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Microsoft's Improved Media Center Still Falls Short

As before, Media Center can record TV broadcasts to the computer's hard drive, using a simple onscreen guide to show what's coming up next -- it's like TiVo without the monthly fee. The 2005 edition adds support for high-definition digital-TV broadcasts (although the Qosmio only included an analog tuner) and can burn recordings to DVD.

But Microsoft forgot to provide any way to edit recordings, a function stand-alone DVD recorders began offering two years ago. Not only can you not cut out the ads, you can't even strip out the footage from the earlier show that often winds up at the start of a timed recording.

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Meanwhile, the entire justification for Media Center's TV-recording capability is getting sandblasted by the widespread availability of cheap, simple digital video recorders from cable and satellite services.

The last piece of the Media Center puzzle is a separate box, the Media Center Extender, that presents a Media Center computer's contents on a TV and stereo. I tested HP's $300 x5400 model, a slab designed to be stacked on top of a stereo. This was a disaster, possibly the worst wireless media receiver I have ever used.

Forget the jargon-laden setup, or the way it twice denied access to songs I'd paid for on MSN Music; what killed this was the remote control's maddening sluggishness. It took a second or more for commands by the remote to take effect, even just to change the volume.

Music playback was mostly reliable, but live or recorded TV varied between near-paralysis (with the screen mostly frozen) and merely annoying (when I moved the Extender, the Toshiba laptop and my WiFi access point within four feet of one another, I saw only occasional interruptions in video playback).

How could this work so atrociously when other wireless receivers have done fine on my wireless network? An Extender depends completely on the Media Center PC for not just the music, photos and videos it presents, but even the icons and menus it displays on the TV. It can't even respond to its own remote control; it has to relay those commands to the Media Center, which will then tell it what to do. That requires constant, high bandwidth.

Microsoft developers suggested ways to reconfigure my network for better performance -- for instance, connecting the Media Center laptop into my WiFi access point's Ethernet port (unplugging my desktop in the process), or setting my network to exclude slower WiFi devices (like my work laptop). But the reality is that many wireless networks are as unready for an Extender as mine was, and will need new wireless gear.

If I'm going to go to that kind of trouble, there had better be more of a reward than Media Center 2005 offers.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at rob@twp.com.

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