Tag Archives: Vista

Media Center Stuff (updated)

It’s been a while since I posted, so I thought I would, oh and some people have been saying I should write a post on this as they are now just getting into it…… So here we go, Vista Media Center.

Core Stuff………. Stuff I do to all my MCE boxes

  • X64 or x86? I’ve ran x64 for over 12 months now, but just recently switched back to x86 due to BR / HD DVD as most software does not work well with x64.
  • Drivers, ALWAYS make sure you have the latest drivers on, especially for graphics and TV receivers (currently using 2xPinaccle 7010ix’s so have 4xDVB-T and 4xDVB-S, no don’t ask about the DVB-S, due to NDA I cannot say owt, but in RTM/SP1 Vista use DVB-S Bridge or MCE2DVBS).
  • Windows Update the box and make sure you have the latest SP’s on for at least MC and the Core OS.
  • AntiVirus, now this is a difficult one. When I ran the x64 setup I did not even bother thinking about adding AV to the box, it afterall just uses IO and memory/cpu up. However on x86 there is a higher chance of getting virus’s, depending on what you use the PC for. I do all downloads on my laptop, and transfer them unpacked to the VMC, that way the laptop does the AV checks, and there is little need for AV on the VMC box. That being said there is browsing to worry about, again it does not worry me as all my internet traffic goes through an ISA server 2006 box with perimeter scanning turned on, keeps all malware/spyware etc out, but most will not have that option. If you do need AV on the box, then it might be worth setting it up to scan once a day/week and turn the realtime off. Then make sure you use either Vista Ultimate’s image utils, or something like Acronis Drive Image to keep a backup of a ‘safe’ version of the OS (another benefit of separating OS from Data drives). I also recommend doing a backup of the OS before any major update/install, that way you can roll back if it causes issues.
  • Windows Search 4, performance of the indexer is MUCH better, mad if you don’t install it as it reduces disk IO contention quite a lot (affects the Fiji release more than RTM/SP1, but still worth doing no matter what).
  • Power Options, decide if you want the machine to sleep, hybrid sleep, or not bother (due to the want to use WebGuide I leave mine on, it draws little power when it’s not doing anything, but you could get your router to do a wake on lan when it detects a request for WebGuide). After doing that head to the control panel for power and set those options, you also want to set the CPU state stuff in the advanced options tab, so the CPU is 100%/100%, daft only allowing windows to use a subset of the CPU. Disable the screen shutdown as you power the tv down yourself when you don’t use it, and most TV’s don’t support the same powering signals as monitors anyhow.
  • Screensaver, you are using a MC box, why not set the photo screensaver up to point to your family photos.
  • Setup some folders for Pic’s/Vids/Music, then remove the ‘default’ stuff by deleting the shortcuts in your %userprofile% folder (the shortcuts in the Video/Music and pics folders)
  • Change the Recorded TV path (edit registry) HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Media Center\Service\Recording and edit the LastRecordPath and the RecordPath to the place you really want it to be, then delete the c:\users\….. folder (the one the regkey was originally). Make sure you move any recorded TV out of that old folder first.
  • Setup the audio, make sure Windows knows if you have a DTS receiver, control panel sounds, then properties on the output in use (TosLink recommended). After all why have a DTS/AC3/DD decoder, and not use it.
  • Don’t use the quick setup option on first run, do it properly, it will save time in the long run.
  • If you have a graphics card that has the ability to clock down the memory and GPU then do it, it will keep the box cooler, so less fan noise, and make the PCIx cards in the slot next to it less prone to overheating. Remember don’t underclock it so much that AVC-1 playback suffers though, else BR/HDDVD wont be much fun, so a little trial and error here.
  • Install AnyDVD HD to get rid of the content protection on BR/HDDVD disk’s. Also allows for ‘underclocking’ the speed of the drive, makes it quite.
  • Setup your network card for your LAN, set the speed to 100/Full or 100/Half depending on the quality of your routers and switches. Nothing kills network performance quite like AutoDetect. (As I was reminded by Ben from Engadget HD make sure your switch is also configured to the same setting, use the telnet or HTTP interface to set it, see your manual)
  • Try set all you machines up for IPv6 if possible, if not (hardware routers don’t support it etc), then disable it in the protocols list. If it’s not setup right it will slow connections down.
