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What Happened to Media PCs? 371

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the gone-the-way-of-the-laser-disc dept.
timrichardson writes to tell us that Slate is asking what happened to the promises of a living room PC? The lack of any news at Apple's WWDC prompted the author to look at the promises made at the Consumer Electronics Show a la Viiv and other "uber-consoles" in addition to the launch of Apple's downloadable videos and "couch-surfing remote." While some pundits blame the state of the technology this article claims that the PC and the TV provide two very different roles that aren't going to converge anytime soon.
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What Happened to Media PCs?

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  • by dduardo (592868) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @01:34AM (#15864038)
    It wasn't shown for the same reason new ipods weren't shown: they are consumer products. Wait for Macworld.
  • by lightknight (213164) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @02:02AM (#15864116) Homepage
    True, there are many issues that you will encounter when setting up a Media PC. Least of all, Windows XP Media Center Edition. I mean, I know MS is trying, in that they are trying to provide both a fully usable computer that runs all of the Windows software, and an easy to use software that seamlessly integrates with your other AV equipment. But putting aside MS's issue, let's explore why Media PCs are not a popular hardware buy.

    First of all, you need hardware aside from the PC itself for a media experience. A 27" TV and $50 Wal-Mart speakers are not going to cut it: this setup would be worse than a PC with a real monitor and computer speakers. You need some real hardware, at least a 40" screen (I have a 65" screen), although you can get away with a smaller LCD screen (DLP, Plasma, and Projection need to be larger as their pixel density tends to be lower, although HDTV is helping out here). So, that will run you at least a $1000 (assuming you get a nice screen, not bargain basement). You also need speakers. Hooked up to a receiver. Think at least Dolby 5.1 surround sound, with a decent set. Probably about $500.

    So that's $1500 right there, and you're not even up to the PC yet.

    But assuming you already have the above (I'd love to see Dell selling big screen TVs and surround sound setups with Media PCs: "Buy now, and get $100 off that 70" Mitsubishi DLP today!" -> right, that'll sell, you come to the PC. And a decent Media PC (running Windows), needs slightly more expensive hardware than a standard budget PC. Basically, you are bulding a pimped out gamer's machine, as no one is going to buy a Media PC to "check their email." They'd get a budget PC.

    Start off with the latest and greatest ATI All-in-Wonder. That can cost at least $300, usually more towards $500. Sorry, Nvidia can't compete with ATI in the multimedia realm. Not yet, anyways. People are going to want to play games, and impress their friends. And you need that video input/output functionality. Sure, you could use seperate cards, but this solution is more elegant.

    Next, sound card. Whatever Turtlebeach or Soundblaster offer from idrange on upwards (need something nice to drive those 6 speakers, and to provide 3D audio without taxing the processor).

    Processor and memory need to be something decent. Thinking dual core, with at least a GB of ram. Hard disk at least 300GB, for all those movies (you've downloaded) you'll want to watch.

    Keyboard/Mouse-> Logitech or MS, Wireless (bluetooth, more range), USB.

    DVD writer (because).

    Case -> something stylish. Common failing here, most Media PC cases are horrible to look at, work with, or upgrade. Something slick, that is easily upgradeable, but easy to work with.

    Add all this up, and you have a fairly expensive PC. Sure, you could swap in cheaper components, or argue that you could get by with some of the onboard stuff, but this is a MediaPC, something that is a PC that works well with Media. And multimedia traditionally requires both horsepower and space.

       
  • Software issues (Score:3, Informative)

    by identity0 (77976) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @02:08AM (#15864142) Journal
    I've tried making a 'media center' for the living room with stock PC and components, and here's where I had problems:

    Controls. I still had a mouse and keyboard attached to it, and while I could have gotten a wireless set, it still would have been clunky. Someone needs to make a remote with a trackpoint and a treo- or sidekick-sized keyboard, and the regular remote features. Everthing should be controllable through a remote, without a separate KB/mouse.

