On Windows Media Center

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.

Watching/Recording TV

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.

Playing Music

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.

Playing Movies

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

Rosewill RSV-S8 External Drive enclosure

en I first built my Windows Home Server, I built it using an old Intel Server cabinet because I wanted a lot of drive bays, 6 to be exact. I filled it with 6 500GB hard drives, for a total of 3TB of drive space. I figured that would last me a while for file storage and backups of the computers in the house. I was right. . . for a while.

But then I started Ripping my DVD movie collection and that 3TB was being used up pretty fast. So I swapped out those 6 500GB drives for 6 1.5TB drives for a 9TB drive pool! That would surely last me for a long time!

But that was not the end! Oh no, then came 2 new drive space munchers!

  1. Windows Home Server Power Pack 3 with it’s new ability to automatically “Archive” recorded TV shows from Media Center. Since I’m an avid MC user and DVR damn near everything, every day more and more TV was being moved to the Windows Home Server.
  2. Blu-Ray! I started getting all my movies in Blu-Ray High Definition, and since I hate having to handle disks when I can just keep them stored on a server, I began Ripping all my new movies to ISO files. Each movie takes approx 40GB!

Here we go again. That 9TB of drive space is nearing the end. But my 6 Hard Drive bays are full of 1.5TB drives. I could swap them out with 2TB drives, but that would be pretty expensive to only get a 1/3 increase in drive space. So I started looking at External Enclosures.

After looking at 10 or so different enclosures I settled on the Rosewill RSV-S8.

I purchased it on Newegg.com for $309.99:
Rosewill RSV-S8 SATA 3G 3.5″ HDD 8-Bay RAID 0/1/10/5/JBOD Storage Enclosure System

 

It’s an 8 bay SATA-II enclosure. It comes with a 2-port eSATA controller card and a Port Multiplying Backplane. The controller card is a PCIe x1 card, it comes with an optional half height bracket. Included in the box:

1 – RSV-S8 (Sil3726 chipset)
1 – PCIe x1 slot card (Sil3132R5) & Optional half height bracket
2 – eSATA Cable
1 – AC cable
32 – HDD Screws
1 – Setup installation & Driver Disk

1 – Software User Manual. (No hardware setup instructions)

The unit supports RAID 0, 1, 10, 5 and JBOD. Since I was planning on using Drive Balancer, RAID didn’t matter to me.

I read through the Reviews on Newegg before purchasing the unit. Most of the negative reviews dealt with:

  1. Packaging – For me it came packed double boxed, with air bags all around the unit. Rosewill must have heard the complaints and redesigned the packaging.
  2. Mac support – Not going in a Mac, so I didn’t care.
  3. RAID Management software – I wasn’t going to install the software. I planned on using the Windows Home Server Drive Balancer, so, RAID wasn’t important to me at all.

While unpacking, the first thing I was impressed with the unit. It was smaller than I thought it would be. It’s only 13.5″ High, 13.5″ Deep and 6″ Wide, which makes it only slightly larger than a Hewlett-Packard MediaSmart Server!

Here’s a pic of an HP MediaSmart Server Next to a RSV-S8 in my Server Cabinet. (For Size comparison ONLY! You cannot add this unit to an HP MediaSmart Server! My actual WHS box is on the shelf above.) You need to be able to install a PCIe card in the server.

 

I pulled 4 of the trays out and put my old 500GB drives into them. There were some complaints on Newegg that the trays could be damaged by not lining them up into the tracks correctly. That was true, if you don’t get the trays lined up just right, they can become wedged into the tracks and bent. I put them back in very carefully to make sure I didn’t bend them.

(edit) Once I closed the drive tray lever I had to give the tray a gentle push to seat it all the way in. This seems to be a problem with all SATA drive trays, they don’t seat all the way in unless you give them a gentle nudge. Thanks to whoever it was that reminded me of that!

I shut down my Windows Home Server and popped open the case. I installed the controller card with no problems.

Then I grabbed the 2 eSATA cables. They are about 3 feet long so I had no problem running them between the units. The Back of the RSV-S8 has the 2 ports marked “Port 1” & “Port 2” with Port 1 on the top. The back of the controller had no markings, so I decided to open the case back up and see if there were any markings on the card. Good thing I checked, on the card Port 1 is on the bottom.

