XP Media Center Edition Refreshed for Holidays

Microsoft is placing its bet that the PC is transitioning to a digital entertainment hub with mainstream appeal - no longer simply a toy for the geek.

Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 refreshes its namesake, which was released from Redmond's secretive eHome division in October 2002, adding new features and a flood of on-demand Web services.

The software represents an ongoing transformation of the familiar look and feel of Windows. Media Center tucks away XP's mainstay of productivity and communications applications to the background, instead favoring an interface relishing in the richness of imagery, music, video and television programming.

Summing up Microsoft's Media PC philosophy, Joe Belfiore, general manager for the company's eHome Division, said, "Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 is an important step forward. Because it combines new features that make digital media more accessible than ever, and fantastic new entertainment experiences created specifically for Media Center, it will inspire people to see their home PC in an entirely new light."

Thus far, over 40 leading OEMs have signed on in approval, including holdouts Dell and Sony. Both OEMs are newcomers to Media Center designs, but are set to deliver models to retail shelves in the coming weeks - joining a market already teeming with competitors such as Gateway, HP and Toshiba. However, not all of the industry heavyweights are standing on common ground.

Dell has one-upped the competition by launching its own Media Center takeoff dubbed Dell Media Experience. Unlike Microsoft's Media Center, Dell's incarnation is compatible with Windows XP Home, furnishing the computer marker with a price advantage over Microsoft-based rivals.

Dell spokesperson Lionel Menchaca informed BetaNews that Dell Media Experience will only ship on non-Media Center systems, typically lower-end models.

Many of the partners adding spit and polish to XP Media Center Edition 2004 are not OEMs, but content partners. Microsoft has teamed up with CinemaNow, Movielink and Napster to offer customers a means to order right-protected streaming media such as music and movies over the Internet. Web pages on these sites are designed for being viewed across a room, and can be navigated via remote control.

These services are categorized in the pages of "Online Spotlight," a new online guide created specifically for Media Center Edition PC customers. Online Spotlight will branch out to include other forms of entertainment, including games and radio programming. If the array of featured content and entertainment is not up a customer's alley, there is an alternative.

New for 2004, customers can archive their home videos or record TV shows onto DVDs using PrimeTime Deluxe, a bundled application provided by Sonic Solutions.

Other enhancements found in the new release include: optimized code for faster performance, better slide-show viewing, the inclusion of FM radio that can rewind and advance, the ability to copy music from a CD while it is still playing, as well as automated CD ripping.

Although Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 is primarily an evolutionary update with few major changes, Microsoft is billing Media Center as a hot item out in time to meet the holiday rush head on.

"The Media Center PC is all about making the computer a better place to take advantage of digital entertainment of all kinds," said Microsoft's Belfiore. "Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 turns your PC into a great central hub for everything from listening to music to creating slide shows, burning DVDs, watching live television, recording TV programs, listening to FM radio, and much more."

Pricing for Media Center based PCs is expected to start at less than $1,000 USD, with such offerings now available for purchase in France, Germany, China, Japan and the UK.

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