    Interface. Sure, I had a bunch of videos on the compuer, but it was a PITA going through explorer to find and organize things. Something like iTunes for video would have helped. This was on Windows, and I have heard good things about MythTV, though. Oh, and the resolution difference between TV and PC monitors meant everything looked unreadable or ugly on the TV.

    Recording Quality. The video recording from either my Hauppage card or my ATI card were really not that impressive. I could have cranked up the resolution to DVD levels, but the motion compression still kinda sucked.

    Aeshetics. Okay, this is my fault, but I had a really big beige box that was really loud next to my TV. That's wat happens when you use an old P4 tower to be your 'Media PC'. If I were to do it today, I would use the lowest-power proc I could find and one of those mini ATX cases. Most of the PC market just isn't designed to be in your living room.

    On a brighter note, this is what I wish I could afford: Sony Type X Living [sonystyle.com] - 1.5TB HDD, wireless and wired file server, 2 video tuners, DVD-RW, TV web browsing, scheduling software, HDTV compatible... If only Sony would just dump their 'media' division and have the hardware guys take over again, we could see a really good competitor to Apple in digital integration :(
  • by labnet (457441) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @03:11AM (#15864298)
    You make it sound much more complicated and expensive than it is.

    We run the following.
    42" Teac plasma ($2500) (prices AUD /2 for usd (I exch rate is .75 but you guys also have higher volume))
    Shuttle SB86i SBC with 512MB Ram, 2.8MHz Celeron!, GEForce 6200 (DVI out) (http://www.digitalnow.com.au/dntvlive/index.html ($200)
    A logitec wireless mouse/keyboard (?? $60)
    Win XP Home but not running media centre. We run DNTV live which seems very stable.

    So we use it for: free to air digital TV, music, recording, basic net browsing, photos.
    The digital tv is stunning (probablly because its a totally digital path).
    We can record and watch tv at the same time.. or record two shows at the same time.

    Even my wife is able to use it!
    So in our experience, it is a winner.
  • by dabadab (126782) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @03:19AM (#15864322)
    Actually, a decent home infrastructure could ease it all and I guess the specs you quote are way off.
    So, if you have a server in the basement then the media PC does not have to have a HDD at all that cuts down a lot of the price (not just the HDD itself, but you also do not have to worry about cooling it and reducing its noise).
    For sound card, the onboard one or a $10 CMI-8738 based one will do absolutely fine, as you are going to use the SPDIF connection.
    Processing power needs are absolutely minimal: an XBOX with its 700 MHz almost-PIII has more than enough power for anything SD. HD requires more, but since newer graphic cards can help with video decoding, you still can get away with an older Pentium M.
    Also, playing games on your HTPC is not that wise: we are building a media PC, not a console. I know that you want everything, right now, but one must draw the line somewhere.
    So, all in all, building a media PC is not that expensive - or, if you want it really cheap, then pick up an Xbox for under $100, softmod it, install XBMC on it and you are good to go.
  • Re:Simple (Score:2, Informative)

    by mlush (620447) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @03:23AM (#15864327)

    Computer = active entertainment.
    TV = Passive.

    Are you saying that active entertainment on a TV won't sell? I understand games consoles are quite popular

    TV in the home is essentially radio with pictures. When's the last time you made a point to listen to a radio program, and only listen to a radio program in your home? I'd stop everything when I was younger to listen to Royal Canadian Air Farce or my tapes of Eclectic Circus, but other than that.

    Now you really have lost me are you now are you saying that people don't want to record TV? Don't want to be able to pause a live TV program while they answer the telephone or see what little Jimmy's crying about?

    Computer's can't do that.

