I never got around to playing with one of HP's set-top Digital Entertainment Centres, and now it looks like unless I do some eBay trawling I never will; they've culled the whole range. Apparently "resource constraints" has forced them to choose between the AV-rack style MCE boxes and the newer line of Media Smart integrated TVs and Vista-based PVRs, and they've decided to go with the latter.
Back when Windows XP Media Centre first launched, the prohibitive prices of commercial units meant that people either bought a dedicated PVR or those with at least an ounce or two of computer knowledge thought they'd save some money and build their own. Of course, Microsoft shot themselves in the foot at first by limiting the OS solely to system builders, but as time has gone on the cost of buying an off-the-shelf PC complete with video capture and the 10-foot UI has dropped. So it's timely that DVR Playground should take a look at home-build favourite MythTV and ask just how well it holds up against TiVo's latest and greatest, the Series 3 set-top box.
People in the market for a media centre PC are often as equally swayed by the looks of the thing as they are the specifications; after all, if it's going to take pride of place in your living room then it has to at least make a token effort to fit in aesthetically. Some machines do that by trying to be as small as possible, others go the "high-end hifi" route and gloss themselves up... and then there's Lenovo. I'm not sure exactly what sort of interior design you'd have to have in order for the ThinkCentre M55 Ultra Small to blend in - a Klingon Bird of Prey theme, perhaps? - but thankfully the guts of the thing stand up to inspection even if the casing is an acquired taste.
A little bit of free consultancy for you all: if you're going to call your product "Clever", you better make damn sure it lives up to the name. Therein lies the challenge for UK-based CyberSelect, who have seen fit to name their latest Media Centre PC the Clever 3000. First impressions are okay; it's a big box, for sure, but a relatively handsome one at that, and it wouldn't look out of place in a rack of home AV equipment. But do the guts of it live up to the name?
Well, you can't argue with the storage. 2TB lurks in there, as a 1,500GB RAID array, snuggling up to 2GB of RAM, dual hybrid tuners (or three digital tuners, your choice) and an Intel Core2 Duo processor.
Here's a little warning for all those slender Tablet PCs out there who refuse to eat their vegetables. If you're not careful, one day you'll get fat and stop being a portable computer any more - you'll have to sit on a table and suffer the indignity of being jabbed at by someone's chubby fingers whenever they want to be entertained.
The Register's hardware team took some time to comfort the HP TouchSmart IQ770, itself the main character in that torrid tale, to see how useful a touchscreen media PC could be. It's not underpowered by any means (specs after the cut), but with a 19-inch screen you wouldn't want it to be your sole media display.
Lacking a little in detail it may be (i.e. aside from names, there's none!), but Krunker's photo essay on the variety of compact media PCs using Intel's greatly-vaunted (by them, at least) Viiv technology is an interesting indication of just what manufacturers will be pushing us to slot under our TVs this coming year.
Generally it's all quite predictable, although still pleasant enough for the lounge: slim boxes, some with built-in optical drives, either horizontal or vertical in orientation. There are a couple of notable exceptions, with Best Logic's "football helmet PC" being a rather wretched example, and Onkyo's mini-HiFi style PC being a far nicer one.
In a further move to take over not only your study and living room, but generally your home as a whole, Microsoft unveiled the media-excitement that is their Home Server. An embedded OS with a definite entertainment bias, it's designed to be both so straightforward to use that your technophobic, button-hashing mother could use it, while also allowing the gadget-freaks among us to tinker away.
A tabbed interface presents simple options with no mention of drive letters, file types or codecs. Streaming is handled dynamically and becomes a simple matter of switching on wherever you want to watch. It's also available outside of the home network, via a portal page secured by the Microsoft Live framework; this not only lets you catch up with photos, music and video, but can also present a virtual desktop of any PC on your network. Home Server will also take it upon itself to seamlessly back up all your computers, with a proprietary RAID-like array of easily expanded storage.
Reports differ as to whether it'll be available in software-only and pre-built forms, with Engadget claiming solely the latter while Paul Thurrott states both will be options. Expect to see it publicly available in the second half of 2007.
Cool as it might be, having a SideShow supplemental display on the outside of your laptop isn't the most essential thing. Yes, it's handy to be able to check your calendar or address book without booting Windows up fully, but most power-users (i.e. the people who would be most likely to use SideShow) will already have that information on their smartphone. Far more practical is Interlink's SideLink remote control for Windows Vista Media Center; it has a SideShow display from which you can browse listings and recorded shows, set programmes to record, even preview recordings should you enjoy watching them on a tiny screen.
Wireless communication with the remote is likely to be Bluetooth given the company's existing product range, and no release date has been given (perhaps considering that the official Vista release is yet to happen).
As compact PCs get more and more powerful, the argument for having a full-sized desktop or tower unit in your study grows weaker. Latest to wave the flag for the little man is Japanese barebones manufacturer Dirac, whose Noah range of Mini ATX cases certainly don't skimp on the specs. Available in a multitude of colours, each comes with 2GB of RAM, SATA and DVI ports, and a choice of Merom or Yonah CPU support via a 945GT chipset motherboard. That means you can take your pick of Core Duo, Core 2 Duo and VIIV processors, making this either a very capable media centre or a respectable workhorse.
Lounge-friendly features like a 13.8dB 8cm fan will only win Noah friends among home-build media PC makers, as will the included stand for positioning the compact unit upright. No news on availability or price, yet, though. Pictures of other colour options after the cut.
Perhaps it's because I didn't have a spell in supermarket retail when I was younger, but the idea of scanning barcodes and getting that "beep!" sound makes me all a-quiver. Someone at My Movies obviously feels the same, because they've released a beta of v.2.20 of their Windows Media Centre plug-in that uses a standard webcam to scan in DVD barcodes and add those to the database.
On its eventual full-release there'll be a growing, user-contributed store of front and rear DVD covers that'll automatically be added to your own collection.