I write a lot of blogs about Media Center, how-to do this or how to configure that. Then I post the links on Twitter and on my FaceBook account. (Tagged with #WMC for you Twitter users) Without fail, I’ll get a few replies, messages or e-mails, “What are you talking about? What’s Media Center?”
So, I think it’s time to go back to the basics for a new post.
Media Center is a Program.
Or rather it’s a collection of programs that are Media related. It’s a windows interface that makes watching TV, recording TV, Watching DVDs or BluRays, streaming movies direct from Netflix, playing photo slideshows or playing music from your TV or any computer or room in your home.
It’s a DVR (Digital Video Recorder) on steroids! It can do anything that the DVR you rent from your cable company can do, but it can do it faster, better, easier and CHEAPER. I’ve gotten rid of all the cable boxes in my house and replaced them with a single Media Center Computer and a couple Extenders.
Media Center has been available since 2002, where it came as a special edition called WindowsXP MediaCenter Edition. (referred to as MCE by users) MCE was available only as a complete operating system. It was usually available only on PCs built by Hewlett-Packard or Sony as an entertainment system. There were 2 major upgrades to MCE that added functionality, versions 2004 and 2005.
The next version was publicly available in Windows Vista. It came in Windows Home Premium and Windows Ultimate editions of Vista. (It was referred to as VMC by the community) Yes, it was there all along, and I bet you never even clicked on the icon, right? There was 1 major upgrade to VMC, it was called the TVPack. TVPack added a few new functions, like Internet TV and a new file format that supported HDTV.
The current version of Windows, Windows 7 also has Windows Media Center (Now called WMC) included in more editions, Ultimate, Home Premium, Professional and Enterprise. If you have one of these editions, then you HAVE Media Center.
The main and most popular function of Windows Media Center is its use as a DVR. You can get your live TV signal into the PC in a number of ways.
If you live close to your local TV stations, you can purchase an OTA(Over The Air) tuner and an antenna. You’ll be able to get all your local channels, that are in range, IN HIGH DEFINITION and FREE! Yes, I said FREE. There is no charge for OTA programming. OTA tuners come in 3 basic types, Internal card, Express Card or external USB. There are also 2 types of TV signal, NTSC which is no longer available in the U.S., and ATSC which is the current Digital signal type. If you are going to purchase an OTA tuner for the U.S., make sure it is ATSC. OTA tuners can receive/record 1 or 2 channels per tuner, depending on the tuner. If you want more channels, you can add more tuners. You can have up to 4 of any one type of tuner. So, you can have 4 OTA tuners AND 4 CableTV tuners, giving you a total of 8 channels you can watch/record AT THE SAME TIME! Can your Cable Company’s DVR DO THAT?
Here are a couple of tuners from Hauppauge available from Newegg.com:
Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-950Q TV Tuner Stick/Hybrid Video Recorder with Remote Control 1191
Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-2250 Dual TV Tuner / Encoder 1229
Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-1500 Notebook Express Card 1195
Once you install one of these tuners, you’ll need to run the Media Center Setup in order to use it. When the setup is complete and the guide data is downloaded, you’ll be able to watch TV or schedule it to record. Remember that the computer needs to be ON in order for the program to record.
The next most common way of getting a TV signal is CableTV and there are a couple ways of getting cableTV into the PC. If you have an OTA tuner that supports Clear QAM, you can plug your cableTV cable right into the OTA tuner and get some of the unencrypted cable channels through that tuner. But most cable companies are now encrypting almost all of the channels, so this may or may not work for you.
Another way is to connect the Video Out from your cable box, to the Analog IN of the OTA tuner, you will also need an IR Blaster(That little red plastic piece you stick on the front) for the cable box, so that WMC will be able to change the channel. This works OK, but you can’t get HDTV this way, any programs that are HDTV from the cable box will be downscaled to standard definition.
The BEST way to get a TV signal from cableTV is to buy a PC CableCard tuner. The most popular CableCard tuner out right now is the Ceton InfinTV4, which lets you receive 4 cable channels at the same time, in HD, with full Digital Audio. The only downside to CableCard is that there is no OnDemand available for it. You’ll need to rent a CableCard from your cable company, they charge anywhere from $3-5 for the card, but since the Ceton Tuner can receive 4 channels with 1 card, that saves you the rental of 3 other cable boxes!
Did I say no OnDemand? Not entirely true. It is true that you can’t get the OnDemand from your cable company, but if you have a Netflix account, you can stream movies directly to your MediaCenter. The quality is very good too.
MediaCenter makes an excellent music player too. If you have MP3s, WMAs or other non-protected types of music, MediaCenter will let you play them, right from your TV with a WMC remote.
MediaCenter contains a pretty good DVD player. You can just stick a DVD into your DVD drive and WMC will ask if you want to play it. If you want to create a movie library of ripped movies, you’re in luck! MediaCenter can play a ripped DVD directly from the hard drive and has a decent management application in the MovieLibrary.
If you want to play or rip BluRay movies, it’ll take a little more work, but it’s not very hard to get it to work.
See my post on Ripping, Storing and Playing BluRays here.
Pictures and slideshows
So you have hundreds of digital pictures? Put them all in the MyPictures folder on the hard drive and guess what? They show up in the Photos menu in MediaCenter. It’s that simple. If you put them in folders in MyPictures, they’ll be in separate folders in the Photos menu, so it’s easy to sort and find the right pictures.
Another cool feature in the Photos, is that you can create a playlist of music from the Music Library and use it as a soundtrack to a slideshow. How cool is that?
Using MediaCenter and TV from other locations in the house
I did say that I got rid of ALL the cable boxes in my house, didn’t I? Yep, MediaCenter can be “Extended” to other rooms by the use of devices called Extenders. There used to be single purpose Extenders available from a couple companies, but they’ve all stopped producing them. Why? Because the xBox360 has MC Extender built in, it’s cheaper and a better quality than any of the other extenders.
So, instead of putting a cable box in a room where you want to watch TV, you can put an xBox, connect it to the MediaCenter either wired or wireless and Voila! You can watch TV, Play Music, Play Slideshows and oh yeah, you can play xBox games on it! You can’t play any ripped DVDs or BluRays from the xBox without some work, but xBox also has the ability to play streaming movies direct from Netflix.
What about another computer? Can you watch TV from another PC? Well that’s been a bit of a sticking point with Microsoft, they have been avoiding making another PC an extender. But there are some things you CAN do. If you share the RecordedTV, Music, Photos and Movies folders, you can set them as search folders on another computer that has MediaCenter. So you can watch RecordedTV, play music, watch movies . . . but you can’t watch LiveTV from another PC unless you install a tuner in it. Personally, I only watch recorded TV so this wasn’t an issue for me.
So, now that you know what MediaCenter is and that you probably already HAVE IT, what’s stopping you from using it?
For information on choosing the best televisions and media players, check out Appliance Authority