More heresy, I know, but I’ve got a Windows XP Media Center Edition box connected to my HDTV, and—after about six months of use—I’m prepared to say that it’s actually pretty good!

We all know—from direct gotta-use-these-things experience—that this stuff is not easy. The general rule is that, if it connects to a TV, it’s got an awful, primitive, ugly and slow UI.

The best of these things is, without question, TiVo. While slow, TiVo tries to be relentlessly user-focused and friendly, and mostly achieves its goals. (Too bad about its recent compromises in that area, and the fact that, even with broad distribution and name recognition, it never really took the market by storm.)

At least for TV, TiVo sets a high bar. And, with some caveats, a high-end Media Center PC does a pretty darn good job with TV and DVDs (music and pictures, not so much, but I’m not using it for that).

So, keeping an open mind, let’s dive in.

There’s little question that the 10-foot UI on the MCE is—along with Smartphone—the very best attempt at a “new” UI I’ve ever seen Microsoft do. It’s very simple, reasonably attractive, scales well to different resolutions (from 480i to 1080p), and reacts quickly to user requests.

Despite the fun Steve Jobs had comparing the iMac’s remote to the generic MCE one, much like TiVo (whose remote it definitely resembles), normal use is accomplished with a similar set of buttons.

It’s important to note that a low “number of buttons” doesn’t necessarily mean “fewer controls”. Rather, it means “more on screen controls”. The real issue here is a balance between direct and indirect operation: a button, or a menu that you select from.

Super-simple remotes have been tried before, specifically by Bang & Olufsen in their BeoVision 1 product. That remote was very, very, very similar to Apple’s (no surprise there), and was abandoned quickly: users wanted more buttons and fewer menus for common operations.

With MCE, you’ve got the expected up/down/left/right navigation, select, play/pause, menu and back. And you could literally operate the thing with just that. Additional buttons are things like more complete transport controls (FF/REW, Chapter Skip FW/BK—and yes, it does a 30-second commercial skip), record, a number/alpha (phone-style) pad, power, volume and channel up/down).

The MCE team has clearly thought long and hard about the way users interact with video material, and with their TVs. It keeps your program running onscreen while you investigate the guide, record or search for other programs, verify recordings, pauses and resumes multiple programs, has a live TV buffer, smart FF/REW handling—all the things you’d expect are there.

Adding new individual recordings or series is simply a matter of searching and clicking a readily available onscreen button, and the recording modes cover the necessary exceptions, like one time/series, first run/repeat, how long to keep the show, channels to check, etc.

The unit itself can support a large number of tuners, something I think is pretty important, and will do simultaneous recordings from all of them transparently to the user. Conflicts are handled well, and all of this happens reliably. OTA HDTV is fully supported, as are video inputs from cable/satellite boxes.

The guide is right on target—and unlike TiVo, it’s free, with no subscription fees. It has some nice additional nice features like a “what movies are on right now” that shows you the movie’s video cover along with other information.

All this is handled with admirable simplicity and restraint, and it really does work well in person. That isn’t to say it looks even remotely Apple-like: the graphics don’t ever let you forget that it’s part of the Windows XP Family. But, within that, quite pleasant.

The fact that you can use an XBox 360 as an “extender”, and use the main MCE’s tuners and recorded material in other rooms, is a very nice bonus. Just turn the volume up up up, because the XBox makes a racket.

Where does it fall down? Apart from initial setup (getting this to work at 1080i through DVI was much too difficult), and an inability to really mix-up inputs with straight, non-decoder box cable, satellite and HDTV (admittedly a bit pathological, but one can dream), and no non-OTA HDTV recording (cable, satellite), it falls down where you’d expect: this is really an application, sitting on top of Windows XP—and ignore that fact at your peril. So, you have to run AntiVirus, Firewall, etc. If XP has trouble, your nice UI is relegated to a Task Bar button as you delve into the Device Manager and have your way with it. If your drivers stink, so will your experience.

If you don’t use it for anything but media, though, these problems are infrequent—but when they show their ugly heads, the illusion of friendliness and design is well and truly broken.

A more subtle thing is a detail that bothers me well beyond its importance: illogical transitions. MCE has a “zoom” effect that it uses when you go between “pages” of its UI. Mostly, the effect works, but when a playing video “zooms” down to a miniwindow when you go into the main UI, the zoom goes totally the wrong way. (It should shrink the video to the little window, exposing or zooming up the main UI, whereas right now the effect goes to the other corner, and just looks random and disorienting.)

When you’re whining about something that “minor” in the UI you know they’ve mostly got the big things right.

FrontRow—Apple’s first shot at this kind of thing, competes in a very different area. It doesn’t do TV at all, no recording, no input. Instead, it plays to Apple’s strength: music. And, in this, it does a better job that MCE does in that particular area. (Yes, I have EyeTV, and it isn’t part of FrontRow, has only a single tuner and poor guide integration. It really doesn’t compare favorably.) And, you’ve got the iLife things you’d expect: it’ll play your home videos and show your photos—as will MCE—both things I don’t, but it’s nice for those who do.

That’s as far as it goes, though. While I’m quite interested in where Apple takes FrontRow, it’s not really competition for this… yet. But I’m glad it looks like things are actually heating up in the space!