Ok, I’ve got my new MCE box up and running and connected to my living room via my X-Box Media Center Extender.

 

General impressions:

 

My wife and I purchased an 80 hour TiVo Series 2 a number of months back for $299 at our local Fry’s electronics.  I had been hungering for a DVR for quite some time, yet I was unable to justify a 2K family investment in a dedicated MCE box for the living room.  I have to admit, the TiVo has performed spectacularly.  It literally changed the way we dealt with TV, making the whole experience convenient, personal, and in many ways outright fun.

 

Still, the experience was not without its downsides.  For one, TiVo didn’t support WMA which made nearly our entire encoded music library useless for listening to in the living room.  It also didn’t support 802.11g and even had issues when connecting to my 802.11g WAP when it was running in hybrid 802.11b and g mode.  This necessitated borrowing a dedicated 802.11b WAP strictly for use with the TiVo – ouch!  Even after borrowing the WAP, the bandwidth at 802.11b was marginal.  Photo slideshows would hang occasionally and MP3 playback was quite choppy.  I eventually fixed this problem by running a dedicated CAT5 line to my living room and going with a wired connection.

 

When Santa Wife green-lighted a hardware upgrade to my home machine for Christmas, I decided to build it as an MCE 2005 box from the start.  So far, I’ve been extremely pleased with the results.

 

Here’re some things that are important to know:

 

  • Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 is fundamentally Windows XP Professional edition PLUS media center benefits.  This means that your computer functions exactly as it always has.  For example, I run IE, Visual Studio 2003 and Whidbey, Outlook and Office and my other apps exactly as I have in the past.  The difference is when I’m feeling like watching or recording some TV or viewing a DVD, I can fire up the “Media Center” application from the “Start” menu and PRESTO! – I have a rich Media Center environment.  In essence, the MCE experience is just an app with some additional hardware, and software plumbing behind the scenes.

 

  • It’s important to note that it’s not an all or nothing experience.  Nor is it strictly a 10’ viewing experience.  Yes, all the demos of MCE show it being used from 10’ away in full screen mode – but did you know it works perfectly well in non full screen window?  It does!  The MCE UI shrinks down and provides you with all the functionality without all the dedicated screen space.   Additionally, if you have a multi-monitor setup, you can drag the MCE window to your second monitor and have both the MCE environment and classic Windows environment co-exist seamlessly.  Today I was coding on my main monitor while watching a recorded Star Trek on my second monitor.  Geek heaven! ;-)

 

  • Your X-Box is a GREAT Media Center Extender!  Yes, your X-Box!  For around $60 you can use your MCE box located in your home office on your fancy living room TV.

 

Now, after I’ve had a fair amount of experience in both systems, I’d like to offer up some thoughts on the strong and weak points of both:

 

Feature

MCE

TiVo

Notes

Remote Control

-

+

TiVo’s remote control is excellent.  It’s ergonomic and well laid out.  The MCE remote is kinda clunky by comparison.

Music Playback

+

-

No WMA support in TiVo.  Windows Media Player play list support in MCE is great!  Support for visualizations is also really cool.

Pictures

+

-

The usability of the image viewing application in MCE is much better.  Also being able to create CDs or DVDs from the interface is cool.

Video Guide

- (+)

+

TiVo’s guide is more refined and easier to use.  The MCE’s lack of “Favorite Channel” definitions results in users having to scroll through more data than they’d really like to.  Also, the “Categories” search should include an “All Categories” section.  I’d also much prefer to search by time and/or channel.  On the other hand, MCE has a fantastic “Movies” option which includes rich and full featured browsing of movies which even include a cool title thumbnail.

Auto Recording/ User Ratings

-

+

TiVo has the edge here.

Radio

+

-

MSN Radio plus is cool and works seamlessly.

Camcorder / Non DVR recording viewing

+

-

TiVO doesn’t include the ability to view your non TiVo based recordings such as your home movies.

Caller ID

+

-

MCE supports displaying caller ID as the phone rings.

Cost

+

-

TiVo has a monthly charge per device - MCE doesn’t.

Repurpose of data

+

-

Recording on MCE can be viewed in Windows Media Player and burned and transferred to other media seamlessly.

Expandability

+

-

TiVo hardware hacks/tweaks are legendary.  But come on, what is more expandable and tweakable than your PC!  Tossing in a larger hard drive is a complete no-brainer!