  • If you get video/photo/music from a network share (server 2003/server 2008/WHS) then create the user on the VMC PC to be the same username and password, this will save issues later in trying to get Vista to remember passwords. Also it’s worth noting that Windows Server 2008’s network speed when used with Vista is a Lot better than 2003/WHS.
  • Run Control UserPasswords2 and set the VMC user to not require a username and password to login. This will ‘Auto Login’ the user and get you into VMC without the need for interaction on your behalf, also set the advanced power options and Screensaver options so you don’t have to re-enter password on resume.
  • In the general settings of Media Center (in the startup and window behaviour) set VMC to auto start, and be always on top, again this will save you from pressing the Green Button on the remote every time the machine starts. Also go into the optimizations option and turn it on, this will try keep VMC clean and tidy.
  • Change the defrag options in Scheduled Tasks (start-run-taskschd.msc-tasks-Microsoft-Windows-Defrag). By default it runs once a week at 1am. I’ve found it’s better changed to twice a week (wed/sun) at 3am or so, as there is less likely to be recordings going on, but you know your recording schedule best, so make your own decision. Worth doing though as the recorded TV files are large, and tend to be deleted/created regularly, so cause a fair chunk of fragmentation, and recording from possibly 8 tuners really needs the IO performance.
  • Talking of IO performance, I have found it’s best to separate the OS from the TV drives. I don’t mean partitioning, I mean actual drives. Get yourself a small SATA for the OS and then use the big drive or drives for the recording. I have 2x250gb drives (raid 1) for the OS and then 4x500Gb drives (raid 5) for the video. This gives me redundancy and performance where I need it.
  • Disable the SideBar, after all it takes up resources and you will never see it. Go into control panel sidebar, and untick the start with windows.
  • Disable any ‘clever’ manufacturer software. It’s usually bloatware and completely un needed. I’m all for fdisking and starting again when I get a PC from one of the large manufacturers. Just make sure you have the network driver on a USB stick or CD else you wont be able to get to the net/Windows Update for the rest of the drivers.
  • Domains, if your machine is on a home network with a domain, use the same username and password as the domain user for it and don’t attach to the domain. Why you might ask, well domains have great management features that many get wrong, and I would not want to miss a show because I had set the domain policies up wrong by accident. Also domain membership has other memory and performance overheads to think of.
  • Make sure you set Windows Update to not install and reboot automatically (just download the updates). Last thing you want is for a recording to not get done, or get interrupted because of an auto update. Some even set WU to not do anything, just notify when an update is available, I can see the point in that as well, there is no chance of issues then.
  • Get a proper Media Center remote, or at least one that is 100% compatible. Again it just saves hassle if you don’t have to re-program the thing.
  • PowerStrip is a useful utility if you are struggling to get a 1:1 pixel map on your telly.
  • UPDATE – I completely forgot about this one, and I could not live without it, how I forgot I will never know, Synergy allows you to use a keyboard and mouse on one PC, to control another. I install it so the client (machine to be controlled) is on the VMC machine, and the Server (the controlling keyboard and mouse) is on my laptop. I always have my laptop nearby when I’m on the sofa, so controlling VMC at a desktop level or browser level is as easy as pie. This makes installing apps or updates so much more comfy than getting up to pickup the keyboard/mouse combo that’s hidden behind the telly. And before you say that they don’t support it in Vista, yes I know, but it works fine, just set it to autostart when the user logs in (which the VMC box does automatically) instead of running it as a service. But if you must run it as a service then just go edit the username it’s starting as to the VMC box admin account, and it will work fine anyhow.
  • SideShow plugin for VMC allows you to use your sideshow device for control on VMC. This also includes the recently released Windows Mobile SideShow client. Save’s on purchasing another remote as long as you have a sideshow device that the plugin supports. You will need a Microsoft Connect login to download the plugin as it’s still in Beta, but that’s just a matter of having a passport enabled email address.

