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If this book lies open in your hands, either you've heard of Windows XP Media Center Edition and its phenomenal capability to unite the worlds of computing and entertainment, or you're a close personal friend or relative of the author, wondering what those months of lost sleep and solitary scribbling were all about.

Either way, you're now officially in on the best-kept secret of the world's largest software company. Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition blends the capabilities of a conventional PC with essentially every electronic entertainment device that is currently cluttering up your living room. It's a digital video recorder that lets you record and rewind live television; it's a digital jukebox that gives you unfettered access to your entire music collection; it's an intelligent DVD player (often a recorder as well); and it's even an FM radio with a replay button. It also offers new entertainment experiences as a sophisticated playback machine for your digital photos and home videos.

The Media Center software is designed to offer you the best of both worlds: a sophisticated, state-of-the-art computer operating system that can “get down to business” without any compromises in features or functionality—all delightfully hidden (if you so choose) behind a user-friendly interface that a child could control. It's the perfect balance of work and play.

Why This Book?

If Windows XP Media Center Edition is so darn easy to use, you might ask, why a book? Well, easy and simple are different things. Although it's extremely rare, it is possible for something to be easy while also being highly complex, and that is precisely the kind of delicate balance that Microsoft set out to achieve with this operating system.

If you can operate a television set, you can get the same results out of Windows XP Media Center: changing channels, adjusting volume, and so on. If you're content to leave it at that, put the book back on the shelf and walk on. But before you do, ask yourself whether you want more. What if you crave the ability to filter out the “noise” in our multimedia society and create an entertainment experience that is perfectly and precisely tailored to your tastes and temperament?

When you turn on your Media Center PC and pick up the remote control, you'll suddenly find yourself in the driver's seat of what is arguably the most powerful all-purpose entertainment device ever devised. As you come to discover the power you now wield over the world of personal entertainment, you'll probably reach the conclusion that a few friendly tips would not be out of line.

Media Center changes more than channels—it changes everything.

How We Got Here

Call it sibling rivalry. Ever since the personal computer arrived on the scene, it has displayed an irrational jealousy of its less intelligent predecessor, the television set.

To some degree, it's understandable. While one member of the cathode ray tube family was clearly the more gifted one, having played a pivotal role in nearly every significant human endeavor of the 20th century, its bumbling older brother—the “Boob Tube”—managed to steal the limelight every time.

Maybe this is why the PC industry has so cherished the dream of uniting these two devices: style and substance, together at last. Yet every attempt to add PC sophistication to television's mass appeal has left us yawning. With WebTV as the most recent example of a keyboard-equipped television experience, hybrid PC-TV devices have consistently failed to fire our imaginations or convince us to part with our hard-earned cash.

That's one of the reasons that the runaway success of the Microsoft Windows Media Center Edition PCs has been so surprising. As it turns out, we never really wanted a computer in our television set. We wanted a TV in our PC.

It seems like a subtle distinction, but it isn't. At least not for Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Gateway, and a growing list of PC makers. HP was the first computer company to sign on with what many in the PC industry dismissed as a harebrained idea—just another hopeless attempt to marry the PC and the TV into a single “infotainment” device.

Although they'd never admit it now, I'm sure that industry observers were surprised, if not outright shocked, when people actually started buying these media-centric computers as fast as the manufacturers could build them. Perhaps the most surprising part is what they paid for them. Just at a time when every economic indicator was in the gutter, and computer sales forecasters were sounding more like weather forecasters who had just witnessed a groundhog see its shadow and dive for cover, people started opening their wallets in response to the new Media Center PCs. Few industry pundits guessed that consumers would keep pushing their shopping carts right past those $399 bargain PC specials and instead load up with a fully loaded Media Center machine costing $2,000 and up.

HP smiled all the way to the bank, as its Personal Systems Division turned, in one quarter, from an operating loss of $68 million to a profit of $33 million. Microsoft sent its OS designers scurrying back to their workstations to cook up a new and improved version of the Media Center operating system. Meanwhile, a slew of new hardware companies jumped on the Media Center bandwagon to try their luck at selling high-priced, high-performance media PCs. With the added injection of volume, prices actually began to drop, fueling even more demand.

But what of the consumers? How about those intrepid early adopters who have already taken a Media Center PC into their home and made it a member of their family? Have they achieved the “infotainment” nirvana they hoped for?

Although overall satisfaction with the Media Center systems appears pretty high, many consumers have been faced with the stark reality that these systems are quite complicated compared to a typical TV—or PC, for that matter. In fact, there's little doubt that if televisions had been anywhere near as complex to set up and operate as a Media Center PC, most of us would still be gathered around our radios, warming ourselves by the glow of the vacuum tubes while we laughed along with some modern-day Fibber McGee & Molly.

Luckily, with this book you hold in your hands—The Absolute Beginner's Guide to Microsoft Windows XP Media Center—help has arrived.

How to Use This Book

To the greatest extent possible, this book has been written to correspond to your initial experience with an XP Media Center machine:

  • Part I, “Getting Started,” takes you from opening the carton through the complete setup of your Media Center system. You'll go on a tour of the basic features, and find out how to get around using your remote control, mouse, and keyboard.

  • Part II, “My TV,” goes straight to the coolest and most impressive capabilities of your Media Center system. You'll learn how to manipulate video like a pro, rewinding live television, skipping past commercials, and recording an entire TV series with the press of a button. You'll also learn how to use Media Center's free electronic program guide, how to set up parental controls, and more.

  • Part III, “My Videos,” focuses on how to capture, create, and organize your digital home movies using the system's impressive media-handling capabilities. Prepare to unleash your inner cinematographer!

  • Part IV, “Playing and Recording DVDs,” covers one of the trickier and ultimately most rewarding features of the Media Center architecture: the capability to build and burn your own DVD discs directly from your favorite TV shows. You'll also find tips on how to customize DVD playback features to make the most of Media Center's home theater experience.

  • Part V, “My Music,” delves into Media Center's audio arsenal, including the capability to rewind live FM radio (if your system comes equipped with a radio tuner). By blending your personal music collection with live radio and audio streamed and downloaded from the Internet, Media Center's My Music offers you access to an awesome audio apparatus.

  • Part VI, “My Pictures,” takes you through the digital photography display and processing features built into Media Center, and shows you how to use add-on software to get professional darkroom results. Kiss your red-eye good-bye.

  • Part VII, “Advanced Media Center Settings and Options,” provides additional tips and tools for the power user you've become, allowing you to get maximum performance and satisfaction from your Media Center system. In the final chapter, you'll find a complete guide to Media Center hardware, including the pros and cons of many different PC styles and designs of Media Center systems.

On a Personal Note

As a professional broadcast journalist, I've used studio equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars that was capable of doing only a tenth of what a $1,200 Media Center PC can accomplish. This fact may say more about my advancing age than about the advancement of desktop technology, but it was nevertheless a powerful motivator in my deciding to write this book.

If you already enjoy using computers, your cup truly runneth over. Each Media Center machine is a full-fledged XP Professional PC, with all the cool multimedia capabilities you could wish for thrown in as a bonus. On the other hand, if you think of PCs as a work tool better left at the office, you're in for a pleasant surprise as you get acquainted with Media Center's fun-loving side. Either way, I hope you'll agree that Media Center represents one of the most interesting and exciting new technologies on the PC landscape.

If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions about the book, please don't hesitate to email me at steve@tvtechtoys.com, or visit my Web site at www.tvtechtoys.com.

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