Once I had the cables run correctly, I buttoned everything back up and turned the RSV-S8 power on. I waited a few seconds then turned the Windows Home Server on. No smoke or bright flashes so, I guess everything was hooked up right.

I popped the provided driver CD-ROM into the Windows Home Server and from my laptop I RDP’d into the Administration Console of the Windows Home Server. I cancelled the autorun since I didn’t want to install the RAID Management software.

I went into device manager and found the RAID Controller listed under “Other devices”. I clicked on “Update Driver” and browsed the CD to find the Driver/Windows/32bit folder. Installed the correct driver and within seconds the controller was correctly found and the 4 drives I had installed were detected.

I then opened the Windows Home Server Management Console, the 4 “New” drives were listed there as “Non-Storage Hard Drives, Not Added” I clicked on each drive and added them.

Total installation time from unpack to up and running was less than 1 hour!

Another thing to mention is how QUIET the unit is. It has a 300Watt power supply and a 120MM fan. With the 4 drives running I can barely hear it. When I first turned it on, I could hear the drives spin up, but once they were up, it was very quiet.

Since I never installed the RAID Software I can’t comment on the ease of use or even whether or not it works. But the RSV-S8 worked exactly the way I hoped it would. It was easy to install, the drivers worked great and my Windows Home Server has more storage space and still some free bays for the future!

 


 

If the $309.99 price tag is too much for you, there are a couple of other Rosewill options:

The RSV-S5 5-bay unit for $199.99 :

Rosewill RSV-S5 SATA 3G 3.5

 

And the RSV-S4-X 4-bay unit for $149.99:

Rosewill RSV-S4-X 4 Bay SATA to eSATA (Port Multiplier) JBOD / RAID 0, 1, 1+0, 5 Enclosure

 

DVD on Extender How-To v0.7

New Utility

Great news! Robert Chesworth has created a utility to automate the links process!

His “Media Center Links” utility will recreate the whole DVD folder structure locally, copy the folder.jpg files, create the links and then create the WVX playlist files. All in one shot!

Instead of creating all this on the remote storage, it creates it locally on the MCE PC. This was the procedure I had suggested for users who have WHS or NAS devices. So it will work in both cases.

You can Download the utility here. Media Center Links.zip Unzip the file and run setup.exe. There is documentation in the zip. The utility has been updated to the latest 1.0.0.6 version on April 29th 2009! Also included in the zip is the source code for the utility.

If you have any questions or problems, please post your question in the forums.

How to get DVD’s to play on your Media Center Extenders using DVD Library

Windows Vista Service Pack 1 is required for this to work correctly.

  1. Media Center Extenders can’t play .vob files, so the files have to be renamed to .mpg files. But wait! If I rename all the .vob files to .mpg files then other appiances may stop working right? Correct. So, the solution is symbolic links. A symbolic link is a fake file with the name you want that links back to the original file. So VTS_01_1.mpg is a symbolic link that points to VTS_01_1.VOB. That also means you do not get anything other than the main movie.
  2. WARNING: Do not create symbolic links on Windows Home Server Shares! They don’t work and wreak havoc on the server because of the way that the drive extender works!! If you store your movies on a WHS or NAS see this page!

    1. Create symbolic links to the .vob files:
      1. Open a command window with admin rights in the VIDEO_TS folder that contains the .vob files you want to link.
      2. Find the largest .vob files. The main movie will be in the largest .vob files, usually they will be 1GB in size.
      3. Use the command fsutil hardlink create VTS_01_1.mpeg VTS_01_1.VOB to create the links. (changing the names of the files for each file you link)
      4. You should get a response like: Hardlink created for D:\shares\DVDs\MOVIE\VIDEO_TS\VTS_01_1.mpeg <<===>> D:\shares\DVDs\MOVIE\VIDEO_TS\VTS_01_1.VOB
      5. If you want the cover artwork to be displayed in DVD Library, create a folder.jpg file of the artwork in the VIDEO_TS folder.
  3. Next you need to create a .wvx playlist file so the extender plays the playlist and you don’t have to select each file to play. You can create the file using notepad or the text editor of you choice. Here’s what it needs to look like:
    1.        <ASX version = “3.0”>
      <Title>My Ripped Movie</Title>
      <Entry>
      <Ref href=”\\Server\DVDs\Movie\VIDEO_TS\VTS_03_0.mpeg”/>
      </Entry>
      <Entry>
      <Ref href=”\\server\DVDs\Movie\VIDEO_TS\VTS_03_1.mpeg”/>
      </Entry>
      <Entry>
      <Ref href=”\\Server\DVDs\Movie\VIDEO_TS\VTS_03_2.mpeg”/>
      </Entry>
      <Entry>
      <Ref href=”\\server\DVDs\Movie\VIDEO_TS\VTS_03_3.mpeg”/>
      </Entry>
      <Entry>
      <Ref href=”\\server\DVDs\Movie\VIDEO_TS\VTS_03_4.mpeg”/>
      </Entry>
      <Entry>
      <Ref href=”\\server\DVDs\Movie\VIDEO_TS\VTS_03_5.mpeg”/>
      </Entry>
      <Entry>
      <Ref href=”\\server\DVDs\Movie\VIDEO_TS\VTS_03_6.mpeg”/>
      </Entry>
      </ASX>
    2. Save the file in your VIDEO_TS folder and give it a name “My Ripped Movie.wvx”

