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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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  • Simple (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Hawthorne01 (575586) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @12:35AM (#15864044)
    Computer = active entertainment.
    TV = Passive.

    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.

    Computer's can't do that. 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.
  • TV out (Score:5, Interesting)

    by p0tat03 (985078) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @12:36AM (#15864049)

    While I agree with TFA that people simply aren't ready to turn PCs into TVs and vice versa, maybe they're overly harsh on the Mac. It doesn't have video in/out features, nor do any Macs have integrated TV tuners... The remote is the only media-center-esque feature on the Macs, but that hardly means Apple meant to make it a media center machine.

    The problem is really one of cost and usability. An HTPC costs too much. When confronted with the option of the $100 set top box provided by the cableco vs. a $600 HTPC, what is the obvious choice for the average user? Not to mention the set top box is plug and play, and requires no finangling with software (or God forbid, Windows).

    I'm sure many home users would love to have the power of MythTV, but until we can build a MythTV box for $300 and make it plug-and-play and config-free, it simply won't take off in the mainstream.

  • by p0tat03 (985078) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @12:40AM (#15864062)

    Actually, while MP3 phones have flunked the general market, enthusiasts have totally bought into it. I can't count the number of mobile-nut friends I have that drool over their W810's. The early-gen MP3 phones really really sucked, but the W810 has a really slick interface (and an airplane mode... hint hint Motorola) and it's quite nice to have an integrated device done RIGHT.

  • Content. Content. Content. Just like in real estate (location location location) these are the three things media corps care about the most. Until they make it easy (i.e., open standardized protocols) for information to be moved around, any media center is going to be locked in to proprietary difficult to use formats and only /. esque users will really be able to take advantage of these possibilities. The average user will never pay for something they need to spend more than 5 min trying to get to work. Trying new approaches to media delivery and exchange is veerrryy scary for corps that think their livelihood depends on "owning" the rights of Green Acres and Two's Company.
  • I have a Media PC. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by SURsys (993861) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @01:14AM (#15864152)
    I use my MPC for my personal music collection, radio, movies, as well as TV. It plays DVD's as would be expected and after installing the codecs also plays xvid, divx, etc. The remote I use interacts with it like a normal TV remote. Also works on the DVD menu's and such.

    Realize, they're called MEDIA PC's, not TV PC's. Of course, for the average TV watcher, the cable company's set top box will work quite well, but, for those that understand the potential and have a use for it, the MPC is a big step above.

    This is more of a niche than people thought it was going to be, it's not turned out so much to be for the average user. In regards to price, setup, maintenance, etc, it's just not worth it for most people.

  • Re:Demand (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @01:19AM (#15864165)
    Not true. Well, not if my recent experience is anything to go by. Like many of the rest of you I suppose, I get frequent requests to help friends and neighbors buy a PC. More and more I am getting the older generation asking me for the following:

    1) A small quiet set-top box type PC
    2) Records cable/terrestrial TV to HD like a TIVO/VCR
    3) Has a simple kiosk type menu with a remote
    4) Low power so it can be always on
    5) Does internet radio
    6) (*and very tellingly added as a last afterthought) Can browse the web

    Since I cannot buy such a device I build and configure them myself. I use P4/celeron mini-itx boards, a good TV/capture card, 300GB SATA drives,
    The OS I build (by hand, though I now have an image I burn) is a minimal GNU/Linux based on LFS which is similar to distributions like Dynebolic. It has low latency kernel, carefully tuned disk access using hdparms and carefully tweaked afs for very large file support. I buy the cases from a custom manufacturer in the UK and they are built for very low noise and low temperature operation using a rear external heatsink.

    In the last month I have had requests for 5 such devices, not much you may think, but a year ago nobody wanted such a thing. What I think has happened is that the demand is there, it's been planted in peoples minds that that's what a PC should do. All the hype by major corps has led to widespread disappointment because they can't deliver what they promised, and it's left to us independent hackers to come up with the reality.

    I'm not complaining though :) I expect to get double the orders next month, and I will rinse out this situation while the going is good. It won't last forever, I expect within a year Sony or somebody will deliver what I am building now at a fraction of the cost in a stylish plastic box. On the other hand maybe it will be so crippled that my customers will keep coming back for more of the real deal.
  • by PDAToday (661417) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @01:24AM (#15864181) Homepage
    Actually you don't need an uber system for Windows MCE. Intel makes a great 945 chipset Media Edition motherboard http://www.intel.com/products/motherboard/d945gnt/ index.htm/ [intel.com] as do a couple of other vendors. You can get a DVI daughter card for less than $50 for your digital out, but I even skipped that for a better solution.