Codec’s…….. These are the best solutions for codecs I have found, remember the best way to deal with Codec’s is to take the view of less is more… Codecs tend to step on each others toes, so don’t install one unless you really need it. Debugging DirectShow codec issues is a nightmare.

  • FFDShow-Tryout, easiest way to get 95% of the the video and audio formats covered, it’s stable, fast and reliable. I tend to recomend using the latest stable Beta as that will give you the least hassle. That being said I tend to use the latest and greatest, and roll back if I have troubles, which has only happened once before.
  • Media Control Plugin, not strictly a codec, but this VMC plugin gives you fast forward and rewind as well as subtitle enable/disable and a whole bunch of other stuff, for any video played back with FFDShow-Tryout. A must download.
  • Haali Media Splitter, allows playback of MKV and other MP4 wrapper stuff.
  • QuickTime, yes I know, use an alternative if you must, but QT is now easy to get WITHOUT all the iPod rubbish, and having the real thing on saves hassle later. Just tell it to not check for updates.
  • COREAVC, this is a little tuffer to sell, especially when FFDShow does most of what this does. But if you have a tricky MP4 that just wont play, then this may be the solution. Beware though it’s a pay for codec.

Applications….. The interesting stuff

  • WebGuide, awesome application, schedule your recordings, watch recordings (transcode in realtime) and share tuner recourses, brilliant. (does not work in Fiji, but may be fixed at a later date as the coder now works for the MS Media Center team)
  • TVTonic, RSS2 Media platform for VMC with VMC native interface. Great application. Needs the real Quicktime installed.
  • Tuner Free MCE, great way of catching up on telly, plays the free streaming systems from the BBC/ITV/Channel 4 (i.e iPlayer, works in Fiji, but bug with installer causes issues, will be resolved shortly, see below for temporary fix)
  • My Movies, great movie and DVD management software for VMC, downloads the information and meta data for the movies, and even allows you to setup a movie server for use on many VMC boxes. Biggest issue is it needs the server component installed, and my feeling is it’s a little too heavyweight to be installed on the VMC box. But have a try yourself, I just like to keep the VMC box as clean as possible as there are less chances for issues if there is little installed.
  • VMC Browser, Web browser for Media Center, uses the IE engine, but allows for the 10ft interface. Not perfect, but works just fine. Once that’s installed try Google Maps For MCE.
  • MyNetFlix, yes I know I’m English and Netflix has not hit us yet, but it’s a great piece of software and from all accounts works well.
  • ArcSoft Total Media Theatre, Blu ray and HD DVD playback integrated into VMC (almost, works seamlessly though). Much better than the haphazard integration that you have to use to get PowerDVD/WinDVD working. There is a downside to this though, it’s an x86 only application (at the moment), and will not work at all in the 64bit world.
  • Big Screen Weather, weather reporting and so much more, amazing display of the VMC native interface (issues with Fiji, see below for fix).
  • Big Screen Photos, same people, same great interface design. Displays your Flickr account pictures in various ways. BS Headlines (RSS Reader) and Contacts are both great as well (issues with Fiji, see below for fix).
  • DVRMSToolbox, excellent application, allows the removal of adverts from shows recorded, as well as converting the DVR-MS files to other formats (xvid/wmv etc). Note not Fiji friendly at all, too many API and file format changes, should be fixed after Fiji release though.
  • RadioTime, MCE version of the web based radio system, works great and has hundreds of stations. Copy the MCL file to %userprofile%\AppData\Roaming\Media Center Programs this will then add it to the Program Library.
  • MCEAuction, eBay in VMC.
  • EmuCenter, play all the mame (and other emulator) supported arcade games on your telly.
  • Intelli Remote, not strictly a VMC plugin, but super useful when you have got it sorted out. Advanced control of any IR device using the blasters on the MC remote. Also allows the remote to be ‘reprogrammed’ without reprogramming it.
  • RemindMeMCE, exactly what it says, setup reminders.
  • DeepBurner, again not a VMC plugin, but it’s a good lightweight DVD/CD burner that does not hook the OS. This means if there is need to burn anything outside of the VMC environment you can, and it’s highly unlikely to cause issues like Nero and the likes can as these tend to try ‘improve’ VMC’s burning options as well.
  • IMGBurn someone mentioned this to me, and I had completely forgotten about it, but do still use it quite regularly. The core of this app used to be the much fabled DVD Decrypter, which was obviously banned. But it’s a great Swiss Army knife piece of software to have on the box. And best of all, it does not tie itself into the OS at all, so should cause no problems. (mikinho thanks.)

