With the new XP Media Center Edition, Microsoft aim to make Windows PCs a modern equivalent of the radiogram — the heart of a complete music and video home entertainment system.
Last week (I'm writing in mid-October) Microsoft launched the European version of the Windows XP Media Center Edition. I have to declare an interest here: I was a paid adviser for the event, so you have to read the following comments in the light of that. I would say, though, that I run an ethical policy, which is that I don't promote products that I don't think are worthy of promotion.
Media Center Edition is a special edition of Windows XP: that's all. It's a superset of the operating system that most PC users are either running now or migrating to at some point in the future. And, when you first boot it up, it looks exactly like Windows XP.
That all changes when you realise that it's the first consumer-oriented operating system to be bundled with an infra-red remote control! Press the green button in the middle and the whole interface changes into a simplified schema of large menus that you can read while you're sitting on the sofa, across the room from the PC.
That domestic arrangement is the key to understanding MCE. It's a product that lets you use your PC as an entertainment device in the context of your living room, rather than in an office, on a desk. Of course, the very last thing you would want to do as you recline on your settee is look at spreadsheets and databases. Typically, what you're more likely to want to do is watch television, and this is where MCE really takes off.
The Americans have had Media Centre Edition for a year now. It's sold pretty well over there, to the extent that it's probably one of Microsoft's more significant revenue earners. The reason it hasn't been available over here until now is a technical one: it didn't work with our digital TV systems. Microsoft has used the extra year to integrate MCE with both analogue and digital terrestrial systems in the UK, and it now works pretty seamlessly with our television standards. In fact, the level of attention to detail is impressive. Not only is there a long list of Freeview-type set top boxes, each with its own infra-red codes, but, in the unlikely event that your box isn't in the list, MCE guides you through the process of teaching it the infra-red commands that your particular box uses. Thereafter, it just works seamlessly. (One of the UK computer manufacturers that has signed up to produce MCE machines, Evesham, actually offers the neatest solution for watching digital terrestrial TV: they have a Freeview decoder built right into the computer. Very slick.)
Well, most people would want to use the TV functionality, which does more than turn your computer into a TV. It has to, in fact, given the astonishingly low price of CRT-based televisions in the shops at the moment!
This is where computer flexibility leaves hard-wired traditional domestic video clutter behind. MCE turns your PC into a fully functional personal video recorder with all the tricks like pausing live television, a free Electronic Program Guide (EPG) and automatically recording every program in a series. It's quite clear that Microsoft have spent a lot of time working on getting this right, which is understandable when you consider that the people MCE is aimed at may well be computer neophytes, or, people, like me, who like to forget about the technicalities of computers when they are relaxing.
This stuff is all very well, and has probably, in one giant step, so to speak, introduced a completely new category of consumer electronics device. If you need a comparison I'd say that it's the multimedia equivalent of what used to be called a 'music centre' and before that a 'radiogram'. Those were the days, and I wonder if in 50 years time we will look back with the same fondness at machines such as this little wonder I've seen from Elonex — a very stylish MCE computer that has the motherboard built into the back of the screen. It's probably my favourite of the crop, and it shows very clearly one possible direction entertainment computers are going in.
But there's a lot more about MCE that's of interest to musicians and listeners —some of which is probably an unintentional side benefit of having a computer at the centre of your living room. Windows XP MCE can, of course, play music. Files stored in the 'My Music' folder can be selected with the MCE remote control, and, if you are or have been connected to the Internet, will play while the album cover is shown on the computer screen. I suppose most people will use this facility to play their MP3 files, although Microsoft would probably prefer you to use their own Windows Media Audio. But you can also play WAV files. Uncompressed audio, in other words. So, if your MCE computer has a brilliant soundcard, you can get brilliant audio out of it. And that means not just CD-quality audio, but better than CD quality audio. Windows has been able to play high-resolution audio files for several years, but MCE puts a computer in the living space, and that means that at last users will be able to routinely listen to high-resolution audio files. You could say that with DVD-A (DVD Audio) and SACD (Super Audio CD) you already can listen to better-than-CD quality audio, and that's true; but with a PC you can listen to audio that has been encoded or compressed in any way you like, as long as you either have the codec on the machine or can download it from the Internet. (Or, since these recordings will come on what are essentially CD or DVD ROMs, there's no reason why each high-resolution audio disc shouldn't come with its own codec, just in case you don't have it on your machine).
I don't want to give the impression that only PCs are capable of playing back digital media in the living room, but the fact is that, at the moment, Windows XP MCE is the only mass-market product that does this. Mac users have different abilities — such as using iTunes to download music to their iPods.
