’s on the love-list too. But it could be so much better. Lot’s of channels are missing, like MTV. And when the stations change their schedule, it takes ages before the guide updates. One of the major networks in Norway were on strike some time ago, and the guide on the Media Center were totally wrong. Adding stations to the guide is way to difficult. And there’s no info about where it comes from, and no feedback button to complain.

Programming. In the guide, every program is set up as a separate program. So if there are five short movies in the childrens program one afternoon, I have to add all five of them to record everything. That’s fair enough. So I have added a timebased recording: Record whatever is aired between 1800 and 1840 on NRK1 every weekday. Works perfectly. BUT – when I look at the guide, the Media Center doesn’t show me this. It only shows programs that are added one by one (with a red circle). So it looks like I’m not recording these programs. Lame. At least there should be a red line at the top or something.

Same program 15 times. After returning from Japan, I added a keyword search in the Media Center: “Record everything that has “Japan” in the title or description. Nice feature. So now I have 15 recordings of the match between Bhutan and Montserrat in 2002. Heh. Somehow the Media Center doesn’t understand that I don’t want the same program 15 times, even if National Geographic airs it at different times every time.

Photos. I sent most of our digital pictures into the Media Center. It’s nice being able to watch pictures from the couch, with friends of family. But it’s like iPhoto 1998: No smart folders, which means that I can’t make an album that takes all pictures containing “Japan” in album, and a five star rating. Oh, no rating either. And the rotation doesn’t work. All good digital cameras have a feature that mark the EXIF data with information about whcih way the camera was held when the picture was taken. This works perfectly on the Mac, but the Media Center doesn’t understand it. And it takes 6 clicks (!!!) to rotate a picture (feel free to enlighten me in the comments if I’m just stupid). No way if I’m going to manually rotate 4000 pictures…

Videos. Why isn’t there a way to move a recorded movie from recorded content to movies? Maybe there is? I have some good movies recorded from tv, that I want to keep – forever. So it would be natural to put them in the Movies category. Also: Why isn’t it possible to set a new starting point and end point to a recording? If I record a great movie, and there’s 12 minutes of advertising in front of it, it should be possible to tell the Media Center that every time I watch that movie it should start at 12:08, not 0:00.

OK, that’s my list. Again: Feel free to comment if I have missed out on some great feature or key combination.

My main point is: Media Center is a great product that is too hard to use, and has too many errors. I’m sure the Media Center in Vista will be much better. But until then, I would not recommend people buying a Media Center unless there are at least one person around that is geeky enough to google for solutions, and tweaking the system when it behaves badly.

But – if you are that kind of person, go ahead. You’ll love it. And you could probably just drop the googling and go right to Eirik’s HTPC pages, especially these tree articles:

Recommended HTPC hardware
HTPC Frontend roundup
The media center software list

The Enquirer article sums it up nicely:

The technology is good, if a bit too confusing for the general consumer to get so excited about they’ll actually part with their cash.


Update: has lots of screenshots from the preview of Media Center in Vista. Looks nice, and even better than Media Center in XP. But the preview version chrashed a lot:

MCE frequently crashed on me when I alt-tabbed back into Windows Vista. I would also lose the video at times if I switched between applications. However, I expect Microsoft to iron out these issues before the final release of Vista which is right around the corner.

We’ll see. I have a feeling that Media Center needs to impress a LOT to make normal people buy PCs for their living rooms…