Stuff you might not know… But might be useful

  • Go to Recorded TV, Add Recording, Keyword, General and put in your favourite star/director/sport/whatever and VMC will record everything that’s aired with them in it. You end up getting interviews etc on programs you would never usually watch, and it’s great.
  • Go into Online Media, Program Gallery, right click (or i) any application and you can pin it to the Online media menu bar to save you having to find it every time in the programs folder list.
  • The channel orders and numbers can be re-arranged by going to Settings, TV, Guide, Edit Channels. Make it the way YOU want it, not the way VMC wants to give it you.
  • Setup a Favourites lineup (same section as above) and only see the channels that mean something to you. (Fiji Only)
  • Looking for something to watch, well the guide allows sorting by program type (movie/sport etc), just press left a couple of times in the guide and the guide area will slide out to display the options.
  • Want the Gallery option for the DVD area of VMC and not in the USA? Goto HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Media Center\Settings\DvdSettings and change the ShowGallery option to Gallery from Play. This gives you cover art etc for the DVD’s.
  • Pick up a dual BR/HD DVD drive, HD DVD’s are going for nothing at the moment as companies are FireSale’ing them. There still good, and quality wise are the equal to BR (if not better in some regards). If you already have a BR drive, why not get yourself an XBox 360 HD DVD drive, Vista knows all about it, and they are going for peanuts (best buy in the states has them for $5 at the moment). You can then get the whole HD DVD collection (or at least the good ones) for the same price as 2 Blu ray titles.
  • Make sure you add your ‘video’ folder to VMC. This can be on the local machine or the network. Goto Pics and Vids, then into video library click i (CTRL-D) then Library Setup and tell VMC where to monitor. Add your pictures and music share here as well, VMC will know where to put it all. Then again if you followed my advice up above and went through the full setup at first start you would have already done this.
  • Important one this, you don’t NEED a ‘Media Center’ machine to run Media Center. I use a Tower Machine that I built myself. This way I can have the storage and components I want, and it hides nicely in the corner of the room along with the sub behind a table. All the cables are channeled to the TV (including the IR receiver) and because It’s quite and unobtrusive (quality fans, and components) people don’t even realise it’s a PC doing the task. The other way to do it is to setup the VMC machine, and put it in a spare room/cupboard and use Media Center Extenders to get the output to the TV (Linksys/360/Dlink or HP do extenders). Basically what I am saying is there is no reason not to have a VMC PC controlling your digital home (there is even software for controlling X10 devices for home automation).

And that’s about it…. I don’t think I have missed anything, but sure I have?

Anyhow, if you have any other decent VMC plugin’s or apps that you use, then leave me a message, and I’ll give em a go.

And remember, VMC is a media center first and foremost. My mantra is only install what is needed on the box, the less on the PC the less chance of hassle you will have.

Update : Fiji problems (install ones at least) can be overcome quite easily, pop into the registry (before trying to install), goto HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Media Center and change the Ident value to 5.0, now install and change it back to 5.1. You will (possibly) need to do the same thing if you decide to uninstall the application as well. Cheers to Niall (over at Big Screen) for the help on sorting that one out.

Oh and if you don’t know what Fiji is, then don’t worry about it, you won’t see the issues with Vista RTM or Vista SP1 Media Center.

Please Digg this if you liked it, just click the little icon below, cheers.

Vista Ultimate Extra’s

Just thought I would mention that the first Official Ultimate Extras have hit the net. Fire up your Windows Update and download Texas Holdem Pocker and the Bitlocker Extensions. There is also a bunch of recomended Windows Updates as well.

Just rebooting now, will let you know what there like on the other side.

Intel 2915ABG

I've recently done a rebuild of my IBM T43 Laptop and bumped into an issue.

The Intel 2915ABG network card that's in the device has a load of issues. It seems to be a driver incompatibility between a good number of wireless routers and the drivers. That said I KNOW there are some drivers arounf that worked, I know because they did before a rebuild.

I unfortunatly forgot to write down the version that I was using (mistake). So does anyone know what drivers / settings (I know to turn the advanced power off) that work with this family of card.

If so let me know. I'm OK to surf, because all traffic on the inside of my LAN works just fine (so connection to my proxy works just fine), it's only Internet traffic that's an issue. Very odd.

