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Mixed reaction for new mixed-media PC

If you've ever set up a college dorm room or a teenager's bedroom, you know the electronic equipment can get overwhelming. It isn't uncommon to find a PC, a stereo, a TV, even a VCR or DVD player, sharing these small spaces with their young occupants.

In some cases, the ability to use the PC to play music and DVDs has cut down on the clutter, but what if you could buy a sort of super-PC that could replace all of this gear, even the TV? What if you could buy an off-the-shelf Windows PC that could not only be used to write papers, surf the Net and do e-mail, but could also be used as a full entertainment center? And what if this PC could be operated from across the room with a remote control?

Well, such a PC was introduced last month by Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft. It's called the Media Center PC, and it's based on a special version of Windows XP called the Media Center Edition. The computer, selling for $1,400 to $2,000 without monitor, in various configurations, is a beefed-up Windows PC with a TV tuner and other extra features.

I have been testing a high-end, $2,000 H-P Media Center PC, and it works as advertised. In fact, both Microsoft and H-P have done a really nice job designing this computer, which might appeal not only to students and teens but to adults living in small apartments where a PC sits near the entertainment equipment. But there are a couple of big downsides that may limit its appeal, especially as a replacement for a conventional television set.

This is one loaded machine, with bells and whistles on its bells and whistles. The model I tested comes with a fast Intel Pentium 4 processor, a generous 512 megabytes of memory, a whopping 120-gigabyte hard disk, a DVD and CD burner, a TV tuner, very fancy video and audio cards, and numerous high-speed USB and FireWire ports.

One really cool feature: slots on the front that can accept all the main types of memory cards used in digital cameras, portable music players and PDAs. The whole thing is packaged in a shiny black-and-silver case with superb Klipsch speakers.

This isn't the first PC with a built-in TV tuner, or even the first with a remote control. But none of the earlier efforts caught on. One reason was that the TV and remote-control functions weren't really integrated into the computers' operating systems. A PC and its software are meant to work at about two feet from the user, while TVs and stereos are meant for a six-foot distance.

In the Media Center PC, Microsoft has overcome this problem by building in a special user interface for across-the-room use. When you press the green Windows-logo button in the middle of the remote control, the familiar Windows desktop disappears and a clean, attractive, menu appears that's easy to read from six feet away. In large letters on a sleek blue background, it lists five main options: My TV, My Music, My Pictures, My Videos and Play DVD.

In TV mode, the Media Center accepts a cable TV input, and downloads and displays a program guide. It can receive all the channels and programs a normal TV can. But it can also mimic a TiVo or other digital video recorder, allowing you to record and play back any TV program.

In music mode, which is my favorite, the PC can play back any of your MP3 or WMA files and play lists that have been collected in the library of the standard Windows Media Player program. If you have photos of the album covers in your music folders, the Media Center PC can display them.

In Pictures mode, you can run slide shows of the pictures stored on your hard disk. In Videos mode, you can play back video clips stored on your hard disk in standard Windows formats. And DVD mode plays back DVDs.

The interface is handsome and clever. For instance, TV programs, music and videos can keep playing in a small window when you're doing other things in the Media Center screens.

But the Media Center PC is done in by its TV function. The TV picture it produces is fuzzy and dark, even on the $750 flat-panel monitor H-P supplied me. Microsoft says this is a function of the lower resolution of TV compared with that of a modern PC monitor. The company suggests that users can improve the TV picture by upgrading the video card or hooking up a standard TV to the computer, but these steps would totally defeat the purpose of buying the costly Media Center in the first place.

Secondly, if the Media Center is meant to serve as the shared TV in a room with roommates, it could be a bust. When one of the roommates needs to use the PC to write a paper or do e-mail, it's unavailable as a TV for the rest of the group. The small TV window you can run while doing other things is useless for group viewing. A cheap TV set would be better.

So, my recommendation on this PC is decidedly mixed. For music, photos, DVDs and video clips, it's very nice and provides new capabilities in a small room. But as a TV receiver, it's suitable only for people willing to put up with a really bad picture.