    I suppose your right computers can't watch the TV for you but they can record it and timeshift it

    Even the most banal of websites requires more of your attention than a TV show or radio, and then there's gaming, which is a 100% immersive, active experience.

    anything that involves reading text of a screen 10 -15 feet away is going to suck... So browsing websites and email is the least of a Media PC's functions

    • timeshifting TV and Radio
    • Acting as a Media Jukebox for organizing, storing and playing MP3, video, photos and DVD images
    • Play DVDs, CDs etc
    • Streaming sound and video from the web
    • Games console
    • Email would suck but video conferencing would be very nice
    • Surfing .. perhaps

    IMHO the problem is that there just a bit too expensive and there not quite as good as a set of dedicated devices..... Hmmm thats not it <Deletes next paragraph justifying that statement> .. in the public mindset (and to be honest I'd rather agree) PCs are horrible complex things that are hard to use and crash all the time. Not like thoes nice consoles are nice and easy you just plug them in and they work. You can play DVDs on them now, wouldn't it be nice if I could timeshift TV and stream webradio and TV....

  • by row1 (930208) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @03:33AM (#15864352) Homepage
    MP3's are just waiting for the west to get decent hardware. In Japan most people don't bother with iPods, most phones have 4GB+ MP3 Storage, and you get them for free/cheap.
  • by SilentDissonance (516202) <dissonance@spamcop.net> on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @03:35AM (#15864356)
    I have a PC in my living room, but it's more a 'toy' than anything useful.

    First off, my setup is a little 'unique'. I live in the boonies of Wisconsin, and have had a C-Band satellite dish for years. I'm not interested in getting a little dish, as it just doesn't offer the same stuff I already have access to. Add in that I have 4DTV (basically an MPEG decoder for a C-Band dish), I get more channels free and clear than any little dish could ever offer me.

    I don't watch much TV, and therefore don't subscribe to much. I keep around the discovery channels and such, as I do enjoy those. My subscription prices, per year, are around $100. Way way cheaper than any small dish or cable service could offer me.

    So, I really doubt there's much way to make the pc in there to actually control or record the descrambler in any meaningful way. Basically, I use it to pause live tv, or record a show that I'm watching.

    Outside that, I do rip DVDs and CDs to a 'media store' on my network, so all my PCs (including the one in the living room) can get to it. That's about the best use of that PC.

    What I'd LIKE to see out of it would be more along the lines of TiVO with scheduled recording and such, as well as the 'predictive' saving of shows (I watched this, I might like this, drop it on the drive, and I know to get rid of it if I'm running low on space), but my other hardware kinda prevents that.

    Also, another nice feature would be more along the lines of data services from the TV station itself. For example, a football game is on. I'd like to have the picture of the game come through free and clear, and have the ability to format and display the score and other data as I wish: either on a seperate PC monitor or some such, or at least de-cluter what the TV station sends me. Make that real time data sync with basic text commentary (like the World Cup website and such), and I'd be much more apt to want a PC on my TV. Even advertising could be 'extended', with the various advertisers pushing data to a 'sponser' file. Would be much more likely to visit their site myself should it be 'all easy to get to'.

    All this is a pipe dream, of course. But maybe, someday... *sigh*
  • by Tim C (15259) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @03:44AM (#15864381)
    What happened to the MP3 phones? They lost out to devices that can do the job better and cheaper.

    While that may be true of the US, here in the UK mp3-capable phones are pretty common. I commute daily on the (London) Underground, and a fairly large proportion of people listening to music are doing so on their phone.

    Hell, I have an iRiver, and am still very tempted by a phone that can play mp3s, although I have a specific reason - I go clubbing most Saturday nights, and listen to music on the way there to get in the mood and on the way home to stay awake (the club kicks out at 7:30am). If I use my iRiver, I have to put it in the cloak room, and while I've not had anything stolen yet, there's always the chance it'll happen. My phone, on the other hand, stays in my pocket. (I could buy a small, solid-state player, but then I'd have more crap in my pockets...)
  • All-In-Wonder? (Score:5, Informative)

    by ben there... (946946) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @04:04AM (#15864424) Journal
    Start off with the latest and greatest ATI All-in-Wonder. That can cost at least $300, usually more towards $500. Sorry, Nvidia can't compete with ATI in the multimedia realm. Not yet, anyways. People are going to want to play games, and impress their friends. And you need that video input/output functionality. Sure, you could use seperate cards, but this solution is more elegant.

