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Media Center Solutions

Readers of my column know by now that I think that Microsofts Media Center PC will become a viable control platform for the data, audio/video and control needs of our clients homes. Just as Control4 will offer a richly integrated Linux-based audio/video and control platform for the home (please see my article in the September issue of RS), Microsoft is vying for this market with its Windows XP-based version of the enhanced Microsoft Media Center.

In true Microsoft fashion, each annual follow-up release of the Media Center PC brings more user-demanded features, greater stability and a larger group of third-party developers. This years October release of the Media Center 2005 computer is no different. Heres what you can expect:

Support for Custom Platforms. In the first few years of the Media Centers release one was forced to purchase the product from a limited list of approved Microsoft OEM hardware partners. If these partners did not support a particular audio/video card or had limited hard drive space, then you were out of luck. Those were the only options available.

This year that is no longer a limitation to the Media Center product. Anyone who builds a computer (i.e. the CEDIA channel) can now purchase the newest version of Microsofts Media Center and build his or her own private label computer with a much greater range of component parts. These components must still be on the Media Centers approved parts list but this greatly enhances the customization of this product for our clients needs. High on that list is the need to support multiple high-definition video tuners and personal recording capability. Those cards will now be supported by the new 2005 Media Center software.

Support for Multiple Zone A/V Distribution. In October, Microsoft released its Media Center Extender platform, a thin-client box that will sit on or near televisions throughout the home delivering video and audio content from the Media Center Server to each television. These extender platforms will be made by several of Microsofts OEM partners (including HP, Samsung and several others).

The clients will connect to the server over a wired Ethernet connection or an 802.11a wireless connection. Microsoft claims that they can successfully stream multiple MPEG2 compressed video streams over the 802.11a wireless connection at distances up to 100 feet from the access point. From our experience to date with wireless video distribution I would be cautious about recommending this solution and provide Cat-5 wire from the switch head end to as many televisions as possible. These Media Center extenders will offer component video out but only support up to 480 lines of resolution. I would expect to see higher resolution output clients in the near future. Up to five of these clients can operate simultaneously from one Media Center server.

Support for Whole-House Control. We have already begun to see the Media Server platform being used as an interface for whole-house control. HAI made the announcement that they support this platform at CEDIA this fall. At the Consumer Electronics Show in January I would expect to hear several more companies make announcements that they are supporting the Media Center Platform. In addition to finding Media Center interface buttons that now say My TV, My Music and My Videos one can expect to see third-party software that will add My Cameras, My Lighting System and My Security Panel to the Media Center suite of controls. The Media Center interface screen will appear not only on televisions throughout the home (via Media Center extenders) but also on personal digital assistants (via a third-party software add-on from Niveus Media ( and expect to find it on third-party in-wall XP embedded touchscreen panels over the course of 2005.

Support for Mobility. In September, Creative Labs and Samsung began shipping its Media Center Mobile Platform. This portable, hand-held device combines the mobility of personal audio and video content with a touch screen interface that replicates the look and feel of the Media Center server platform. This product will extend the reach of a homes entertainment content to wherever the homeowner wants to enjoy his or her content. In addition, it will be controlled by an interface screen with which the end user already has a level of familiarity based on their home Media Center experience. The new Windows Media 10 has a built in function that allows one to easily synchronize the homes entertainment content.

All-in-One Media Center Solution. A company called Niveus Media, from Los Gatos, CA, has developed its Summit Series of media centers. These products recognize the unique needs of the custom electronics integrator to deliver a high-end media center platform that meets the video and audio requirements of high-end clients. These fan-less servers come in a range of high-end processor speeds, hard drive sizes and high-definition video and audio encoding cards. They can be rack mounted and are pre-loaded with a variety of third-party media center add-on software. If more hard drive storage is required, Niveus Media sells additional network attached storage servers that can each add up to three terabytes of storage seamlessly. They will sell at list prices from $2,500-6,000, while the storage server products will sell at list prices from $1,000-10,000. These price points provide the CI with a significant media center hardware margin, unlike the razor-thin margins associated with selling and supporting the sub-$1,500 mass-market media center platforms manufactured by the larger consumer electronics companies.

The same Linux-Windows operating system battle that we see in the corporate world is coming home. Time will tell which operating system will emerge victorious. In the interim, systems integrators are best served by gaining experience in both platforms so that we can offer sound, experienced-based advice to our clients.