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Microsoft Media Center 2005 DRM is draconian

Xbox extensions and all, it owns you
Sun Sep 12 2004, 11:13
MS WILL ANNOUNCE MEDIA CENTER 2005 one month from today. If you want to be surprised just go away, otherwise, read on. It seems evolutionary, not revolutionary, with one big exception.

The biggest thing they added was the concept of media center extenders, or specifically one of them called XBox. Yes, with a kit, the XBox becomes an extension of your media center PC. If you thought we were joking when we said MS doesn't care about games with the XBox, here is your proof. They want to own your entertainment, it just so happens that the easiest way is through a console. Sony should be very very afraid.

What it does is let you take an XBox and play back all your MCPC media on the screen the console is connected to. One thing the XBox does not support though is HD content, anything you have on the full MCPC will be downgraded to normal quality for XBox playback, but it should occur seamlessly on the fly.

What else does MC05 bring you? First of all, a new look for the menus. I have only seen the old one in passing at trade shows, so I can't comment in any sane way on the changes, but it is supposedly better, cleaner, and more everything. I wasn't a fan of the last look, hopefully this one will be better.

It moves on to another big feature, HD support. In a rather baffling move, the HD playback is terrestrial signal only, it won't take HD from cable or satellite. That you have to feed in at normal TV rez. To use the phraseology of the typical MC05 consumer, WTF? Someone screwed up big time here. If you spend the price of a nice car on a home entertainment system built around a MCPC, and it won't take your high def cable signal, how happy would you be? Seriously, who did this, and why do they still have a job?

Next up, we have more comprehensive DVD burning support. Movie Maker 2.1 is part of this, and the support is welcome. To a lesser degree, since you can only buy MC05 with a PC, you should have support for anything that ships with your PC, but more never hurts.

In fact, since MC05 is just a tweaked version of XP Home, it comes with all the benefits of a modern XP system. This one has SP2 built in, and also comes with Media Center 10. While all these goodies are available to MC04 customers, you can't upgrade from 04 to 05. There will be no upgrade path available unless your manufacturer says so, no retail box, not upgrade for purchase. Don't look for much love from MS here.

One of the problems I have with MS of late is that they force spyware down your throat. They may couch it in nice terms, and ask you not to call it spyware, but they do watch what you watch. The privacy FAQ has the following nugget in it: "Microsoft is committed to protecting consumer privacy. Microsoft does not collect personal information with respect to your use of Media Center features, such as your name, home address, phone number, e-mail address, credit card number, social security number, or driver's license number. Anonymous and aggregate usage information may be shared with partners." Hardly reassuring, especially in light of the EULA that says that they can change this any time they want without directly notifying you. This scares the hell out of me, not just because I can thing of a dozen ways around it in less than 10 minutes. For me, this alone would keep me from using media center.

Back to the less scary stuff, we return to the fact that it is based on XP Home, with Home being the key part. The PC will not connect to a domain, and will not allow you to do any of the other tricks that XP Pro offers. This isn't much of a big deal, but if you plan to use it as a work computer, keep this in mind before you buy.

On the up side, there are some very nice features, most notably support for three tuners. This means that you can simultaneously record three TV shows at the same time. While it is hard to find a single show on worth watching, much less three, you can hardly blame MS for this. In fact, it could be handy, ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN Classic, here MC05 comes.

In addition to more DVD burning, MC05 also supports a much wider range of home entertainment devices. It also supports a much greater list of portable devices to sync to. The new breed of portable media players from Creative and iRiver seems to be what this is aimed at. Again, this is a very good thing.

One other thing that surprised me is the wireless support. No, not the fact that it is there, that much is a given. The fact that it only supports 802.11a or g was the shocking bit. Notice that there is not 802.11b on that list. See a problem? While the cost of a g part is next to nothing, if you have an non-upgradable MC04 box, or an older media center extender, you are SOL. Technically, I do understand why they don't want you to try streaming HD over b, but the fact that they just say no is a shock. Oh well, if you buy a first generation product, things like this are what you tend to get.

Last up is a service called movie finder. It lets you, well, find a movie based on things like title, actors, cover art, a poster, or anything else you can probably think of. Presumably the point is to buy the movie online through their service, but on a promising note, they do make it seem like it will support non-MS services. Even if it is only MS, it does sound neat, I would love to try it out. Want to bet the poster art section for 1970s hardcore movies won't work in the retail kiosk demos?

Overall, it looks like Media Center 2005 is a step forward. It has some very interesting features, and some that are less than half baked. I would wait for Media Center 2006 if I had to plunk my own money down, things like only terrestrial HD are flat out deal breakers.

The thing that really makes me not want to pay money for this, in fact it makes me want to run screaming, is DRM. The DRM in the older MC PCs is scary, and all the letters I have gotten on it show me that everyone who has the misfortune of owning one has gotten blindsided by it.

The way MS implemented DRM is simply inexcusable, they caved into the draconian money grubbing ways of the content providers at your expense. Try this with your new Media Center PC, record a HBO show on your DVR, say Six Feet Under. Then try to burn it to a DVD so you can clear HD space, Good luck.

Until this abomination is abolished, I can't recommend Media Center in any way, shape or form. In fact, it is one of the few products I would tell you to actively avoid. While I don't know that they changed anything in the 04 to 05 transition, the fact that the phrase DRM does not appear in the marketing materials once is more than telling. They don't want you to know, just consume quietly, bread and circus. In fact, they are eroding your rights, and charging you for the honor. As of now, just say no. µ


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