Digital World: People have spoken, Microsoft listened

By DAVID SHAMAH
March 21, 2006 04:04

 
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Question: How did Bill Gates get to be the richest man in the world? Answer: Well, actually there are many, depending on who you ask, ranging from the rather uncomplimentary (http://www.mackido.com/Interface/ui-history.html) to the downright weird (http://egomania.nu/gates. html). But even if nefarious or otherworldly forces contributed to his wealth, there is no question that his company - Microsoft, gives "The People" what it wants. That's why people prefer to spend lots of money on Windows over competing (and many would say better) operating systems, like Mac OsX, or they buy gobs of very expensive copies of Microsoft Office rather than spend a few hours downloading the just-asgood and just-as-compatible Open Office (http://openoff i c e . o r g ) , which does exactly the same thing MS Office does, for free. And what do "The People" want nowadays? Easy. They want an HTPC (Home Theater Personal Computer) or some variant thereof, just the topic we've been bandying about in recent weeks. How do I know that HTPCs are the next big thing? Also easy, because Microsoft recently released its revamped version of Windows XP Media Center edition (http://www.microsoft.com/ windowsxp/mediacenter/default.msp x) which is being shipped with specially designated PCs being marketed as "media center computers" by companies like HP, Toshiba and Sony. These PCs, like the HP m7360y Media Center PC (http://tinyurl.com/pscpu), includes a sleek case, flat panel screen suitable for display in den or living room, gobs of input and output ports for connecting stereos, DVDs, etc., lots of hard drive space for recording TV programs, a remote control, and software to schedule recording and backup. And, of course, XP Media Center, which has recording capabilities of its own, as well as Internet radio and built-in CD/DVD burning. It should be noted that XP Media Center is a full-fledged version of XP, just like the various media center PCs are full-fledged computers, and can be used as such, if the buyer is so inclined. The US HP site for Media Center PCs (http://tinyurl.com/dkd5d) actually lists some very attractive buys, so if you were in the market for a PC, you could do worse than to buy one of these models, which can easily be revamped to work as a regular desktop PC while letting you benefit from the Media Center enhancements. And of course the inverse is correct as well. You can take a "regular" PC - even an older one, with a slower Celeron processor - and set it up as a media center machine, using it to record TV programs, play back DVD, etc. Last time we described the Happauge series of TV cards that have TV in/out ports (http://www.happauge. com), allowing you to connect your computer directly to a TV or DVD/VCR with RCA or S-video inputs (you can buy an addon for your TV's Scart interface that allows these inputs into the set for mere shekels in any electronics store). The Happauge line of cards, as well as competing PCI card products by ATI (http://www.ati.com) and AverMedia (http://www.avermedia.com), all allow recording to a hard drive, include recording scheduling software, and allow you to set up an interface between the PC and terrestrial, cable or satellite connections, as well. Important note: If you were planning to buy a TV tuner/recorder in the US in the hope of getting a bargain, don't bother. The cards sold in most US computer stores are almost exclusively for the NTSC TV standard, and won't pick up most of the PAL broadcasts on our local systems (and those that do come in will be in black and white, instead of color). All of these manufacturers also make cards that will pick up high-definition TV (HDTV) signals. Without veering off into a whole other complicated area, suffice to say for now that HDTV is another wave of the future, and eventually all TV programs will be broadcast using the low-resolution and HDTV formats, and eventually, sets that cannot handle HDTV will become obsolete (within a decade, or so they say). TV capable PCI cards start at NIS 500 and, for PCs, are the most reliable way to connect to a TV. Once again, Mac users have an easier time of it; if you've got a Mac Mini, iMac or Powerbook capable of displaying DVI graphics (which displays much better resolution than VGA on a screen), all you need is an Apple DVI to Video Adapter (http://tinyurl.com/ 5t57r), which for $19, will let you turn your Mac into a media center PC with a minimum of effort. The newest model Macs also come with their own media center software, called Front Row, which, equipped with the supplied remote control, lets you easily display and play files on a TV screen (caveat: No current Mac has a built in TV card, so while you can easily play AVI, Quicktime, iPod format or DVD files on your TV directly from your Mac, you can't record from your TV. For that, you need an external device like Evolution TV, available at http://www.miglia.com/products/vid eo/evolutiontv/index.html). Is there a cheaper way to connect a PC to a TV in order to be able to watch downloaded programs or converted DVDs? Well, a Google search for the term "connect vga to tv" yielded lots of advice about how to put together a cheap cable that lets you align the signals between a PC's VGA output and a TV display, normally out of sync. If you're less technically minded, however, there are a number of products that act as a bridge between the two, like the Sewell PC to TV Converter (http://sewelldirect.com) and the Grandtec PC to Video Connector (http://www.usfreeads.com/334208-cls.html), both $50 or less. If you go this route, you won't have playback software or the Windows Media Center OS - but you don't really need either, because you can freely download MediaPortal from http://www.team-mediaportal.com, which does everything you can do with the bundled software and OS when you buy a media center PC or a TV card. Whatever configuration you go for, you may be the first on the block to have an HTPC system - but I guarantee you won't be alone for long.

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