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Understanding Windows Media Center PC Hardware

📄 Contents

  1. Media Center PC Basic Requirements
  2. Do You Need Bells and Whistles?
  3. Takeaways
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Today, 19 different vendors offer PCs under the auspices of the Microsoft Media Center PC program. Other than requiring that the system come with Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 preinstalled, include certain basic devices (for example, an infrared remote control) and meet basic hardware requirements, you'll find lots of different packages and prices to choose from, starting at about $750 to $3,000 and more. It's all in the options (and boy, are there a lot of them!) Careful research and shopping is highly recommended, so you can know what you want and how to ask for it properly.
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Anybody who ever bought a new car knows that getting in and out of the dealer can be a really time-consuming chore. Sure, it would be nice to be able to zip in, fill out a few papers, write or hand over a check, pick up your car, and go home. But it's not that easy, for reasons that range from trying to match up what you want with what's available, dealing with myriads of financing offers, picking the exact set of options for your vehicle, dealing with warranties, choosing service contracts, and much, much more. It's a time-consuming and complicated process that usually involves spending a lot of money.

The good news is that although buying a Media Center PC is time-consuming and complex, it doesn't begin to compare with buying a car in terms of expense, effort, or time spent sitting at a dealership. That said, it is a tricky enough job that a little advance preparation and a careful survey of what's available can help you find something that suits your needs and your budget. You should also consider carefully how you want your Media Center PC to fit in with (or replace) current home entertainment system components because that decision will also affect the options you may want to include or leave out of a Media Center PC.

What's standard in a Media Center PC is a little different from what Microsoft touts in its Media Center Web page, so let's begin with a quick review of what MS requires from vendors to participate in the program. After that, I'll report on what's most typical in an average offering, and then conclude with a list of bells and whistles that those with needs (and funds) might want to consider. Along the way, you'll also find a table of information on the vendors in the Media Center PC program that's more informative and comprehensive than anything you'll find elsewhere on the Web (at least, in any one place).

Media Center PC Basic Requirements

The Microsoft FAQ for Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 and Media Center PCs states the basic requirements as follows:

"Media Center PCs are complete desktop PCs equipped with hardware and software to deliver advanced computing and rich digital entertainment experiences. Media Center PCs include mid- to high-end processors, high-capacity hard drives, CD-ROM and DVD drives, and a remote control. The systems feature advanced graphics and audio capabilities, as well as networking connectivity."

In terms of what my survey showed me, this is what that specification means in more concrete terms:

  • 1.8 GHz Pentium P4 processor or higher (some over 3 GHz)

  • 256 MB RAM (many with 512 MB or higher)

  • 40 GB hard disk (usually high-speed ATA, many drives 100 GB or larger)

  • 5.1- or 6-channel audio capabilities, many with speakers (some with separate woofers)

  • High-end graphics adapter with built-in TV tuner (some with FM radio, many with TV and DVI outputs)

  • Some kind of audio output for home entertainment hookup (analog or digital only in some cases, both kinds in others) along with a high-end audio adapter

  • Personal Video Recorders (PVRs) that use the hard drive, TV connection, and software to enable recording and playback of TV signals

  • Support for infrared remote devices, including a Microsoft-mandated remote control, plus keyboard and mouse (often wireless)

  • Various forms of digital video handling, with universal DVD playback capability (many included DVD burners as a standard option on such systems)

Table 1. Media Center PC Manufacturer Info

Name

Models

Prices*

Notes

ABS

3

$749–1,549

Cheaper units use standard PC case

Cyberpower

5

$905–1,775

Most models use standard PC cases, one uses compact case

Dell

3

$879–1,349

Two use standard PC cases, one compact case

Gateway

3

$1,099–1,799

All use standard PC cases

HP

3

$955–1,500

All use standard PC cases

Howard Computers

3

$999–1,866

Cheapest unit uses std PC case, others use slim-line cases

iBuyPower

4

$1,199–1,309

All use standard PC cases

Mind

2

$2,199 each

Both use standard PC cases

NiveusMedia

4

$2,499–3,489

All use audio component class cases, no fans

Northgate

1

$1,252

Standard PC case

Systemax

1

$1,299

Standard PC case

Tagar

1

$2,520

Brushed aluminum audio component case

Toshiba

1

$2,799

Satellite laptop with many outputs

Touch Systems

1

N/A

Special half-size case, still bulky for home entertainment

ViewSonic

2

$1,695–2,000

Stand-up slimline case

ZT Group

6

$949–2,499

Cheaper models use standard PC cases, others use big but passable boxes


* All prices are "starting from" prices in that adding or upgrading options pushes the price up

What's interesting about the collection of PCs offered in the Media Center PC program is how few vendors understand the form factor and appearance requirements for PC systems and enclosures likely to appear in a home entertainment center—which is indisputably the target for Microsoft's program (and its companion Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 operating system). The majority of offerings come in standard tower computer cases (some are horizontal desktop cases), which are too big to fit inside most home entertainment center equipment bays. Only ABS, Cyberpower, Howard Computers, NiveusMedia, and Tagar appear to have considered the special circumstances involved (and Toshiba lucks into this group by offering a Media Center laptop PC). Touch Systems, Viewsonic, and the ZT Group's offerings might shoehorn themselves into an entertainment center, but it's probably a good idea to compare case measurements to space available before buying anything!

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