Where Did Media Center Go?

Anyone unfortunate enough to have followed my frantic ramblings over the years (though this blog and my diary from a previous life) will know that, in our house, we are fully paid up members of the modern all-singing, all-dancing, digital media and entertainment society. Well, OK, so we have a Media Center that is our main TV, DVD player, music jukebox, streaming device for our favorite saved videos, and presentation mechanism for a huge library of digital photos. We even use a photo screensaver, so we can relive those wonderful memories of the past whilst daydreaming in our armchairs in the evenings (pipe and slippers being optional accessories).

So, you can image the massed panic and total disruption to our daily life when, the other day, my wife pressed the button on the front to fire it up - and nothing happened. Of course, I didn't panic. Or, at least, I didn't panic immediately, knowing that it was just a glitch that the big red switch on the wall would resolve. And when it didn't, I panicked as well. But after the requisite period of running around waving our hands over our heads and howling in anguish, I came up with the solution: "No problem, we'll just buy another one."

Ha! Where did they all go? Only a couple of years ago there were dozens of different ready-built and off-the-shelf systems available, but a search of the Web revealed that now there seem to be only two - neither of which will work with our aging non-HDMI screen, nor have twin digital TV tuners. And digging deeper, it seems that they are both discontinued products anyway; in fact, if Sony is an example, the retail lifetime of a new model is about six weeks. The young sales guy at our local Sony Centre had never even heard of the two unsuitable ones I found still listed for sale at a few suppliers.

Eventually I found a company locally that advertises some nice-looking custom built machines, with a huge range of tempting options for power supplies, video cards, and the rest. But they don't have a showroom or any machines you can look at, don't do demonstrations, and only take orders over the Web. From previous experience, I reckon that a Media Center machine is definitely something you need to see working (and hear how loud it is) before parting with the not inconsiderable volumes of credit card.

But then I found a refurbished Acer 510 (like we have now) available from a London company, and snapped it up - and it turned out to be just as faulty as ours. The refurbishment obviously consisted of losing some of the screws, bending the cabinet lid so it didn't fit properly, and disconnecting the power button. So it's gone back to them. In fact, the behavior was not unlike that of our own broken one, which is currently languishing in the workshop of a local PC repair guy. I've told him he needs to get it to work, even if it means bodging an external power supply (which seems to be the fault), but he doesn't seem to hold out much hope. 

The alternative looked like some consumer-related setup such as Sky Plus (satellite), or a "normal" TV with a slot for a memory card. But none of these can provide the total immersive experience of Media Center. And I've yet to find a "standard" PC that, while it might have Vista with Media Center installed, is quiet enough for the living room - or hibernates and wakes reliably to record stuff. For the last few days we've been using a very old Humax DVR that I bought in a sale when they were discontinued some years back, but the interface and capabilities make you feel like you're using a home computer from about 1985.

And then, after much more Web research, I came across the I.US range of Athlon-powered Media Center machines. The prices are a bit scary, but they get great write-ups from the H-Fi magazines (they seem to be aimed at hi-fi-retailers rather than computer dealers). I even found some available from Amazon, so - with a view to regaining marital harmony - I've bitten the bullet and flashed the cash. At least it's a nice looking case, so we can use it as an ornament if nothing else.

So, here's the question: As the average Joe (and Joanna) become more and more media-immersed with their digital cameras, downloaded music, and huge wall screens, surely there should be more systems available rather than fewer? I can't even find systems that use the competitors to the Windows Media Center software (Dell did have a version at one time). And why don't those cinema sound systems or digital video recorders that seem to be obligatory with modern TVs have facilities for seamlessly displaying photos and playing music?

Footnote: Interestingly, I've had replies from a couple of companies that do Media Center systems, which never showed up in my endless Web searches. One company (Russound) tell me they tried to get into the market but just couldn't sell them. Maybe it's just too specialist an area - I know only one other person who uses Media Center. Yet, once you're into it (and accept that it is, after all, a computer so it does need some TLC at times), you'll never go back to "ordinary" TV again.

FootfootNote: I also found this site that UK readers may be interested in if searching for a ready-built Media Center system: http://www.mediacenter-tv.co.uk/. I don't have any other information about them, but they do seem to list plenty of highly configurable systems.

FootfootfootNote: You might also like to take a look at http://www.media-centre-pc.co.uk/index.php?dispatch=categories.view&category_id=165 and http://www.vivadi.com/Media%20Centres.html.

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