Windows' marriage of TV, PC needs a little counseling

WHEN Microsoft and a handful of hardware makers announced a new generation of computers aimed at hardcore couch potatoes last year, it was hard to figure out exactly why anyone would buy one.

More like home theater components than regular PCs, they're designed to be controlled from the sofa instead of a desktop, and viewed with a television rather than a monitor.


A special version of the operating system called XP Media Center gives these machines a second interface to Windows that's television-friendly and works with a separate remote control. It enables users to record television shows and movies on the PC's hard drive, like a TiVo or ReplayTV. It also controls a digital music player and photo display.

The price tags on these machines -- $1,200 to $2,400 without monitors -- immediately convinced me that there were cheaper ways to wring extra jollies from a home entertainment center. But when ViewSonic asked me to try one, I couldn't pass it up. After a month with the company's Nextvision M2000 set up in my basement, I can see why inveterate tinkerers, hardcore gadget lovers and home-theater junkies with wired home networks and deep pockets would enjoy one of these machines.


But the marriage of Windows to a home entertainment center is a rocky one, with enough glitches to keep average folks scratching their heads. If all you want is a gadget to record television movies or play MP3 music files in the rec room, there are easier ways to go about it.

ViewSonic is one of the industry's top monitor makers, but the M2000, available on the street for $1,400 to $1,500, is its first full-fledged PC. With a base footprint of 14.6 by 15.5 by 5.8 inches, it looks like other PCs at first glance, but it's designed for both vertical and horizontal operation. Thanks to the placement of its DVD drive -- at right angles to the drives in most tower computers -- it can squeeze onto the shelf of most home entertainment centers.

From a component standpoint, the M2000 is a notch below state-of-the-art. But its 2.8-GHz Pentium 4 processor, 512K of memory, DVD burner and massive 160-gigabyte disk drive can handle any multimedia job. The machine's nVidia GeForce4 video circuitry, with 64MB of onboard RAM, should satisfy gamers, while a built-in television tuner pulled in a clear picture from our cable feed.

On the back of the machine, ViewSonic provides enough audio and video ports to connect the M2000 to any kind of television, monitor and sound system -- analog or digital. We hooked the computer to an analog television and stereo system, plugged it into our home network and had it running in 15 minutes.

Like an increasing number of vendors these days, ViewSonic has omitted the obsolescent floppy disk drive. Instead, it included a reader that handles most types of digital memory cards, which makes it easy to transfer digital photos and music to and from cameras and players. A convenient front-panel door reveals audio, USB 2.0 and Firewire ports for headphones, camcorders and other external devices.

This otherwise-excellent design is spoiled by a terrible human interface. There's no mouse -- instead, there's a laptop-sized wireless keyboard with a joystick on the right side and two buttons on the left to control the mouse pointer onscreen. This awkward setup requires two hands for the simplest actions, such as pointing to a program icon and clicking on it.

Of course, the Digital Media Center isn't meant for a desktop. It's made to be operated from an easy chair. But even that's an iffy proposition because the wireless, infrared keyboard loses contact with the PC unless you sit up straight and point it directly at the computer. For this kind of dough, Viewsonic should have used a radio-based keyboard, which wouldn't require line-of-sight transmission.

Along with the keyboard, Viewsonic packs a silver remote control with a button that summons Microsoft's Digital Media Center software, which includes a television tuner-recorder, digital music player, photo display and DVD player.


My sons and I gave the television player and video recorder high marks. Its setup program found our Internet service provider, Comcast Cable, and took just a few minutes to download the television schedule. There's no ongoing fee for access to the listings, as there is with some stand-alone video recorders -- here, it's part of the package.

The software makes it easy to search for programs in advance and record them automatically when they're broadcast. Viewsonic claims that the M2000 can store up to 140 hours of video, assuming you don't want anything else on your hard drive. For most of us, it doesn't matter. When last I checked, my sons had recorded 26 episodes of The Simpsons and 23 episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer without putting a dent in the drive.

If you do run short of space, ViewSonic includes SonicFoundry's MyDVD, which will turn recorded programs or movies into DVDs. That's something the average stand-alone video recorder won't do.

We were also impressed with the quality of the recorded video -- as good as or better than the stand-alone DVRs we've tried.

That's the good news. The bad news is that to manage your own videos, music and digital photos and arrange them so that Digital Media Center can find them, you have to break out into regular old Windows XP and use the standard Windows Explorer and Media Player tools.

That's would be annoying enough with the keyboard-based joystick mouse. But the real problem is that regular Windows just doesn't play well on anything less than a high-definition digital TV. Even with the screen fonts set to extra large, it was hard to make out the fuzzy characters in folders and dialog boxes on our 27-inch standard TV set.


The only way to make things work, if you value your eyesight and sanity, is to hook up a standard monitor. And this is where we encountered a delightful but frustrating feature -- the M2000 supports dual screens and turns them into one large desktop.

Viewsonic thoughtfully supplied one of its superb 19-inch, flat-panel screens for this contingency. After considerable tweaking, we were finally able to watch recorded movies on the television and do standard computing chores on the monitor at the same time. All of which worked for a week or so until things started crashing, at which point I'd had enough. I disconnected the monitor and went back to the television.

Bottom line: The M2000 is too expensive and flaky for the common folk, but fun for tinkerers willing to pay the price.

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