    I have my MCE server set elsewhere in the house and use my XBOX as the head unit that's plugged into my home theater system. It was really easy to do and now I don't have to pay a monthly subscription fee to Replay or Tivo anymore.

    The original XBOX 1 worked just OK at this but the XBOX 360 really shines as a MCE extender providing in Microsoft's promise of being a home entertainment hub...no I'm not kidding, I was really amazed at how I could play Uno on Live, listen to music from my MP3 collection and them jump out to watch a recorded TV show, all from my remote control.

    My MCE server has a dual tuner card and several hard drives set up as RAID5 using the Intel motherboard. I also have two HDTV OTA cards but have not had a chance to get an HD antenna hooked up yet so I use those cards for my security cameras.

    The whole thing was easy to build and set up and it integrates into my home theater very nicely.
  • Re:Demand (Score:2, Interesting)

    by johnnyringo (202714) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @01:30AM (#15864198)
    Demand? Aren't the majority of Dell consumer machines set with media center edition? so do most (alright, maybe a little more than half)laptops from all manufacturers? Apple, once they solve movie DRM, will announce something, perhaps at their product event (not the recent developer conference).

    I personally own a media center box in addition to my main pc. I love it. looks fantastic, works better than other options out there, and the interface is really top-notch. It's probably the only think I like from Microsoft. And I love it...
  • by Jeremy Erwin (2054) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @01:36AM (#15864209) Journal
    A good many computer programs seem to be designed around a minimum resolution of 1024*768-- a coarser resolution can mess up the layout, or crowd user elements together. 1024*768 is far beyond what a standard definition TV can deliver, and the SVideo interface doesn't help. A modern HDTV offers (typically) 1366*768 resolution and HDMI (which can be converted from DVI with a simple dongle). It's a natural fit. And if the screen is large enough, you may not have to use a bigger font.

    The HDTV market share is larger than you might think. Some (perhaps naively) predict 25% market penetration.
  • by Yeechang Lee (3429) <ylee@pobox.com> on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @01:41AM (#15864227) Homepage
    From the Slate article:

    Very savvy consumers will hack together ["PC-TV hybrid"] setups themselves.

    Yes, we are indeed building them ourselves. However, we are doing so primarily because we can't find what we want on sale anywhere for any price. The below is an adapted version of a recent Usenet post of mine describing what I have come to daily take for granted with my high-definition MythTV setup:
    ------------
    . . . MythTV works, and works well, for those who are interested in a "HD TiVo" without any of TiVo's limitations. I must admit to chuckling whenever I see a question in alt.tv.tech.hdtv or elsewhere asking how to record from a HD video source with a computer in terms that make it clear the poster and the respondents view the task as something akin to cavemen discovering fire.

    I work long, long hours and, when I get home, often don't have any more energy left to do more than want to just relax in front of the tube. When I do so, I want to have as much choice in what to watch as possible. Let me tell one and all of what I with 100% reliability do with my MythTV setup every day:

    • Push a button on the remote[1] to wake the 47" 1080p[2] LCD panel[3] from its DPMS slumber.
    • Pick from a gigantic library[4] of high-definition programs that MythTV constantly adds to[5] based on my choices.[6]
    • While playing the program, rewind, fast-forward, and jump to arbitrary points as desired. I can also adjust the playback speed anywhere from 0.5X to 2X without affecting audio pitch.[7]
    • I can push a button to instantly and accurately skip over commercials.[8] If I've gone too far, another button will skip me back to the previous spot.
    • If I exit a recording, the next time I watch it the playback will continue where I left off.[9]
    • If I ever need to restart MythTV, pushing a button on my remote twice within three seconds will cause it to do so.[10]
    • If I want, I can run MythTV on my MacBook and watch the exact same programs[11] with the exact same elegant and attractive user interface.[12]
    • All this time, MythTV is silently recording yet more for me to watch.[13]

    If any of this intrigues you, I recommend visiting:

    • The MythTV Wiki [mythtv.org] and the mythtv-users mailing list archive [gossamer-threads.com], the two largest repositories of MythTV knowledge.
    • The terrific Fedora Core-based installation guide [wilsonet.com] I used.
    • A well-regarded MythTV reference design [mythic.tv] for those who want to either buy it off the shelf from the vendor or build it themselves. I'm neither a customer nor an employee; all I did for my own setup was buy a Sony Pentium 4 [amazon.com] system on sale at Fry's then add the video card, ATSC capture card, gigabit Ethernet card, remote, and NAS. However, in retrospect, there's something to be said [gossamer-threads.com] for buying at once all the parts except the NAS in one convenient, already-integrated form.

