Q: "What the heck is that?"
A: Basically, it's what you'd get if your p.c. and your TiVo had a baby.
A media center personal computer is a computer - pretty much like any other. Anything you'd do on most other personal computers can be done on a media center p.c., but, by plugging in a television signal (presumably cable-tv), you can also watch and record television shows.
It uses the internet to pull up a comprehensive television programming guide that tells you what's coming on, when it's showing, what the episode is about, and lots of useful information like that.
You can use a search feature which lets you search by name, category, etc. for the shows you're interested in.
You can watch television and, like with TiVo, pause and rewind live shows. Very convenient when you're watching something and wonder, "What did she just say?" Well now, you can just rewind and find out.
Since it lets you rewind as much as a half-hour back (or until the point when you switched to that channel, whichever's most recent), if you leave get caught up with something else, then walk in to see you just missed an interesting show, you can just rewind it and watch the last 30 minutes.
You'd be surprised how often this comes in handy.
You can also record these shows, like you could with a vcr or TiVo. I tend to go to the guide, find the show I'm interested in, click on it, then tell it to record it when it comes on. In fact, I can tell the computer, with a simple click, to record the show once or record the entire series with reruns or record the entire series without reruns or record whenever the show airs on a certain channel or time or record it whenever it airs on any channel at ANY time or...
Yeah. It pretty much be as simple or as complex as you need it to be. You can even fine-tune the resolution, if you like, which makes the television show files smaller... thus allowing you to store more, at a time.
One great advantage of this feature is that shows that switch times on you (i.e. playing at 9pm, one night, instead of in the usual 10pm time-slot) get recorded, anyway - depending on your settings, of course. There's nothing like tuning in to see your favorite show and catching the end because they bumped it for a Pokemon marathon.
What about those times when a special 2-hr episode is airing and you only set your vcr to record the regular 1-hr slot? Well, the media center is going to record the PROGRAM, not just the time-slot and channel. In other words, you'll get the special episodes like that, in their entirety... not just the first or the last hour. (Okay, this happened to me once or twice, so I really appreciate this feature.)
Another great thing about this is that you can play these files on just about any other computer you want, as long as it has a recent version of Windows Media Player.
Like most other p.c.'s, it has an optical drive - in this case, it's a dvd drive (or more), which allows you to play dvd movies and whatnot just like you would on a dvd player. I've found that image quality has greatly improved since I started watching my dvd's this way (displayed through the digital projector).
In most cases, there's also a dvd burner, which allows you to burn those episodes onto dvd. You can burn them like you would a movie, so they'll play on regular dvd players... or you can even record them as data, so you can play them on any computer that has Windows Media Player.
Pro and Con
I hear that TiVo even records other programming it thinks you might like, based on your viewing patterns. Personally, my storage space is too precious for that, but it's a nice feature that the media centers don't seem to have.
One thing the media centers DO have, though, is freedom from monthly TiVo or Comcast DVR fees. All you need is your pc and a cable signal. You don't have to pay anyone any more than you already do for your cable programming.
One Size Fits All
It's a television (although I use it with my projector to make it a BIG-SCREEN television), vcr, dvd player, TiVo, radio, cd player, computer, and best friend, all-in-one.
And that's not all it does...