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April 4, 2007

Do you really want a Windows PC at the heart of your home entertainment center?

We all know that Microsoft would like everyone to install a Windows PC at the heart of their home entertainment centers, but how well does it really work out in practice? Andrew Schmidt points us to a review on AnandTech:

Anandtech has an absolutely horrifying review of the trials and tribulations of setting up a Windows Vista home theater PC [HTPC] with the first HD capable TV tuner from ATI (AMD).

Even with the on-site assistance of Dell (DELL) and Time Warner Cable (TWC) (with promptness and technical expertise you or I could never hope to see) it took two days to get the Windows Vista PC, external HDTV cable tuner, and Time Warner Network integrated and up and running. The resulting experience was great, though most consumers would have never had the patience or technical fortitude to get it up and running. It makes one wonder why anyone would bother to do this at all.

Some good lines from the review:

Prior to Dell’s arrival we had a handful of telephone conversations and email exchanges to clear our intentions for this article. Dell is used to dealing with sending review samples of complete systems that it has built and tested time and time again. Dell was not used to sending a platform out that was buggy, not yet ready for prime time and dependent on a cable network that it had absolutely no control over. In short: Dell was nervous.

Dell asked us if it was alright if a handful of representatives accompanied the system to our office in North Carolina, just to make sure things went smoothly. We didn’t anticipate any problems but said that if it made them feel more comfortable, they were welcome to oversee the initial setup. From our perspective the setup couldn’t be simpler: 1) Setup the system, 2) Insert CableCARD, 3) Watch TV. It turned out that we were a bit optimistic.

The ordinary home user like you and me is more than nervous already. A key part of the trepidation has to do with using a PC as a digital cable box:

Vista changed everything; it was chock full of DRM and was secure enough to make just about everyone confident that high definition content could be stored on it without being easily compromised. While it’s far too early to determine if that holds true over the coming years of Vista’s existence, the important part is that it’s enough today. At CES 2006 ATI demonstrated what had the potential to become one of the biggest features of Vista, the first working Open Cable Unidirectional Receiver (OCUR) for a PC running the upcoming OS.

We were impressed by OCUR, as it had the potential to make media center valid and useful once more. The downside was that we had to wait; we saw the first demo of OCUR at CES in January 2006, and we were told that it wouldn’t be released until Vista was available to the public. At CES in January 2007 ATI, now owned by AMD, introduced the final product: the ATI TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuner (DCT).

Gosh! It seems really simple to me!

Dell came prepared; upon landing at RDU International Airport, we got a call asking if it was okay if a Time Warner technician was present during the install to help with any problems. The more the merrier we thought, so Dell made a phone call and a Time Warner technician was present. As a side note, the last line was exactly how it happened. Apparently the magic number Dell called dispatched a Time Warner technician to what is known internally as a “VIP Customer”. There were no vague time windows, no waiting, and no arguing; just a phone call and poof: instant technician. After discovering this magic ability that Dell possessed, we asked Dell to move in with us permanently. Regrettably Dell declined and its representatives did not confirm whether or not they had similar influence over the local phone or utility companies.

There’s a nice picture of the Time Warner truck with flashing lights pulling up. Despite that, let’s just say things did not go smoothly.

At the end of the entire ordeal, the senior TWC representative that was with us turned to us and asked us what this system could do. We explained, to which he responded with the most priceless of facial expressions. It was an expression that needed no explanation; his reaction asked the question “why on earth would you go through this when you can just rent an HD-DVR from us for $9 a month?”

There’s a lot more in the review, but I have to conclude that Windows Media Center Edition, now replaced by Vista Premium Edition is not really ready for prime time – at least as far as home entertainment is concerned. Yes, they finally got it working and yes, there are a few bugs, but the real problem is that it doesn’t pass the simplicity test. If the average consumer can’t just buy the the PC, take it home and plug it in, it isn’t going to garner any share. Ordinarily, I’d say “Keep working on it, guys!” but it’s clear that Microsoft’s OS development cycle lags the home entertainment development cycle and that has to change for a Windows PC to even have a chance in home entertainment.

Posted at 7:23 pm. Filed under ATI, Companies, Media Center PC, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Personal Video Recorders, Windows Vista

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