    [1] Home Theater Master MX-500 [remotecentral.com] universal remote. I programmed it using a $30 infrared keyboard/mouse combo [gossamer-threads.com].

    [2] MythTV does an *excellent* job of deinterlacing 1080i recordings into 1080p for those displays that can handle it. Any Nvidia video card from the FX5200 to the present will work.

    [3] Westinghouse LVM-47W1 [westinghousedigital.com]. Under $2500 from Crutchfield [crutchfield.com] for 1080p LCD goodness.

    [4] MythTV tells me that I have "242 programs, using 1.7 TB (427 hrs 33 mins) out of 1.8 TB (54 GB fr

  • Re:Demand (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Al Dimond (792444) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @02:47AM (#15864390) Journal
    So the demand isn't there but you wouldn't blame the technology? What else could be to blame? You don't blame the market when a product fails, you blame the product for being wrong for the market. It doesn't matter if "media center" PCs are technological marvels (they're not), if they're not well-suited to the task at hand they'll just get in the way of users that want a truly intuitive experience. That would make them bad technology.

    Remember the article that was posted here earlier comparing the virtues of an ancient Apple Newton and a brand-new, slightly larger gadget that runs full WinXP? Sure, WinXP gives you a lot more possibilities than the Newton's OS, but for most of the things you actually want to do with a PDA the software written strictly for the purpose lets you be much more efficient. The "standard" media components like DVD/VHS players and television sets give people an intuitive, focused and reliable interface. They may be less fancy, but they're still better technology for most media-consuming people.
  • by seanyboy (587819) * on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @03:08AM (#15864432)
    The biggest problem with Home Media computers I can see is DRM & copyright. Tivo, et al would probably be bigger now if it wasn't for fights with large media corporations about what can be downloaded and watched on what. iTunes would be more useful if the tunes could be shared with a small Living Room PC which ran a free operating system on cheap hardware.

    If I could easily (like three buttons easy) download missed episodes of favourite shows I'd have more of a requirement for a Living Room P.C.

    The reason this technology has not set off is because of legal restrictions placed on early adopters. I may be being overly paranoid here, but this is how big-media wants it. You watch what they tell you when they tell you. Anything that gets in the way of that will not be allowed to propagate into the mass market.
  • by baker_tony (621742) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @03:19AM (#15864463) Homepage
    I take it you're only talking about the USA when you say "What happened to the MP3 phones"? While iPods are prevalent over here in the UK, the next most common site is people listening to their phones. I actually watch episodes of Seinfeld and Futurama on my phone (k750i, getting damn old now but does its job very nicely) during my commute home (via public transport here in London, not car).

    P.S. I use mpegable to encode any video files for my phone.

  • by KuRa_Scvls (932317) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @03:37AM (#15864498)
    But you're missing the point.

    Media PC is supposed to incorporate PC AND Tivo into one neat package.

    Think about it. I've heard that 20% of internet's traffics were generated by torrents.

    And lots of them are TV series and Animes and Movies, all of which are Passive entertainment as you've specified.

    If and When this so called "apple media PC" comes out, it may, finally, provide an uncluttered solution to

    A.Watch TV
    B.Watch downloaded contents
    C.Record and playback TV shows any time you want
    D.Stream shows to other computers(bonjour, itunes)
    E.OS X
    F.Windows(intel)

    In one single package.

    Its attractiveness is mindblowing, hence why everyone's waiting for it.
  • Re:Demand (Score:3, Interesting)

    by rucs_hack (784150) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @04:40AM (#15864613)
    The main problem is that many people already have a dvd/video/tv/music system installed.

    Why replace all of those things with a media centre? Your friends won't be impressed by a computer system, they'll be impressed by your large plasma screen tv (this seems to be what my brother in law thinks anyway, I don't have a tv). You don't need a computer to have a large tv screen on the go.

    The only reason media centre pc's got any attention is because the people who make the hardware and software for them wanted people to like them and buy them. There was no demand, and they were unable to create one.

    This is a situation frequently encountered in this new computing market (yes, it's only 20 or 30 years old, that's still new). Companies spend loads of money researching stuff that they want people to want, and it goes tits up when product hits the shelves. Or in the case of microsoft, where people seem to think everyone else is both rich and obsessed by computers too, they come up with obsurd tech that barely anyone in the normal world wants to purchase. Origami anyone?

