We're a fan of Microsoft slimming down the number of consumer-facing SKUs for the upcoming Windows 8--you'll only have two options to choose from when upgrading or building a new computer (assuming it's not an ARM machine). Among the differences between the planned vanilla offering of Windows 8 and the Pro edition is ability to use Windows Media Center. Actually, neither version will ship with the HTPC-friendly media playback frontend that Microsoft first introduced as its own separate version of Windows XP. To get Windows Media Center on Windows 8, you'll have to purchase it separately from within Windows, and you'll only be able to do this on the Pro version of the OS. That means users of the standard edition of Windows 8 will have to upgrade to Windows 8 Pro to get Windows Media Center. Media Center is currently included in most versions of Windows 7 and also the Windows 8 Consumer Preview. From Microsoft's most recent blog post on the subject:
Given the changing landscape, the cost of decoder licensing, and the importance of a straight forward edition plan, we’ve decided to make Windows Media Center available to Windows 8 customers via the Add Features to Windows 8 control panel (formerly known as Windows Anytime Upgrade). This ensures that customers who are interested in Media Center have a convenient way to get it. Windows Media Player will continue to be available in all editions, but without DVD playback support. For optical discs playback on new Windows 8 devices, we are going to rely on the many quality solutions on the market, which provide great experiences for both DVD and Blu-ray.
And while both versions of Windows 8 will include Windows Media Player, Microsoft is leaving out the MPEG-2 codec required for DVD playback to cut costs on royalties. (Windows has never shipped with built-in Blu-Ray playback support, so nothing has changed there.) That means to play a DVD on your Windows 8 laptop or desktop, you'll need to either upgrade to the Windows Media Center Pack or, more likely, stick to using a third-party media player. VLC and Media Player Classic Home Cinema (my preferred player) both come with integrated MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 codec support so you don't need to install any extra codec packs.