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EXCLUSIVE Windows Media Centre PCs set for UK launch

Personal video recording coming soon to a PC near you

Microsoft is gearing up for a European launch of Windows Media Centre later this year and PC Advisor can exclusively reveal that OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) are now working on systems for the European market.

The UK, France and Germany will be the first countries after the US to get their hands on Microsoft’s Tivo-like operating system. But Microsoft is remaining tightlipped about a precise launch date.

Media Centre Edition machines combine PVR (personal video recorder) technology with standard PC components to produce an intelligent video recorder, allowing you to pause live TV, schedule recordings from an EPG (electronic program guide), watch DVDs, play MP3s and view photos.

Launched at Comdex — the US consumer electronics trade show — last autumn, Media Centre Edition (previously codenamed Freestyle) has so far only been offered to the US market. A UK-specific EPG is currently being worked on and the final product should be ready to ship within the next six months.

Media Centre Edition marks a departure for Microsoft since the product itself will not be available to buy in standalone form. Instead, as with its PDA Pocket PC operating system, you have to buy a complete Media Centre PC with the software preinstalled and configured.

Development kits, which include the operating system, a remote control unit and infrared receiver to control the machine, are currently with UK OEMs.

Tivo championed the PVR concept with its Linux-based machine but, despite reasonable success in the US, it’s failed to make much of an impression on the UK market. With sole manufacturer Thomson’s recent decision to cease production of its Tivo unit, the future for Tivo in the UK currently looks bleak.

Microsoft isn’t worried about the slow uptake of PVRs in the UK, viewing Tivo’s failure to grab the UK market so far as a missed opportunity.

Unlike Tivo, which requires a £10 per month subscription (or £200 one-off payment) for up to date channel listings, Media Centre Edition PCs will incur no ongoing cost to keep the EPG up to date.

Media Centre PCs are designed to be used like a TV, with a trimmed down but simple-to-use interface. Primary input is from a VCR like remote control, with keyboard and mouse also supported for full Windows use.

Programmes are recorded on to the hard drive in real time, so you can set up scheduled recordings or pause live TV. The EPG also allows you to record all episodes in a series – so if you’re a 24 addict, for example, you could tell it to record all episodes in the series and never miss a show.

Earlier this week, Philips was showing off its similar but subtly different approach to fulfilling our convergent home entertainment needs. Not surprisingly, Philips positions the high-definition TV — together with a range of connected entertainment modules including personal video recorders — rather than the PC, at the centre of its home entertainment setup.

But Philips, Microsoft and other consumer electronics and home computing manufacturers seem to have similar visions of a component-based, digitally connected home with content delivered via a broadband connection (internet access will be required to enable EPG information updates, for example).

Whether Media Centre PCs and other PVR devices can succeed where Tivo has currently failed will come down to public perception and price. If Microsoft and Philips can convince the UK public of its benefits and hardware manufacturers can get the price right, PVRs may finally take off here.

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