    Also, pc's crash (well, windows pc's crash). Whether conciously or not, perhaps customers were thinking about the risk of a pc failing when the game is on?
  • by smchris (464899) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @06:36AM (#15864819)
    Sounds like a sour grapes rant to me. There are those of us who are _not_ consciously displaying a $2000 consumer item.

    First, I'm old enough to have seen TV go from black-and-white to color and I say, "Don't knock fetishism until you've tried it." It isn't enough to have "heard" about HDTV. HDTV is a third state of broadcast and the closest thing to looking through a window until we get 3D.

    Second, we only watch a few hours of TV per week here. The biggest chunk is local news and weather. Passive entertainment isn't our focus and I've always thought part of being a techno-fetishist is knowing there are better channels of information than TV.

    That said, third, we've never owned anything bigger than a 19" TV. Therefore, it isn't that expensive for us to watch a 19" LCD monitor from 8 feet and get the same perceived viewport to a 19" TV at 12 feet. And part of being techno is that I _can_ build the MythTV from mostly rebate parts.

    The home HDTV/media file server is just a dedicated tool. Being dedicated, not even that techno-interesting because the tinkering potential is low once it is set up.

  • by big ben bullet (771673) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @07:15AM (#15864948) Homepage
    The biggest drawback is DRM.

    If JS (Joe Sixpack) can't record what he wants, while he could do that with a normal VCR, he's not going to buy it.

    JS also wants to share his recordings or the media he bought with his friends (again, this could be done with a VCR).

    Offcourse, there are DRM-less solutions (like MythTV 'n stuff) but that's just too complex for JS.
  • Tried a Mac Mini? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Xugumad (39311) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @07:18AM (#15864962)
    So far the best experience I've had with a Media PC setup has been using an Intel based Mac Mini, EyeTV 2 and a DVB-T receiver. It's not perfect (the Mac will occaisionally fail to wake up to record a program, for example), but it's fairly good.

    However, at the end of the day, the only advantage it has over a standalone dedicated box is upgradability. Cost and ease of use are both major downsides.
  • Re:Simple (Score:2, Interesting)

    by riots (707054) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @07:51AM (#15865113) Homepage
    My family and I have actually gone without a TV now for several years - the tipping point was when we came to the opinion that we could get better content from DVD and more recently from BitTorrent than from network TV. We got a flat screen display (iMac) and set up an arrangement where the couch faced the desk so we could easily accomodate both uses without shifting anything around. We'll start using iTunes as soon as there's anything there we want and I'm awaiting the rollout of the BBC iMP service with interest. If we got a bigger apartment then we'd simply get one of the larger displays which would be fine, and now we've made the switch I'm sure we'll never buy a TV again - in the unlikely event that we ever decide we do want to watch network TV then we'll get something small and cheap like the EyeTV adaptor. The point of relating my personal experience is to make the point that I think the key will be when people decide it is easier and cheaper to get better content off the internet than through network TV. I realise that we are somewhat the exception right now and it will take people generally to come to the same conclusions as we have about the content source before widespread media centre adoption happens. When the perception of source changes then there is nothing stopping the switch, but if network TV still retains a strong attraction then things are likely to stay as they are.
  • First start (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @08:05AM (#15865213)
    "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."

    Two things. One one needs to define "what is a Media PC". And two distingush the difference between TV-"the device", and TV-"the programming".
  • by MobyDisk (75490) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @08:32AM (#15865394) Homepage
    They are being killed by the industry and the techno-fetishists. The Slashdot reviews all talk about $3000 machines with 4-way processors, RAID drives, multiple tuners, and big 3D cards. Those are not media PCs, they are high-end gaming and video desktop.

    I built [mobydisk.com] a media PC that IMHO does the job:
    • Low power so you can put it in your entertainment center without it overheating
    • Nearly silent
    • Software optimized for browsing (Opera with 180% magnification)
    • Good quality wireless keyboard, mouse, and remote control
    • Uses HDMI outputs so text is readable
    • Inexpensive

    The industry needs to change in two fundamental ways:
    1) Accessibility - software needs to work in a greater variety of environments. That means high-DPI and low-DPI displays, and low-resolution displays, multiple aspect-ratios.
    2) TVs and Video Cards: non-interlaced, DVI/HDMI, no overscanning, >60hz, standard aspect-ratios.