For at least a couple of years, Macs have been promoted as the centrepiece of the home media environment, which, in a very computer sort of way, they could well be. It will be interesting to see whether Apple add an 'MCE'-type layer to OS X.
There's another thing that Apple might want to think about: one of the strengths of Windows Media 9, certainly as perceived by content providers, is that it has built-in Digital Rights Management. This alone has persuaded several content owners to go with the format. As I mentioned in a column a few months ago, Windows Media DRM will be, at some point, melded with the hardware in your PC, giving an extra layer of copy protection. At this point, or maybe even before that, Mac users will be frozen out of Windows Media Audio content. I don't know if Apple have an answer for this, because I certainly don't!
One of the things we wanted to demonstrate at the Windows MCE launch was that there was no reason why audio and video from a computer shouldn't be as good as, or better than, any conventional hi-fi setup. So we set out to create the ultimate home-theatre, in a room away from the main presentation area.
First, we brought in a top-end 50-inch plasma screen from JVC. I'm not a great fan of plasmas, because I think that, close up, you see too much digital noise. Dark areas in an image are difficult for plasma screens to reproduce because the individual pixels are a bit like miniature neon lights, and they have a decidedly non-linear response, So subtle shades of near-black have to be approximated by 'dithering' — which looks fine from a distance, but isn't great when you are close up. But some screens are significantly better than others and this JVC model was a real winner. Everyone agreed that the pictures were jaw-droppingly good.
In fact, standard-definition television (ie. DVD quality) couldn't do justice to this screen, so we managed to get some high-definition footage encoded. When you see high-definition TV playing back on a computer using nothing more than its CPU, you begin to realise just how powerful the humble desktop PC has become. Just consider what the computer has to do, in real-time: it has to take a pretty large media file, uncompress it using an incredibly complex algorithm, and then create 25 or 30 multi-megapixel bitmap images per second and put them on a screen.
With high-definition files this is only just becoming possible. It's the only time I've seen the minimum required specifications equal to the fastest possible PC you can buy! But this will change over the next year or so, as even entry-level machines will be completely capable of playing back HD video. Then, with the introduction of Longhorn, the next complete rewrite of Windows, even the most basic computer will have a three-dimensional, high-definition video desktop, courtesy of a Direct X 9 graphics capability, which replaces — at long last — the current requirement for VGA compliance as a minimum standard.
Anyway, the video was stunning. And so was the sound. As an audio junkie, I can think of few more enjoyable challenges than to set up a stunning surround system, with cost as no object. As it happens, it didn't have to cost too much, because I had already heard a loudspeaker system, from Leema Accoustics, that to my ears sounds as good as virtually anything I've ever heard for even remotely sensible money. You can read a review of them in the August 2001 issue of Sound On Sound. Part of the reason for my choice is that the two designers of the Leema products used to work together in the dubbing theatre that created the soundtrack for Aardman's The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave animated movies, both of which have stunningly detailed soundtracks. These guys know a thing or two about how to give good cinema type-sound.
Space was rather limited, so I opted for the small Xen speakers rather than the floor-standing ones. But I went for the bigger of the two sub-woofers in the range. I wanted to give the impression of effortless power, and most small, cheaper sub-woofers manage to sound boomy, which actually gives the opposite impression to power and space.
Amplification was courtesy of a top-end Denon surround amplifier. This was a complex beast, and about as user-friendly as a cornered rattlesnake. The only other place I've seen so many inputs and outputs is round the back of a very big multitrack console. For example, it has seven optical inputs.
I ran a three-metre optical S/PDIF cable from the back of an MCE machine made by Carrera. One of the joys of using optical surround connections is that even after you've plugged it into the right hole, you can still get silence while the system decides, for example, whether you're feeding it a Dolby AC3 signal or, for example, DTS (Digital Theatre Systems). This proved to be easily enough time for me to have turned up the volume almost to maximum so that I could verify that there really was no audio coming through, above the hubbub of people chatting all around me. It was then that I realised exactly how powerful this combination of amplifier and speakers was. Having scraped myself and about 12 other people off the wall and ceiling, I was pretty surprised to find that the speakers were still working and quite untroubled by the trauma.
The combination of the plasma screen, high definition footage and speakers made a big impression on everyone. Only one journalist complained that the HD footage occasionally dropped frames, wrongly blaming the problem on the PC's 'flawed' architecture. In fact, we were using a VGA connection from the computer to the Plasma. When you do this, you sometimes lose frames or get a phenomenon called 'tearing', where the frame-rate of the VGA card doesn't match that of the video. There's no intrinsic reason why computer reproduction of audio or video should be in any way inferior to using dedicated hardware. The simple and rather obvious proof of this is that for several years, virtually every album or television program has been edited on a PC or Mac.