    Why would you get an ATI card? ATI is not the leader in either TV Tuners or Video Cards.

    For TV Tuners, you can get an equivalent Hauppauge PVR150MCE for $30, or go with the Fusion HDTV if you want digital. And as far as nVidia in the TV tuner market, they recently released the DualTV [nvidia.com], with 2 tuners, which beats anything ATI has produced, and gives the Hauppauage PVR500 a run for its money.

    For the video card, nVidia has all the hardware accelerated MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 decoding, starting with 6xxx (fanless, silent, low profile 6200 is $30).
  • by ookaze (227977) <ookaze AT mail DOT ookaze DOT fr> on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @05:28AM (#15864585) Homepage
    let's explore why Media PCs are not a popular hardware buy

    No need to, it's pretty simple actually : no one of them has all the necessary features, thus justifying the price, and they all got useless features too.

    First of all, you need hardware aside from the PC itself for a media experience

    This is irrelevant. My wife is crazy about the media center I built, and would be as much crazy about it on a small TV set, especially since we're still using SD.
    She actually told me the image quality was worse on the media center. One week later, she was using the beast like mad without any complaint about its quality.
    My set is a 52" rear projection TV, so it's not digital (using SVideo, that's why the quality was not the same), and the media PC is still extremely useful.

    a decent Media PC (running Windows), needs slightly more expensive hardware than a standard budget PC. Basically, you are bulding a pimped out gamer's machine, as no one is going to buy a Media PC to "check their email." They'd get a budget PC

    So Windows is the big problem here. My media PC running MythTV is nothing like a pimped out gamer's machine. It's a Shuttle box with an Athlon 1800+ and a NVidia FX5200 card with 768 MB RAM (the swap is NEVER touched by the OS, 512 would be enough). Of course that's for SD. It would be just enough to play HD.
    When I go HD, well, I'll have to go Dual Core, but that's because there's a high possibility it will be the best peformance/price solution for playing HD.
    That's also because on Linux, the closed graphic drivers have no support for H264 acceleration.

    People are going to want to play games, and impress their friends. And you need that video input/output functionality

    You are not going to play PC games in the living room, you are going to play games designed for that, which means console type games.
    My MythTV setup has numerous console games and things like DDR games, with USB adapters for a mat and console joypads.
    One of the thing I can't understand, is the keyboard in media center sold. This makes no sense, people don't want complicated things like that in their living room, they just want a remote or a simple device (mat, joypads, ...). Nothing should require typing or using a mouse (hence no PC type games).
    You're not going to impress anyone with your PC games that need powerful video cards. Putting 2-4 people around my MythTV box is always a success.

    Next, sound card. Whatever Turtlebeach or Soundblaster offer from idrange on upwards (need something nice to drive those 6 speakers, and to provide 3D audio without taxing the processor)

    If you don't have a receiver, don't use 5.1 sound ! The cheap embedded card is enough for AC3 or DTS passthrough SPDIF, and the 2.0 Dolby surround sound.
    No need to have an expensive card at all.

    Keyboard/Mouse-> Logitech or MS, Wireless (bluetooth, more range), USB

    That I can't understand, keyboard and mouse are not made for the living room. I removed them long ago.

    Case -> something stylish. Common failing here, most Media PC cases are horrible to look at, work with, or upgrade. Something slick, that is easily upgradeable, but easy to work with

    My Shuttle is perfect on top of one of the speakers.

