Thoughts on "Thoughts on MCE beta feedback"

Matt Goyer, a Program Manger for Microsoft’s Windows Media Center (motto: “Before we were a Vista feature, we were an _entire operating system!”)_ recently posted that he’s frustrated by people who say that Vista’s Media Center capabilities offer no compelling improvements over Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 (a.k.a. MCE 2005).

In response, Matt posted a [long list of features][Goyer] that help illustrate why MCE Vista is a vast improvement over MCE 2005. In my opinion the list is embarrassing, and — if you take the post as a litmus test for how “in touch” Microsoft is with consumers — doesn’t make me optimistic about MCE’s future.

(Note: This isn’t a random critique, nor is it intended as Matt- or Microsoft-bashing. I’ve been an MCE user since 2004. I built my current MCE, a 3 GHz box with a dual analog tuner and an OTA HDTV tuner. Other than an Xbox 360 for gaming, my MCE is the only thing that feeds my TV.)

Let’s look at the list.

> _Support for 64bit machines_

Makes sense, since 64-bit versions of Windows have been out for well over a year. But there are no intrinsic performance- or feature-related benefits to using MCE on a 64-bit processor vs. a 32-bit processor. **Consumer value: None.**

> _You can upgrade to Windows Vista Media Center from XP_

Any MCE install for a PC _used primarily as an MCE_ should be a clean install. For upgrades on PCs used primarily as PCs, it’s a questionable convenience to be able to avoid a clean install, and it was already possible to use Windows’ Files & Settings Transfer Wizard to achieve the same end. Frankly, this should’ve already worked — MCE is just Windows — and it certainly no reason to upgrade. **Consumer value: Dubious.**

> _Media Center is included as part of two Windows Vista SKUs_

This is pointless, since you’d never buy Windows Vista Teh Ultimate XXL 3000 Windows Vista Ultimate for a machine intended to be your MCE PC. **Consumer value: None.**

> _No need to buy a Media Center. You can install yourself_

…just like you could with MCE 2004 and MCE 2005. (Plus, this is incorrect if you want CableCARD support…see below for more on this.) **Consumer value: None.**

> _Domain join_

This refers for the ability of MCE to join Microsoft Active Directory domains, used by only large enterprises. This feature is meaningless for 99.9% of MCE users. **Consumer value: None.**

> _Available worldwide in every locale that we ship Windows to (160 new locales! 15 new languages!)_

It’s great that Microsoft is localizing/internationalizing MCE functionality, although you have to wonder what took so long. **Consumer value: Some**, if you haven’t previously been able to use MCE because of localization/internationalization issues.

> _More content on screen in our photos/music/videos/TV libraries_

This means that MCE Vista uses widescreen displays more efficiently. That’s nice and all, but this hasn’t proven to be a problem with MCE 2005. **Consumer value: Dubious.**

> _Faster perf for the music library_

One problem that’s always haunted MCE is that it’s never been able to efficiently deal with even moderately-large music libraries. **Consumer value: None** to anyone new to MCE (of course it should work), and an **insult** to current MCE owners who’ve been waiting years for a fix.

> _OCUR/CableCARD support_

This is true only if you buy a _new_ MCE with Windows Vista that’s been “approved” by CableLabs. Current MCE users will need to toss their current setups and start over. **Consumer Value: Significant**, but at a very high price.

> _It was very hard to use a mouse in MCE 2005. We’ve made some big improvements to mouse handling._

It was not difficult to use a mouse (even the terrible thumb-pointer on Microsoft’s Remote Keyboard was tolerable) with MCE 2005. **Consumer value: None.**

> _Likewise, hard to use with a touch screen before, should be better now_

This is great news for the twelve people that use a touchscreen as their interface for MCE. **Consumer value: None.**

> _Run on your Tablet PC_

MCE already ran on Tablet PCs. **Consumer value: None.**

> _New start menu to get you to where you want to be faster_

The old Start menu got me to where I wanted to be almost instantly. **Consumer value: None.**

> _Start photo slideshow from Music Now Playing_

No one does this, except Microsoft employees demonstrating how cool it is that MCE can play death metal _at the same time_ it’s showing pictures of your vacation to Philadelphia. **Consumer value: None.**

> _Now playing item on the start menu, should be more discoverable_

From what I’ve seen, MCE Vista’s UI “improvements” made the Now Playing item less discoverable, and now we all need to pay for that with a useless Start menu item. **Consumer value: None.**

