Considering a media center PC

Published: Monday, January 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, December 31, 2006 at 12:51 a.m.
Q: I am thinking about buying a new computer in the next month, before I am forced to buy Windows Vista. I see lots of machines with "Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005." What is the difference between this and good old XP?
A: Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 is a version of Windows XP that is geared more for home-entertainment purposes - like playing or displaying music, photos and video - than for typical computing chores like spreadsheets and word processing. Since it can run programs written for Windows XP, a Media Center PC can also do spreadsheets and word processing, and it can connect to the Internet for Web surfing and e-mail.
The Media Center Edition will run on both laptop and desktop systems designed to handle it; these usually have more powerful processors and other system components than regular computers. A Media Center PC can handle all sorts of multimedia functions, including watching and recording live television shows or editing one's own movie and burning it to a DVD.
There is more information on what a Media Center system can do at One thing it cannot do, according to Microsoft, is to join a work network or domain, as the system was "designed specifically for home use."
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Q: Some of the Web sites I like offer their own video podcasts. How do I get these on my iPod if they don't come from the iTunes Store?
A: Although downloading a video file from the iTunes Store makes the whole process relatively simple - the file goes directly into your iTunes library and can be copied to the iPod the next time you connect it to the computer - it is not the only source or way to get video onto your iPod. Many Web sites, including Google Video, now offer video files that have been formatted for the iPod and other portable devices like the Sony PlayStation Portable.
Once you download the iPod-compatible video you want from a Web site, you need to add the file manually to your iTunes library. One way to do this is to go to the File menu in iTunes, choose the "Add to Library" option, and select the file you want to add. Once the file is in iTunes, you can move it to your iPod as you do with other audio and video files.
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Q: Whenever I watch video clips or movie trailers on the computer, the picture skips and stutters. Is there a way to correct this issue?
A: There are two main ways of watching video on the computer: "streaming" the clip across the Internet to your computer, or playing back a downloaded file. Of the two ways, streaming video tends to skip and stutter more, usually because of Internet congestion, which can impede smooth playback.
The size of the video or trailer may also affect its playback performance, if your computer's processor is overwhelmed or the video file is too large for your Internet connection speed to handle properly. Closing unused, open programs on the computer can help free system resources.
Check the Preferences or Options area of your preferred media player for the program's streaming and playback settings. Here, you can adjust your connection speed to see if that helps the video skipping. Sometimes, choosing a slower connection than what you actually have may help maintain a smoother connection, but the video quality may not be as good.
Increasing the size of the program's buffer (the amount of data the media player temporarily stores as it gathers the stream from the Internet) may also help. In Apple's QuickTime player, you can adjust the "Enable Instant-On" slider in the Streaming preferences to a longer delay to help deal with network congestion and possibly improve playback.
For general video playback issues with Windows Media Player 11, Microsoft suggests making sure you have the latest version of its DirectX software and the most recent drivers for your computer's graphics card from Windows Update. Turning off (or turning down) the video acceleration feature may also help; go to the Tools menu to Options and click the Performance tab to get to the Video Acceleration controls.
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