Vista Media Center

What is Media Center

Windows Media Center started life as Windows XP MCE 2004, and this was basically a nice 10ft front end (i.e. not the standard Windows 2ft interface, but specifically designed for much larger displays) to Media Player 8. It had some added functionality over the normal Media Player in that it could show a slide show of pictures, video and be controlled via a TV style remote. Windows XP MCE 2005 and MCE 2005 SR2 added to the features, allowing radio, pictures and stored videos over a network share to the media.

MCE 2005 also introduced the hosted HTML application framework to Media Center. This allowed third party developers to improve and add to the functionality of Media Center. 

Making a PC into a Media Center

My reasons for looking at setting up a full time Media Center PC came about due to the ever increasing price of subscription TV (Cable and Satellite in the UK). The price of a couple of months high-end subscription will upgrade a standard PC to a decent Media Center.

Free View (Digital Over The Air TV) is starting to take off in most European countries at the moment, and the UK is no different, so I decided to see if I could replace my Sky+ with a Media Center PC full time.

As I was already running Vista Ultimate Edition as my desktop OS on all but one PC in the house, I could add the Media Center functionality with no real difficulty. However, I am no stranger to Windows XP Media Center 2005, as I used to use it to stream video to my PocketPC.

After some research it seemed that for little outlay I could upgrade my home equipment to perform well in Vista and work as the replacement for Sky+.

What's Needed

I already had a case that was approved by the wife for use in the lounge, some memory and most other requirements. What I did need, however, was a decent dual channel TV tuner and a DVI capable Vista graphics card so I could plumb it into my Panasonic LCD.

Graphics was the easy part. I needed a half height card, that had HDMI/DVI (as the Panasonic does not have VGA) and it had to be Vista compliant.

After a little searching around it came down to either the nVidia 6200 series or the ATI X600. I decided on the ATI card in the end, really due to the fact that I am happy with ATI cards as most my PCs run one or another of the X series. This also makes driver updates easier, but the choice is yours.

I also needed a dual digital TV tuner for the half height chassis, this proved difficult. None of the well known manufacturers have one. They do all seem to have USB devices though, so with that in mind I went about looking into them.

I decided to use the Terratec Cinergy USB XS Diversity as it offers not only great build quality, but clever design as well. It also has Vista BDA (Media Center) drivers available for both 32 and 64bit (one of few). I have also go the Terratec Cinergy 2400i DT which is a PCI-X dual tuner card in my other (upstairs) media center, this is the computer that feeds my PocketPC devices while I am on the move. Both of these cards will get the review they deserve shortly, as they are well worth a look.

You should also think about storage; Media Center does not decode the incoming TV stream nor do any encoding on it, and due to this all the recorded TV is in MPEG2 format, and can consume a good proportion of disk space. My PC has 3x250Gb Sata300 drives in a raid 5 configuration  for the storage, and a single Sata 300 drive for the OS. This configuration is not cheap, but then again it is not expensive nowadays either. It also has the benefit of being redundant for the video storage, and easily restorable for the OS as that is just an install away.

Operating Systems

To enjoy Media Center in Vista you will either need the Home Premium or Ultimate, with a compatible TV card (any of the Terratec Cinergy Cards come recommended).

First thing to do is to get your machine built with either of the Vista editions I mentioned earlier. Now click on the start menu and type Media Center and launch the application.

After launching, the initial setup screen will be shown. Go through this set of screens one by one and setup Media Center for your particular computer and configuration.

During setup Media Center will ask you details of where you live so it can setup the guide for your location and channel lineup, it will then scan for the TV channels that you can receive in your area and map the channels found to the correct channel names on the guide.

After all the setup is done, that's about it. I would recommend investing in a decent Media Center remote control as the ones that come with the Terratec cards are OK, but not really Media Center remotes. 

Media Center allows for all the, now standard, digital TV additions, these include live pause and timeshifting, as well as series recordings and searching for actor/genre/program. It also includes a decent DVD player.

This being Windows however, we can take things a lot further.

Add-ons

Media Center is a very extensible system in Vista. Almost all of the old Media Center 2005 hosted HTML Plugins that I have tried work great with Vista. However Vista's version of Media Center adds the new 'Windows Media Center Presentation Layer Applications', this is new in that as well as hosted HTML applications you can now host .NET Framework 3.0 XAML applications. This allows developers to add new animation and effects to their applications.

MyMovies allows you to copy your DVD's from disk onto your hard disk, and will download details of the film from IMDB.

WebGuide 4 allows you to connect to your PC over the internet to change the recording schedule of your PC.

MobileWares has some nice .NET 3.0 applications that are worthy of a look, both Big Screen Headlines and Big Screen Photos are  both great applications, and worthy of installation on any Media Center.

DVRMSToolbox is a great little application that will allow you to transcode recorded TV into WMV as well as remove or allow you to skip adverts.

MCEBrowser is a nice little wrapper for IE to allow you to surf the web from your sofa via a nice 10ft interface.

TVTonic is another great little application that also supports the new flashy Vista interface, and allows you to subscribe to media feeds. It then downloads them in the background so you can watch them at a later date. Great stuff.

Conclusion

Vista Media Center has moved on significantly from XP MCE 2005. Performance in general is improved, as is the reliability of the system as a whole, the new XAML based applications are a much needed improvement from the hosted HTML of 2005 as is the XBox360 integration. 

Vista MCE has a few other new tricks under it's bonnet, Microsoft have now integrated a decent MPG2 codec so third party DVD decoders are no longer needed, as is the DVD burning software. This allows the user to make use of some of the most important parts of the MCE experience. You can now backup your favorite TV or video to a DVD disk and watch it back at any point, on any DVD player.

So should you build a Media Center PC or just pop out and buy a TopField or TiVO. Well yes, it offers all of the functionality of a standard set top recorder, but with extensibility just a plugin away.

People have asked me in the past why a product that I, and many others believe is one of Microsoft's best has not taken off like it should have done? My feeling for this is it is due to the way it has been marketed in the past and the difficulties of integrating with cable and satellite television. Microsoft used to only sell MCE 2005 to OEM vendors (HP/Dell etc) and those vendors supplied Media Center PC's, they where usually expensive and underpowered machines. this and both of the pay for services have there own TiVo/Sky+ systems that where for the most most part 'less hassle' for end users. That combined with the fact that the free to view digital over the air channel lineup has not been good enough until relatively recently has impacted heavily on the success of MCE.

Things are changing however. People now require a more integrated experience, with the like of the Xbox 360 / Wii and PS3 on the market where a lot of diverse media can be integrated into one experience, people are looking for an all in one solution for all there digital media. This is where MCE excels, it's good integration of all sources of media, be it TV, Music or WebCasts. Also there has been agreement in the USA with the Fox Cable network that a cable tuner card will be available for Vista MCE allowing access to the full spectrum of programming in the USA, if Fox's sister company in the UK (Sky) allow a similar card for Satellite television in Europe would really mean that MCE would become a common site in lounges all around the world.

Links

Windows Media Center
Freeview
Terratec