 

Here’s a script that will create the symbolic links and the .wvx files in one shot.  Use at your own risk!

CreateWVX.zip

Using the CreateWVX.vbs script

 

CreateWXV.vbs is used for DVD that have been ripped to a VIDEO_TS folder with VOBs

 

Copy and paste the script into notepad and save as “CreateWXV.vbs”.

There are two constants (see below “strRemoteLocation” and “strWVXOutputFolder”) at the top of the script that will have to be modified first to match your environment before using this script.

 

Then run “cscript CreateWXV.vbs your_DVD_folders_here”, from command-prompt, run as admin.

‘strRemoteLocation is the path that will be used in the WVX file to reference the location of the DVDs

‘This should be accessible via the machine that will play the WVX file

Const strRemoteLocation = “\\server\DVDs”

 

‘strWVXOutputFolder should be the location the WVX files should be written

Const strWVXOutputFolder = \\Server\MywvxFiles

————————————————————————–

 

DVDs that have been ripped to a wmv format.

 

CreateWXV.vbs is not needed for wmv files

 

Make a VIDEO_TS folder add these file to the VIDEO_TS folder the wmv file and the playlist *.wvx file (see below) and a fake VIDEO_TS.ifo file using notepad (open notepad and save at it as VIDEO_TS.IFO do not save as *.txt).

 

Add a folder.jpeg or DVDID.xml file to the main DVD folder for the DVD cover artwork.

For dvd xml files go here http://www.dvdxml.com/search.php

 

No Symbolic Link needed for wmv files

(so this will work if your wmv files are on Windows Home Server)

 

WMVs will play,  but you have to use a small playlist   e.g.: below.

 

<ASX version = “3.0”>

<Title>test</Title>

<Entry>

<Ref href=”\\Richard-mce2\dvd movies\Test\VIDEO_TS\Amazon_720.wmv”/>

</Entry>

</ASX>

 

PS  use a *.wvx extension in notepad (not a *.txt) for all playlists

 

 

————————————————————————

Recorded TV Movies (DVR-MS files)

 

If you have recorded a movie in Media Center (it has to be a movie) it will show up automatically with the cover artwork in the DVD Library on the extender.

No Symbolic Link needed and no playlist needed for DVR-MS files.

 

————————————————————————

 

 

 

Here’s another script that creates links and .asx files, submitted by Ryan Hurst

HardlinkAndASX.zip

 

 

 

 

Next you have to enable DVD Library for Extenders

UPDATE: The author of transcoder.dll has added support for other media file types. If it doesn’t find a WVX file, it will now search for any video file type and play the first one it finds.

 

 

 

Another new Transcoder.dll version!! v0.7

Changes:

Modified the transcoder.dll to look for the mymovies.asx files so the search logic is now as follows:

*.wvx first

mymovies.asx second

any valid video type third (note it doesn’t check for whether the extender supports or not!)

 

If you make any modifications to the sourcecode, please submit the new binaries to me for review. Official releases will be posted on this page only.

 

 

 

 

This is done by downloading this file: transcoder-v0.7.zip

Source code is now available. See below.

Unzip the file and copy transcoder.dll into your Media Centers \Windows\Ehome  folder. Then run the transcoder.reg file to import the dll registration.

Start an extender session and DVD library should now appear in the TV ribbon.

Add the share for your DVD folder to the DVD library and it should begin to populate your movies!

Enjoy!!!

Hopefully you’ll end up with extender menu’s that look like these: