as you probably have seen, Windows Media Center Edition 2005 is readily available to us as an "OEM" purchase. (i put OEM in quotes because Microsoft loosened the licensing restrictions to the point where any white box computer builder could sell the software with any little piece of hardware -- a $12 mouse or a $5 cable.) after reading every review i could get my hands on, and ogling every last screenshot i could get my hand on, i decided i needed to try it out. so i bought a new 200GB hard drive (which i wanted to put in the box anyway -- we record a lot of TV!) and a copy of the OS, and installed it.
well, now, installing it was no easy task. it literally took me two days to get it working. this is the problem with quite new, non-retail software: installation information is a little rough, doesn't cover all the contingencies, and is hard to find in the first place. i tried installing it over my existing XP installation (which, in hindsight, was a really bad idea) but it only "upgraded" XP and didn't add the Media Center. i installed it again on the new drive (actually, quite by accident -- i selected the wrong partition) and it loaded up fine. however, i couldn't get video to start for the tuner cards either in the Media Center or in Hauppauge's WinTV application. this wasn't good news. i read for hours about this problem on the web and tried various solutions but to no avail. what's worse is when i booted to the previous plain XP installation, everything worked fine.
finally, i decided to rip out all the PCI cards and do a completely fresh install. this was the start of day two. after a couple hours of installing for the third time, i dropped in the first tuner card and tried it out. no luck. this was getting ridiculous. i'd read several posts about very successful installations using the exact same hardware i was working with. it was crazy, i couldn't figure it out.
then, in some back alley on the internet, i found MCE-specific drivers for the tuner card. why these weren't on the Hauppauge site escapes me. i downloaded them, installed them, and ... perfection! finally. done. installed. stupid shithead software.
anyways, with my computer reassembled and working, i got about to actually using Media Center. it's great! i'm so converted. the installation wizard is brilliantly simple, easy to understand and very helpful. it even shows you brief videos to help you configure your TV so that the picture is as good as possible. the UI is very clean and the task flows are pretty good. moving from section to section, from channel to channel, and from the guide and back is incredible smooth. the music player is better than any of the other front-ends i've seen so far, though it still needs work -- why is it that developers can't seem to nail this UI on a big TV but Apple can do it on a 2" x 3" screen?? the DVD player is simple and nice. and i actually like the "More Info" contextual menus.
so far, there is a lack of really great plug-ins but there's a good framework. and i have a feeling that in the next six months, there'll be an explosion of good software to add-on. i'd like the ability to customize the UI a little more but i like that the baseline interaction is good enough -- this is where everyone else failed. i also like that it's fully integrated into the OS and goes to sleep and wakes up without major problems. no taskbar, no crashes ... er, so far.
by the way, the drive that i bought sucks for home theater use. i'd heard great things about the Western Digital 2500PB -- a "quiet drive" with a fluid-bearing mechanism -- but found the 2000JB on sale at a local store. so not the same drive. the JB does not have the fluid bearing drive and instead has an annoying high-pitched whine that sent the neighborhood's dogs into a tizzy and gives me a headache. it's seems fine otherwise but that whine is a deal breaker. unfortunately, i can't take it back so i'll have to see if someone else needs it in a machine where noise isn't an issue. and i ordered the PB, having learned my lesson.
oh, and i also purchased the Media Center 2005 remote. surprisingly, the Snapstream Firefly i already had is working like almost flawlessly. but i like the MCE remote's layout better and the fact that it can put the HTPC to sleep and turn on and off the TV -- one remote for both! i'll let you know how well it works when it gets here.