Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment.

Even as Microsoft continues to support broadcasting standards around the world to bolster Media Center's support for broadcast television, the future of noisy, black 17-inch-wide boxes sharing a cramped cabinet with your stereo receiver remains in jeopardy. Indeed, the future of the living room PC may be sitting in your lap.

When Microsoft announced the Media Center edition of Windows XP, it was in some ways the desktop counterpart to the Tablet PC mutation. Whereas the Tablet PC was envisioned as a new form factor for notebooks, Media Center held the promise of transforming the desktop into its own new form factor. Indeed, in one of Bil Gates's final CES keynotes promoting innovative PC designs, he didn't mention desktops at all, referring to stationary computers as "entertainment PCs" in an AV component style.

But while a few companies continue to sell Media Center PCs explicitly designed for connection to a television -- among them Sony, Alienware, and companies targeting custom installers such as Niveus Media, the form factor hasn't taken off for a variety of reasons. Microsoft, in turn, has focused more on Media Center Extenders such as the Xbox 360 and HP MediaSmart Connect to bring the Media Center experience to the big-screen TV. And despite some technological improvements coming to help the cause, that situation is unlikely to change dramatically.
Intel, for example, considers a small, quiet set-top PC a target for the low-cost, low-power Atom processor better known for living inside netbooks for now. And more OCUR (OpenCable Unidirectional Receiver) tuner cards and USB adapters, which would bring better cable connectivity, are in the works. These should simplify the recording of TV programs to the PC for digital cable subscribers.

Yet, many of those who wouldn't think of buying a stationery PC to function as a digital video recorder already regularly tap away on notebook PCs on their couches. These notebooks increasingly boast the processing power and disk capacity to handle high-definition video. Most of them running Vista have Media Center capabilities. Some include Blu-ray drives, and more are sporting HDMI connectors. Unlike an Alienware Hangar 18, they may not be able to record television programming as a TiVo can, however, they are increasingly tapping into a rapidly expanding universe of broadband-delivered content sources. This is video that most of their users will likely want to share on a big screen at some point.

And when they do, there will increasingly be a variety of wireless ways in which to do so. Options available today include ad hoc streaming to an Apple TV or D-Link's PC2TV product, which uses Quartics' technology to wirelessly transmit whatever is on a PC's screen with little regard for file formats, codecs, or rights management schemes. Wireless solutions in the works, like WHDI or WirelessHD, would support smooth 1080p playback.

Until then, there's likely an opportunity for some manufacturer or accessory maker to create an AV dock similar to those we've seen for the iPod or Zune, but for notebook PCs. The dock could have wired Ethernet or powerline networking and HDMI. It might even include digital video recording capabilities. Dock the notebook and your recorded TV shows are copied to your PC. Archos has already journeyed quite a ways down this road, sidestepping Windows with its Archos TV and 5th generation portable media players. While Microsoft has primed the pump for broadcast TV alternatives on Media Center with its Internet TV option, it needs to step up efforts to ease discovering and organizing Web video through the Media Center user interface.

The emergence of the notebook PC as a more video-savvy primary living room PC may not be the desktop panacea that Microsoft and PC manufacturers originally wanted. And the continuing challenges around the PC as a DVR means that only a fraction of the TV content that consumers would ideally want would easily and inexpensively get on their computers. On the other hand, this evolution of the notebook PC not only means a fresh start to bringing the PC into the living room. It also enables bringing the living room to any room.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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Switched On: Rethinking the living room PC