Media Center and US Content

A couple of people at work have asked me how to get some of the US only features working on Vista Media Center.

I have not put it off for any particular reason, It's just I forgot to do it.

Anyhow, it's easy! Copy the registry file content below into notepad and save it out into a .reg file.

Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00

[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\Keyboard Layouts\00000409]
"Layout File"="KBDUK.DLL"
"Layout Text"="United Kingdom"

[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\Keyboard Layout\DosKeybCodes]
"00000409"="uk"

[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Media Center\Settings\MCE.GlobalSettings]
"systemGeoISO2"="US"

Yeah I know it looks like this will set your keyboard into US, it does but we swap the location over so that the US is actualy UK.

You can do this for any country by changing the DLL etc over to your keyboard.

Oh, nearly forgot, make sure you do a Guide Update after doing this (Tasks/Settings/TV/Guide/Get Latest Guide Listings)

Media Center WideScreen

I've been playing with coding a MCE Vista Plug-in for downloading Video's from Easynews of late, and I've come across a very useful command in the MCE developer documentation that I thought would be worth sharing.

If you start MCE on a Vista PC using c:\windows\eHome\ehshell.exe /widescreen Media Center will launch in Wide Screen (16×9) for you to test things etc, however the one slight downside is that it will only display in 16×9 when in windowed mode, and not full screen.

However it's great for testing how apps will look on a TV. But I'm sure you can find something else useful to do with it.

Terratec Cinergy DT USB XS Diversity

The Terratec Cinergy DT USB XS Diversity is one of the first Diversity devices to reach the market.

Diversity allows you to take the best parts of the signal from two aerial sources and combine them to create the best signal possible.

The box includes everything you will need to use the Cinergy DT USB XS Diversity straight away.

There is the device itself, a USB extension cable, remote, remote sensor, two magnetic aerials, two suction bases, converters for the mini aerial sockets, and the software.

Installation is as simple as inserting the device into a USB 2 socket, popping the driver CD into the drive and installing the software. After plugging the aerials in and scanning for channels using the Terratec Home Cinema software you are free to watch.

The version of Terratec Home Cinema that comes with the Cinergy DT USB XS Diversity includes the Diversity mode.

To test the diversity mode I decided to see if the included aerials were capable of holding a BBC1 signal whilst on the move in a car. I stuck the aerials to the two separate side windows of the car, turned on the Diversity mode, and tuned into BBC1.

I was not expecting the channel to remain watchable, but to my surprise the channel was rock solid whilst I was driving at 40Mph. Even going around corners and driving into built up areas did not disrupt the signal! Quite impressive.

After testing using my laptop – as if I was a mobile user – I decided to see if the little USB device was good enough to use in another of its likely locations, in the home.

The reason I class this as a likely location for use is because media center PCs are getting slimmer and slimmer, and most PCI/PCI-E dual DVB-T tuners are full height cards and won't fit in some of the smaller cases. This means that if you want a dual DVB-T tuner, the easiest way is to use an external one like the Cinergy DT USB XS Diversity.

To test the device in these conditions, I connected it to the Vista Media Center PC that I have been building to replace my Sky+ installation.

I was looking for a USB or half height dual DVB-T tuner, and when I had the chance to test the Cinergy device I jumped on it. The device fills all my needs: it should be reliable and well performing based on my previous tests of the XS's big brother the Cinergy 2400i DT, it is also well built and includes all the necessary drivers for Vista Media Center.

After plugging the device into my digital aerial and scanning for channels in Media Center I had a full channel lineup, a good sign as Media Center can be picky with channel reception.

I scheduled some recordings, making sure that some of them overlapped so I could test the Cinergy DT USB XS Diversity's abilities when recording two channels at once, as this usually shows up any issues that may exist with bandwidth on the device and between the device and the PC.

No issues located however; the Cinergy DT USB XS Diversity records two channels without any issues, and there is no sign of skipping and stuttering in the recordings, even on the channels that are difficult for some tuners to receive (Sky3/UKTV History).

Conclusion

The Cinergy DT USB XS Diversity is a great USB receiver. It is well built with a nice design, it has some really good features with the dual aerial inputs and the Diversity functionality. The only issue that I can see is that at the moment the Diversity functionality is only available when using the Terratec software, however some third party applications will enable its use shortly.

