Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Who needs a "Media Center" PC

I'm the perfect candidate for a "media center" PC, but if you gave me a fancy box like Sony's $2200 Digital Living system, I don't even know what I would do with it.
I listen to music through iTunes (connected to my stereo), I watch videos from my computer's hard disk on my TV. I also have a PVR (Tivo-like video recorder rented from Comcast - it even does HDTV). So if the Sony or other Media Center PC can get rid of all those wires and make my life easier, why wouldn't I want it?
Well...it can't do that. It is redundant. It won't work with what I'm already using (or it won't do anything better than my regular PC), and it seems to add more wires and complexity. If it's not making things simpler, what's it for?
First and foremost, it's got to work with iTunes. Who on the planet is going to use a media center who doesn't have an iPod or use iTunes? Apple doesn't particularly want other companies selling a media center that integrates things like on-tv-screen display, recording of streaming content, or simple remote control. Apple might do those things when they come out with a media PC, but in the meantime, your tunes will stay on your main computer or on your iPod. Sure. You can play music, but things will be no different than with a regular PC. The Sony box, for example, doesn't have a wireless client, so you can't send tunes from another computer or to a different room. It's just no different than any other PC for digital music.
What about video? Anyone who is contemplating spending $2K on a media center probably has cable or satellite TV. In which case, odds are they can probably get Tivo-type service from their cable box (for a bit more money). DirecTV, Comcast, and the other big companies offer it. The quality is higher (because you're not recompressing an already compressed signal). The Sony box doesn't even have a digital video input. Comcast has a high-def recording box that has two tuners (you can record two shows at once), and there is no recompression of the digital signal.
So a media center PC isn't really better than what you probably already have for digital audio and video. You can get some other features (the Sony had a 500 CD changer that looks up titles for your CD index from the internet CDDB database). It includes a DVD player and recorder. If you're really into recording what you've Tivo'd onto a DVD, you can make your own (significantly degraded double compressed low-bitrate) DVDs.
What about gaming? Most media PCs (including the expensive Sony) have pretty mediocre video cards. You CAN play on your TV, but an XBOX 360 will look a lot better.
Until existing media companies - especially cable and music companies(well -- Apple anyway), decide that a media PC world is what they want, they have little incentive to make a media PC a better way to play than the jumble of iPods, Tivos, blinking LEDs and digital redundancy we have. And if it's not making things easier, simpler or cheaper, what's the $2000 for? Like I said, if Sony gave me a Digital Living System ensemble I don't even know what I could use it for.
What is needed (before hardware) are standards so all the blinking black boxes can talk to each other (wirelessly) and share a single interface. With competing interests or just plain lack of interest from the existing entertainment vendors, how is that going to happen?

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