Microsoft yesterday launched its Windows Media Center 2004 software, which it claims will revolutionise the way we use our home PCs.
The software giant's mission is to turn the humble PC into a digital home hub from where we'll watch television, listen to music, view our holiday snaps and record TV shows, Tivo-style.
"We believe that Windows Media Center will have a significant impact on the way people enjoy digital entertainment," said Cynthia Crossley, director of Windows Client Business Group on the UK. "Owning a Media Center PC means that for the first time I can enjoy my digital music, TV, video and my pictures all at the touch of a button from the comfort of my sofa."
But for the Media Center PC to take off as Microsoft is predicting, the software and hardware need to work flawlessly and offer enough benefits to woo consumers away from their TVs. As we are already satisfied with our television sets, the idea of shelling out extra cash for a PC to replace them seems rather ridiculous to PC Advisor's readers.
"I've never tried watching TV on my PC because I have a TV," points out PC Advisor forum visitor Chris Jeffries. Another reader says that most people don't operate their PCs from a comfortable sofa, while another adds that the TV offers a few hours escapism from the PC. All of these issues that Microsoft must overcome to make Media Center a success.
Watching programmes through a PC does not negate the need for a TV licence either, so if users don?t already have one they will need to buy one, although a PC will be covered by a licence held for the house, so you don't need a separate one.
Despite misgivings about the market for Media Center, PC manufacturers are getting behind the concept, launching their Media Center PCs. Toshiba revealed what it claims to be the world's first Media Center notebook, an updated version of its P20 machine. Weighing in at a hefty 4.5kg it's more of a desktop replacement than a mobile laptop, offering 3.2GHz Pentium 4 processor, 525MB DDR SDRAM and an 80GB hard drive for £2,299 inc VAT.
Over in the desktop corner both HP and Evesham have launched Media Center offerings today. HP's m300 series, starting at about £900, offers a Pentium 4 processor at between 2.4GHz and 3.2GHz, 80-250GB hard drive, 512MB to 1.5GB of DDR SDRAM and a choice of CD-RW and DVD drives.
Evesham's extremely attractive emedia cube — the cheapest in its emedia range at £999 — offers a 2.6GHz processor, 80GB hard drive, 512MB DDR SDRAM and a DVD/CD-RW drive.
Design is an extremely important factor in all of the machines, because a beige box PC isn?t going to sit well in the average lounge.
One area of concern seems to be the lack of consumer awareness about the software. Unlike with other packages, over half (54 percent) of those who took part in our poll haven't even heard of the Media Center Edition, leaving Microsoft and vendors with a big marketing drive ahead.
While it's highly likely that our PCs will eventually become a more central force in home entertainment networks, whether we?re quite ready to replace our TVs, stereos and VCRs is yet to be seen.