I can recommend this card to any laptop user that travels and would like to take a TV with them. I will also heartily recommend the device to anyone who does not have space in their Media Center PC for a full height card. The USB device could also be used to add two more tuners to an existing dual tuner Media Center setup, therefore allowing you to record three channels whilst watching a fourth (registry hacking is required to enable this).

The device retails for around 75GBP (111Euro/144USD) and for that price it is more expensive than some of its competition, but the build quality and Diversity functionality more than make up for the small price difference. Support seems to be as good with this device as with the Cinergy 2400i DT in that there is already 32 and 64bit BDA drivers for Vista available.

It is also worth noting that Terratec also sell an Apple version of the device, so even OSX users need not feel left out.

Terratec Cinergy 2400i DT

The Terratec Cinergy 2400i DT is the first PCI-Express dual digital tuner TV card on the market.

Let's have a look at the card, for my test's I will be using Windows Vista Ultimate as my bench operating system. This is great for two reasons, Windows Vista will have a much larger Media Center exposure than XP MCE 2005 (as it's shipped as standard) and most importantly has native 64bit support in Media Center, this means that for the first time we will need 64bit drivers for Media Center.

The great news is, that even though Vista is not officially released yet Terratec have already got drivers available for the card, and even more importantly they have both 32 and 64 bit versions of them available.

Unboxing the card showed that Terratec have put some thought into the card, the box includes everything you may need, the card obviously, but there is also a USB infrared receiver and controller that will allow you to control Media Center as well as the included software.

Talking of which as well as the Windows XP drivers, there is also the Terratec Home Cinema software that has all the usual DVB-T features. There is however another great addition is the inclusion of Cyberlink's Power Cinema software, so even those that don't have XP Media Center or Vista can get the nice Media Center style 10 foot interface.

The card itself is a really nicely put together piece of equipment with it's white PCB. 

Both of the Micronas tuners are well shielded and the card only requires one antenna connection.

Installation into a spare PCI-Express slot was a brieze, and after downloading the latest drivers for vista installation went straight in.

To make sure all was working well I popped on the Terratec Home Cinema software and kicked off a scan for channels.

I was not expecting too much in the way of reception, as the antenna that the card was connected to was a standard analogue one, and I live in a class 2 antenna area. To my surprise the software brought back all of the major channels, and only a few of them had some partial stuttering. The Terratec software also had another bonus hidden, it includes a subscription to the TVTV program data service.

After all went so well with the Terratec software I decided to fire up the Vista Media Center interface.

On first coming up, and going into the TV settings Vista Media Center said that a new tuner had been found, so I clicked through the screens to set the card up. After the setup all the channels found with the Terratec software where available to me in Vista Media Center. Why was this so surprising? The card that I was previously using (a Hauppauge Nova T) struggled to get some of the channels, and just did not find some of the fringe channels using this antenna.

After setting a few recordings up in Vista Media Center so that the card would have to use both tuners at the same time, and inspecting the output video it seems that both tuners on the Terratec Cinergy 2400i DT perform just as well as each other.

I have been using the card in this PC for a month now with no issues raising there head.

To benchmark the Terratec I popped the Hauppauge back into the box and disabled on of the Terratec tuners, this forced Vista Media Center to use the two different manufacturers of card to record dual channel recordings. Both cards were plugged into the same booster/splitter box and the Terratec Cinergy 2400i DT clearly out performed the Hauppauge on every test, I even swapped the aerial cables round to make sure it was not a badly screened RF cable. This showed that the tuners on the Terratec Cinergy 2400i DT are certainly more sensitive, and as such are more capable of holding a weak signal.

That said after plugging both cards into my DVB-T antenna they both received and recorded all channels available in my area, however even then the Hauppauge showed more dropout and stutter issues.

Conclusion

I would rate this card very highly indeed, everything that I have seen so far is good news. The card is relatively cheap (around 70GBP / 130USD / 100Euro), performs exceptionally well, and has great support (Hauppauge, who after all are the market leaders have very few 32Bit let alone 64Bit drivers at the moment).

I would highly recommend one of these cards for your Vista Media Center project at a drop of a hat. I'm very happy with the one I have, so much so that it has replaced my trusted Hauppauge card.

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