Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The TAO of Media Center Edition (MCE)

My thoughts on what makes a Media Center work well

1. An MCE box is an A/V device, it should look like one. This means no beige towers or notebooks. Back at the turn of the century A/V style PC cases were almost impossible to find. There are now dozens of high quality cases and system vendors readily available.

2. MCE PC’s are meant to be part of the living room environment. This means that they must be quiet and run cool. Quiet is somewhat of an objective term, what I mean is that a MCE box should run to the point of almost silence or south of 20db. This is maybe the greatest hardware challenge facing MCE boxes. In the PC world everything is measured by performance and higher performance = faster clock speeds which = greater energy consumption and heat which more cooling fans which = more noise. There are a number of viable solutions to this Catch-22 of performance vs. heat vs. noise that I will elaborate on in the future.

3. MCE PC’s are for MEDIA ONLY. Do not use your living room MCE PC for normal PC tasks. I know it is hard to fight the urge to play Half Life 2, check email and surf the on a big screen HDTV but you must be strong and resolute. As soon as you venture beyond the MCE UI you are entering virusville, malware city and spyware town. This is especially true if you are installing and servicing MCE boxes.

4. Only use VGA or DVI (HDMI) capable displays with your MCE PC. MCE PC’s graphic sub systems have the amazing ability to map pixel for pixel to the native resolution of your display device. Anything other than a DVI or VGA hookup will be either very hard to configure or look like crap. If you are masochist you can get acceptable results with component video but anything lower is not worth the trouble.

5. Use the coax or optical digital out for audio. Currently MCE’s make for a crappy pre-amp. Although they are capable of direct 7.1 output and can decode the various sound formats there is no easy may to manage this within the MCE interface. In the future I imagine a clever software company will create some sort of interface that will be able to analyze the audio signal in the digital domain and then automatically choose the appropriate decoder and format. The only caveat to this is if you are just using stereo for all audio playback then you can plug in some powered speakers.

6. Cyberlink PowerDVD 6 is the best MCE DVD decoder. It looks so good I can not imagine what the high end, stand alone video processor companies will be selling in the future. Well done MCE UI too. I have tested all of the available decoders on my system, however your mileage may vary.

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