Still searching for an all-inclusive family media centre? Maybe it’s time to look at the latest offering from Microsoft.
I’ve never had a PVR in the lounge room. Everyone has their own personal preference, and for me, it makes sense to have a PC as a fundamental lounge room component, alongside the television, the DVD player, the BluRay disc player and the surround sound system. In addition to recording programmes off-air, you can use a networked PC-based media centre to view movies and listen to music on networked file shares, surf the web, and watch YouTube and Twitterfall on your big-arse television.
And sometimes, it’s just good to have “PC functionality” on a big screen in your lounge room.
An old-fashioned version of Microsft’s Windows XP operating system was the Windows XP Media Center (sic) Edition. The last version was released about 5 or 6 years ago, and was intended for the lounge room PC to consolidate your audio and video libraries, TV recordings and provide a friendly user interface with large fonts and nice colours which could be operated with a remote control, or wireless keyboard and mouse.
Unfortunately, the reality was quite different. Windows XP-MCE was the buggiest, flakiest, most God-forsaken application, and just completely failed to do anything useful whatsoever. It wouldn’t recognize many standard tuner cards (despite them being recognized and operating faultlessly in the same PC outside of XP-MCE), and it wouldn’t play many movie formats (again, despite them being playable by Windows Media Player in the same PC).
After wrangling with XP-MCE for several weeks, I gave it up as a bad joke. I used my PC media centre with the AVerTV software that was supplied with the tuner card (which worked fine ‘standalone’, for recording free-to-air), and I simply used Windows Explorer to connect to network shares and play movies with Windows Media Player or VLC.
This worked well for many years.
Recently, Microsoft released Windows 7, and bundled the latest version of its media centre software with the Home Edition. Ho hum, I thought, the product probably hasn’t changed much, I’ll have a quick look but I can’t imagine using it as an all-in-one media centre.
Oohhh, but how wrong I was!
Microsoft, to its credit, has done an enormous amount of work on Win 7 MCE, compared with its XP ancestor. The user interface has been completely overhauled, and is fast, smooth and intuitive. The installation wizard recognised my tuner and set it up straight away. It seeks-out and finds audio and video media on the network, and adds files to its catalogue. It creates a new “Recorded TV” library where it stores all off-air recordings, and builds its own sensible filenames, thumbnails, and even saves a programme synopsis which it sources from the off-air TV guide.
Hot-searching makes it very fast and simple to find pre-recorded programmes, indexed movies and other media.
The Main Menu is divided into a number of sub-menus:
- Pictures + Videos
Recorded TV displays thumbnails of pre-recorded programmes off-air which are saved in a new “Recorded TV” library. You can see a brief synopsis of each, as well as recorded date/time, duration and other information. It’s simple, and it’s quick to launch recorded programmes.
One of the *best* features is the recorded TV playback interface. When you move the mouse during playback, Win 7 MCE superimposes a slider control / timeline across the bottom of the display. When you click-and-drag to jump forward or backward, Win 7 MCE displays a small thumbnail above the timeline, with a frame-grab of the programme at that point. This makes ad-skipping an absolute breeze and sets Win 7 MCE ahead of many PVRs and internet TV services with this feature.
The Guide displays a conventional table that shows which programmes are currently being put to air by the “FreeView” stations, and which are scheduled in the near future. Simply right-click on these entries to see additional programme details, or to start recording, schedule recording, mark the series for recording (works very well), and a raft of other functions.
Live TV lets you watch television live. You can pause live TV, rewind live TV, view subtitles… all the usual features you’d expect from a modern PVR. What’s more, you can leave Live TV running while you click “back” or “menu”, and Win 7 MCE superimposes the menu on top of the picture with an impressive “blend” effect.
The Movie Library functions search for and catalogue media on your network, as well as scheduled programmes in the FreeView Electronic Program Guide, which meet your search criteria.
For example, by selecting Movie Guide / Genres / Science Fiction – Fantasy, I can see in the next few days that “All Dogs Go To Heaven 2″ is on 7TWO, “Species” is on 7 HD Digital, and so on and so forth. Of course as you’d expect you can right-click any of these results to record or see a brief synopsis.
Win 7 MCE is great for organising your music. Already got everything ripped to a network drive or external disk? Simply add tracks to your Music Library by selecting Tasks / Settings / Media Libraries and selecting tracks or folders.
Search by albums, artists, genres, songs, and create your own playlists. The album artwork is used nicely so you know what’s playing, what’s coming up and what’s available. Microsoft even has native “visualization” effects, in case you like your TV / monitor to look like an animated tie-dye T-shirt.
The new Media Center also supports digital radio, if you have a digital radio tuner installed in the machine.
Pictures & Videos
As with music, Win 7 MCE makes it easy to manage pictures and video files on your network. You can search for local media, as well as network file shares and external devices.
It’s easy to add individual files to “Favorites”, and create playlists and slideshows.
By the way, all these functions operate independently. You can start listening to a music playlist for example, then click “Back” to the Main Menu, select Pictures and start a slideshow of your favourite happy-snaps. You can show-case photos from your recent trip to Bali while you’re rocking out to Nirvana. Or something.
There’s heaps under the hood: built-in support for BigPond Movies, media extender support for the Xbox 360, CD and DVD burning, syncing of content between Media Center and portable devices, and much, much more.
None of this is running on the world’s fastest machine. I’m running Windows 7 Home 0n an Intel Core 2 Duo 3 GHz machine, with 2 GB of RAM and a 1 TB hard disk. This machine has a Windows Experience Index of 5.5.
I use the digital video output of my media centre’s video card, which connects directly to an HDMI port on the television. I have a lovely new Sony Bravia LCD television, and the picture simply sparkles.
Audio runs from the soundcard output of the media centre into an auxiliary input of a surround-sound audio amplifier. The next project is to get digital audio out of the PC and into the same amplifier.
I did have a wireless card in my earlier Windows XP Media Center. It did the job okay, but video buffering and network speeds were always a problem. Eventually I got sick of the stop/start wireless networking and cabled a 100 Mbps port to the rear of the machine. I’d strongly recommend cabling a network connection to your media centre instead of relying on wireless. Trust me, you’ll notice a massive improvement in network access speeds and reliability.
Windows 7 MCE is streets ahead of its predecessor, Windows XP Media Center Edition. Microsoft has done a lot of work to keep the product competitive against big names like TiVo, the Foxtel iQ, the Boxee and others.
Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, I can think of three four things where Win 7 MCE falls short of a digital PVR:
1. the proprietary Microsoft recorded TV file format, which can’t be used by other applications without first being converted to something standard;
2. the system startup time, i.e. if you see something on live TV and want to start recording straight away, when your media centre PC is turned off;
3. the mechanical noise of a physical PC in your lounge room; and
4. unwieldy wireless keyboards and mouses lying around the lounge room.
For me, these are not show-stoppers. Windows 7 MCE is a real contender in the digital lounge room. If you’ve got a spare PC lying around, and a VGA port or spare HDMI input on the television that needs to be put to good use, you could do a lot worse than loading Windows 7 Media Center and connecting it to your digital living room.
Unlike its predecessor, you won’t be disappointed.