> _More ways to slice and dice your music collection_

It’s nice that playlist creation within the MCE interface sucks less, even though the MCE 2005 workaround (i.e. use Windows Media Player to create your playlists) works fine. **Consumer value: Medium.**

> _New music Now Playing_

**Consumer value: None.**

> _Way better queue management_

I imagine that somebody must care about this. **Consumer value: Low.**

> _View photos and videos by folder or date_

Wow, folders…just as we’ve determined that’s it’s really inefficient to wade through and manage folders. **Consumer value: Low.**

> _Mini TV guide_

The guide already worked as well as any DVR’s, and it’s rarely used except to set up (generally recurring) recordings anyway — if you’ve got a DVR, you rarely (if ever) watch live TV. **Consumer value: None.**

> _TV favorites/most viewed_

Again, the guide is rarely used except to set up recordings. **Consumer value: None.**

> _TV categories is now discoverable_

This assumes people search for shows by category. “Honey, I’m really in the mood for a police procedural tonight.” (Hint: Nobody does this.) **Consumer value: None.**

> _TV guide is an overlay_

Instead of seeing the current channel in the lower-left corner, we get to see it obstructed by the entire interface. **Consumer value: None** (and possible negative).

> _Easy to get to TV categories_

This is a duplicate of “TV categories is now discoverable”. **Consumer value: None.**

> _Thumbnails in recorded TV library_

Because how could you possibly know that the show called _House_ was really _House_ without a thumbnail of a commercial? **Consumer value: None.**

> _PAL exhaustive channel scanning_

This sounds more like a PAL-related MCE 2005 design flaw related to PAL support rather than a new feature. **Consumer value: Moderate** to PAL users bitten by this problem in the past.

> _Microsoft DVD codec_

For those of you who haven’t used MCE previously, it’s true — you really couldn’t watch anything without a third-party decoder.

If you previously built an MCE PC, you knew this and either bought an MPEG-2 decoder or installed a free one. If you previously purchased an MCE PC, it already came with a MPEG-2 decoder and you didn’t have to worry about it. **Consumer value: None.**

> _Native burning solution_

By “native”, Matt means that you can now burn DVD Video discs that can be played in any DVD player — useful for sharing episodes of American Chopper with grandma. (Previously, MCE only burned nearly-useless data DVDs.) **Consumer value: Medium.**

> Extender platform. Now any hardware manufacturer can integrate a MCX into their TV, DVD player, etc.

Which is what absolutely everybody nobody is clamoring for. **Consumer value: None.**

> _Tighter integration on start menu for third parties. You’re no longer buired in More Programs_

This will save me 30 seconds a month at first, and then cost me more and more time as my Start menu becomes overrun with add-ons. **Consumer value: None** (and possibly negative).

> _Windows Media Center Presentation Layer, now you can build apps that have the same fidelity as Media Center_

It’ll be nice to use MCE add-ons that don’t look like absolute crap, and potentially even work kind of like MCE. **Consumer value: Medium.**

> _Windows Presentation Foundation, re-use your Avalon code to build Media Center applications_

This is a gross oversimplification. **Consumer value: None.**

> _Hotstart_

I rarely need to restart my MCE, so this would save me about 10 non-contiguous minutes a month — time that I use to, say, grab a refreshing beverage rather than stare blankly at the TV while Windows reboots. **Consumer value: None.**

After the list, Matt continues on for a bit. This jumped out at me:

> Something not on that list that we’ve likely spent more time on than anything else is getting Media Center to integrate with the Vista codebase. It was a lot of work getting Media Center to work with Vista and all the changes to the things we’re dependent on like drivers, graphics infrastructure, sound infrastructure, networking, etc.

Ooof, sad…it’s not like they’re writing to the metal. MCE is basically a .NET application that uses higher-level APIs.

I’m sure the MCE team got sucked into the Vista vortex like everyone else at Microsoft. It’s likely that they wasted people-years worth of engineering time building, testing, and rebuilding on very shaky versions of Vista. There are probably some heroic efforts behind the few genuinely-useful features that are new to MCE Vista.

Yeah, it looks cool, and yeah, I kinda want it. But it’s clear that MCE Vista is a dubious upgrade at best.

* [Matt Goyer: Thoughts on MCE beta feedback][Goyer]