New Vista Media Center A Big Improvement

Written by David Richards     28/01/2007 | 01:15 | Category: MICROSOFT OR LINUX

The new Vista Media Center is a big improvement over its predecessor and during the next 12 months I predict that CEDIA members and solution providers with home automation applications will see wider adoption of the Windows Vista Media Center platform in Australia.

 The biggest drawback right now is the lack of an EPG, (Other than Ice TV} which Channel Nine is trying to outlaw, access to downloadable content equivalent to what Microsoft and other providers deliver for consumers in the USA and applications that deliver extensive automation capability.

Windows Media Center started life as Windows XP MCE 2004. 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 Rollup 2 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.

In the USA and Europe consumers are moving to Media Center due to the ever increasing price of subscription TV like Foxtel. The price of a couple of months of high-end subscription TV will upgrade a standard PC to a decent Media Center.

Freeview (Digital over The Air TV) is starting to take off in most European countries at the moment, and the UK is no different. Australia has nothing like this. The only hope is that Foxtel and Telstra develop a service that can be delivered via a Media Center.

As I was already running Windows 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 Pocket PC.

After some research it seemed that for little outlay I could upgrade my home equipment to perform well in Vista. 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 a large TV screen.

 

Resolving the graphics issue was the easy part. I needed a half height card, that had HDMI/DVI 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 tuner digital TV device for the half height chassis, and this proved difficult. None of the well known manufacturers have one.

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 3 x 250 GB drives in a raid 5 configuration for the storage, and a single drive for the OS. This configuration is not cheap, but then again it is not massively 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 versions, with a compatible TV card.

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 line-up, 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.

Media Center allows for all the, now standard, digital TV additions, these include live pause and time shifting, 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 Plugging 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 DVDs 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.

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 Xbox 360 integration.

Vista MCE has a few other new tricks under its bonnet: Microsoft have now integrated a decent MPEG2 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 favourite 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 another set top box? Well yes; it offers all of the functionality of a standard set top recorder, but with extensibility just a plug-in 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 not having an EPG.  In addition Companies like Hewlett Packard have been selling Media Centers in cabinets that I would not use as a door stop let alone in a lounge.

Microsoft used to only sell MCE 2005 to OEM vendors (HP/Dell) and those vendors supplied Media Center PCs, they were usually expensive and underpowered machines.  Also compounding the problem is the lack of downloadable content in Australia. We are now years behind the US and the UK.

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 their digital media. This is where MCE excels; it has good integration of all sources of media, and 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 Australia (Foxtel) allow a similar card for Satellite television Australia, it could really mean that MCE would become a common site in lounges all around the world.