Last Monday, Microsoft released details of how it plans to distribute different features of Windows 8 to users in the form of Windows 8, Windows 8 Pro, and Windows 8 RT. While the fact that Microsoft has managed to whittle the number of retail versions of Windows down to two makes me as giddy as a school girl at a Big Time Rush concert, our readers will no doubt find the fate of Microsoft’s entertainment options more interesting.
So let’s recap. Starting with the release of Windows 8 in the fall, Microsoft will only offer two versions of Windows directly to consumers. Windows 8 will offer the new Startscreen, an upgraded desktop environment complete with the Ribbon UI, and the other small improvements that come with running the new operating system. Windows 8 Pro will offer those same features plus options for businesses and tech enthusiasts including Drive Extender, BitLocker, and lots more. Here was the gotcha for us. Even though Windows 8 Pro will be tailored for “tech enthusiasts”, Windows Media Center won’t be included with it; instead Microsoft is offering it only in a “media pack” add-on specifically for Pro. Many will see this is just a continuation of the status quo. I’m personally not buying it. I believe Media Center is being taken out back and I couldn’t be happier about it.
To understand why this is the case you must first understand the reality of setting up and using a Windows Media Center machine. It’s been years since any OEM actual built dedicated hardware for the platform, and even longer since the platform experienced any meaningful change in the way users could get in on the action. If someone wanted to put a Media Center based device in their living room they’d first have to find just the right hardware, look into whether their cable provider supported any of move advanced features with an add-on app or tuner card. Once you’d sorted out the hardware story, there were normal Windows issues to worry about. Who wants their entertainment setup rebooting or asking for security updates? Apps for Media Center have also become few and far between. You’ve got the basics like Netflix, Nascar, The Queensbury Fight Network, and Cinema Now. If you suddenly begin to have issues you’ll need to get in contact with your service provider or search the web for folks who are having or have already had that same issue.
Now let’s compare that to an Xbox 360. Go to any hundreds of retailers and pick up the Xbox 360 with Kinect for around $299. Connect it to your TV via HDMI. Connect to your already existing wireless connection or hardwire network. Let the Xbox guide you through the easy to navigate setup process. Done. If you have a provider that supports live content like AT&T or Verizon you’ll be able to watch Live TV. If you have Comcast you’ll be taken to a comprehensive list of television and movies that you can watch at the push of a button. If you don’t have either of those providers, you can still use Zune Video to purchase your favorite shows a la carte or use Netflix, CinemaNow, Vudu, Hulu Plus, Vevo, YouTube, and Crackle to sign up for a content subscription service. Want to listen to music? Zune Music, iHeartRadio they’re both their too, no hardware FM tuner required. Are you having a problem with your Xbox? Head on over to the Xbox Forums or browse through the extensive archive of how-to articles and setup information.
Heck if your dead set on using a computer in your living room, Windows 8 is starting to show even more promise. The new Start Screen is tailor made for browsing with a Media Center remote. Its application platform is all about making applications approachable for many different input scenarios. Its faster start up time, lock screen customization, and ability to sync your settings make it the best operating system for being in the living room by leaps and bounds. Don’t even get me started on the Music and Video apps, which already show more promise towards streamlining the enjoyment of both locally stored content or streaming content. Heck, who needs the media center environment when you can use the new Metro interface with a remote?
I don’t mean to drone on and on here but the writing is on the wall. Xbox LIVE, Media Center and to a lesser extent Windows Media Player, need to be shown the door. It’s not that they aren’t great at what they do. It’s not that they weren’t ahead of their time. It’s that their fifteen-minutes started an hour ago. It’s that for many people it’s a lot easier to say “just get an Xbox” than it is to say “have you ever heard of Windows Media Center”. A few years ago I happened to be sitting in a room of Zune and Windows Media Center guys. We managed to get into a discussion about ease of use, with a good friend of mine declaring “my mom can’t set this up”. One of the Windows Media Center enthusiasts turned to him and declared that “Your mother also doesn’t work on her on car. You always need professionals”. Yeah, if I need a professional to setup your media center experience in my living room, I probably shouldn’t be using it. And neither should anyone else.