    Add all this up, and you have a fairly expensive PC. Sure, you could swap in cheaper components, or argue that you could get by with some of the onboard stuff, but this is a MediaPC, something that is a PC that works well with Media. And multimedia traditionally requires both horsepower and space

    That's not entirely true on Linux.
    Horsepower is useful to play HD content, that's true, but mostly support is a necessity. With support for acceleration in the driver, my Athlon 1800+ could play HD content. Horsepower is also useful for encoding time, as my MythTV is setup to reencode all the video (except live ones) to Xvid (I use SD, it would be H264 for HD).
    This saves a lot of space
  • Re:Quite simply... (Score:2, Informative)

    by RexxFiend (261662) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @08:56AM (#15865142)
    Try gbpvr [gbpvr.com] - it's fully customisable (not open source, sorry - but it is free and well supported by the author). It needs a BDA compatible TV card, but there a lot of them around now. Certainly the obscure crappy DTV card I use is supported just fine. Setup is reasonably easy to get going - you setup the channels and EPG preferences (supports XMLTV, Bleb, zap2it etc) and setup the default directories, and that's it. (although you might spend a bit of time tweaking, but again, that's the beauty of these systems, you can tweak them to behave how you want them to).
    I use it as a DVR and to play music and (ahem) downloaded content. It also has the ability to launch external programs for different media files if you need it to. It can also launch separate exe's with parameters, so you can use it to launch emulators from a list of roms, which is very nice!
    WAF (wife acceptance factor) is pretty high too - it's pretty stable and easy to navigate.
  • by swillden (191260) * <shawn-ds@willden.org> on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @08:57AM (#15865151) Homepage Journal

    You don't need an expensive renamed gaming rig to do those, and you don't need the whirring of its fans and hard drives while you watch a movie.

    OTOH, an appropriately small, low-powered, silent computer by the TV, with a noisy file server in the closet, makes a fantastically nice movie jukebox. I set mine up primarily because I was tired of damaged DVDs, but until you've seen it you don't realize just how convenient it is to choose what you want to watch from an on-screen menu. *Everyone* who has seen mine has asked how they could get one.

    So, actually, there is something to the argument that people don't want one because they're technically uninformed. That's only part of it, because when people I know actually look into getting one for themselves, they get put off by the cost and complexity. I have two brothers who are actually doing it, but that doesn't count because they're something of low-level geeks anyway.

  • Re:Demand (Score:3, Informative)

    by IAmTheDave (746256) <{moc.oohay} {ta} {ds-evademanesab}> on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @09:30AM (#15865386) Homepage Journal
    I find all of that possible now with the exception of recording HD - at least with our current cable monopoly here, Comcast makes it almost impossible to record HD with anything other than their own rent-a-DVR, which is relatively sucktastic.

    Cable-card (or, at least v. 2) was supposed to solve all of this, choice-for-the-consumer wise, but its rollout has been far from happening. I had thought that it was at some point government mandated, but I suppose that was me dreaming instead. About a year ago, Toshiba showed off a HTPC with a cable-card slot in it, and I expected that to be the beginning of true living room integration (for us HD users anyway.)

    HTPC and Tivo's rule for low def, but us HD (Cable/Sat HD, not OTA HD) users are SOL with regards to HTPCs now.
  • Re:Demand (Score:2, Informative)

    by Fulg (138866) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @10:21AM (#15865766) Homepage
    Get me there, then we'll talk about adding new components.
    It's already here: Harmony [logitech.com] remotes do exactly what you ask for.
  • Re:Demand (Score:2, Informative)

    by Azathoth_lca (535537) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @01:32PM (#15867854) Homepage
    Power button overloading is solved by something called "discrete codes". These are basically separate on and off signals that work regardless of the current state of the device. Most devices have them, but they're hidden, in the sense that they're not included on the factory remote. You can usually find these discrete codes on the internet. Another line of remotes that do exactly what you're asking for is the Phillips Pronto line. Check out http://www.remotecentral.com/ [remotecentral.com] for more info on all kinds of programmable remotes.

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