    P.S. Also, I have yet to see a media PC with surround sound. That's because sound cards use 3 stereo cables, while receivers use Dolby encoding over one pair of cables. This is just one of those cases where computers do it differently than all other consumer devices (although they do it better).
  • by Xenious (24845) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @08:40AM (#15865450)
    Cable cards might be the solution, but right now I have this nice almost free DVR that records HD and tunes all my channels already plugged into my TV. Any type of tuner card right now will have to pass through to that device as it cannot directly tune all my encrypted channels nor HD over the cable. Thus making another point that could break and making it almost useless. Make a PCI express card that does all of the functions of my DVR (tuning all my digital cable channels, video on demand from my cable provider, HD tuning off my digital cable) and I'm interested. Otherwise its not worth it to me.

    For the record I have a media center box and an extender.
  • Hi-Tech to impress. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jellomizer (103300) * on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @09:20AM (#15865763)
    I think you hit the nail on the head. People buy this stuff to impress others. Consiously or sub-Consiously. Why do you think people buy the large Hi-Def Flat Screen TVs, Fancy Cars, Stylish Laptops... It is to impress other people. Most companies know this. You will not get more or less entertained with a hi-def TV vs. a Normal one, with the content being the same. Having a high performance sports car will not get you to work any faster (legally?, But still you can speed in your old car too), A fancy Mac Book Pro will do the work just as well as a Dell Laptop with the same specs (OS Bigitry asside). It is all about getting praises for your hard work and make you feel sucessful to other people.
    It is not a bad thing but people need to understand this fact when they get this stuff and they prioritize their needs. Marketing targets people need to feel accecpted and popular.
    Teenagers wanting cool Cell Phones, So they can show off how hip and trendy they are.
    Kids toys, if you ever noticed all the toy comericals you see the kids playing with the toys with other kids, or using them to get the attention of someone else.
    Car commericals, people are always driving with a passanager or with a group of other people in simular cars, someone standing in awa, on in a mock race where the other cars are defeted.
    Food comericals where the family is sitting at a table completly enjoying your meal.

    It all about impressing others and not about yourself. The Media PCs are not impressive, people don't go "Wow You have a Media PC!", It doesn't look as impressive of having a Hi-Def TV with 5 or 6 boxes next to it that all do different things (Cable Box, TiVo, VCR, DVD, Surround Sound, X-Box, PS2/3, TiVo, etc...) Just having one box that can be confused with a fancy Cable Box is just not impressive, and people wont notice it and not start a conservation about it. And thus you fail, and get no product satification.

    With my PowerBook when it was new I always got complents on it and it made me feel good and successful, knowing that Apple products make people notice me and complement me (indirectly) makes me want to get a new one. It is that simple.
  • Re:Demand (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Locutus (9039) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @10:47AM (#15866659)
    if any of the large OEMs start making these, they won't be using our favorite OS and customizing it. They'll have to use Microsoft Windows( probably the MediaCenter version ). You might laugh but I had just spoke with a former HP project manager a few weeks ago and he told me how he had two projects which leveraged Linux as the base OS but when he brought in the marketing guys for the product release, they canned the projects. You see, the 'financial' impact these two projects would have on the 'profits' of some other Microsoft based product was too great. When I mentioned that the Microsoft based products were not even in the same market/sector, he said that the finanical impact wasn't due to lost sales but in licensing costs and other 'income' from those products( marketing dollars? ).

    So you probably have a few more years run with your current kit.

    LoB
  • by tacokill (531275) on Tuesday August 08, 2006 @01:59PM (#15868603)
    So, I suppose the 56" HDTV I bought (which, nobody aside from myself has seen) is just for 'impressions'? And the hours I spent setting up Meedio was just so I can show off? I think not.

    While I understand the point you are trying to make, I don't think your sweeping generalization is accurate.

    People buy HDTV's because they DO look better. In addition to that, they are - for the most part - flat and don't take up as much space as previous generations of TV's.

    Those two things account for FAR more of the market than "impressing people". Adding an HTPC to an HDTV is trivial even for the newbies. In fact, most HDTV's coming out have a VGA-in connection and if they don't have that, they certainly have a DVI-in. So it seems like a natural conclusion (to me, at least) that I should be able to view my downloaded content on my HDTV via my HTPC. And I am not alone judging by the interest in iPod videos and movies...

    That is the draw of the HTPC. Watching downloaded content on your 56" HDTV instead of your 19" LCD monitor in the office.

    And the first one to make that seemless, easy, and relatively inexpensive is going to win. Right now, we are nowhere close to that for a variety of reasons: DRM, crappy software (Media Center), pricing, etc so it seems natural that the HTPC is not-yet-ready-for-primetime.

    When the content is there, you will see HTPC's taking off.

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