MEDIA IN THE LIVING ROOM

Your photos are on your computer.

Your music is on your computer.

It makes sense that computers should be able to record TV shows – it’s kind of a computery thing to do, right?

It’s probably occurred to you that it makes sense to store movies on a computer instead of buying them or getting them from Netflix.

Your new HD TV is basically a big computer monitor.

So why don’t you have a computer in your living room?

vista_mce_01You have no idea how many people have tried to figure that out. Microsoft introduced Windows XP Media Center edition, intended for living rooms, and no one cared, so it built an updated version of the Media Center interface into Vista, and still no one cared. (If you have Vista Home Premium, look around for “Windows Media Center” on the menu and start it up. Never seen it before, have you? The interface is designed to be seen from across the room. It’s quite a nice design, just a little pointless on a desktop PC.)

There are lots of manufacturers making living room computers running Vista Media Center – Niveus, Avideus, Alienware, VelocityMicro, and many more. Many of them are very expensive and some of them are only sold through audio/video specialists, because it turns out that getting your media into the living room is frighteningly complicated.

Your needs are different than mine. Nobody will have the same setup, which is part of why this is so difficult. The best I can do is tell my story in the next couple of days and hope that it helps you think things through if you decide to go down this road.

For today, let me just give you a few of the considerations that make this so hard.

  • Computers are noisy. A fan that’s acceptable under your desk can quickly come to sound like a jet plane when you’re watching television.
  • Your living room doesn’t have room for something that’s shaped like a computer. The media center PCs have to be designed like a piece of audio equipment. That makes them too small to have adequate ventilation, so they run hot and need big fans, which gets back to the noise problem.
  • Normal people find it virtually impossible to hook up a new television to cable and speakers, which is why Best Buy and the other retailers are getting deeply involved in sending installers to your home. A media center PC adds a new tangle of cables, each with its own quirks and requirements and possible incompatibilities – HDMI, component video, optical audio, S-video, and oh so many more. Your television connection might be analog cable or digital cable, it might require a converter box or a CableCard (a hellishly complex bit of equipment in its own right), it might be DirecTV, you might have an antenna for HD signals, and the setup will different for every one. Trust me – the Best Buy geek isn’t going to set up your media center PC.
  • You don’t have a network cable running into your living room. Sure, all the new stuff claims to work over wireless connections but maybe you’ve noticed – wireless connections are not the most stable, troublefree items in our tech toolbox, are they?
  • There are an endless number of proprietary formats and programs that will become barriers to making everything work. I’ll touch on this more later. You’d like to think that someone could give you instructions for how to get a movie from the camcorder and see it in the living room but there is no guarantee that anything will work – and if it works today, it might not work tomorrow.

Pretty depressing, huh? There, there. I feel your pain. But I’m a survivor – I’ve got pictures running in a slide show, I’ve got music playing from my library, and I’ve got a lovely collection of movies to browse through, and it’s all down in my living room where it belongs. It took some money and some persistence and things aren’t perfect but it can be done! More to come.