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What is Windows MCE?
What is Media Center you ask? Well, the short answer is that it is another version of the Windows XP operating system (like Home or Professional) with extra features for viewing digital media. However, that simple explanation fails to fully convey the capabilities that Media Center brings to the table – or in this case the living room.
Perhaps it would be best to start with what Media Center is not. It is not Windows XP Home – it has all the capabilities of that operating system, but it also has many more. It is also not Windows XP Professional; although it has several of the more advanced features (like Computer Management) it is also missing some large-scale business stuff, like Active Directory support.
So, viewed purely as an operating system, Windows MCE’s features fall in the same place as its price – between the Home and Professional editions. However, that viewpoint ignores the main advantage of this version of WindowsXP: the Media Center application. It is a program, tightly integrated with Windows and Media Player (the standard music/video player from Microsoft), that provides a smooth interface for viewing and listening to DVDs, videos, music, and pictures – and on fully equipped systems TV and FM radio as well! That’s right: a Media Center computer, if properly designed, can provide all the functions of your existing home theater system – and then some. The rest of this article will cover how this software provides that functionality, as well as what hardware is best suited to a Home Theater PC.
Using Media Center
As you can see, there is a large green button located near the center of the remote. This is where Media Center begins – the Start Button. Pressing it, while in Windows, will open the MCE interface (of course this can also be done from an icon in the start menu, but in most home theater setups you won’t be at your keyboard when using MCE).
Once the MCE interface is up on-screen, you can navigate through the menus with either the directional buttons on the remote, the directional buttons on the keyboard, or by clicking on options with the mouse. Since the remote control is probably the easiest to use, and the most convenient, it is the method which will be used for the rest of this article.
When you first open Media Center, you should be presented with a setup walk-through that will allow you to select what type of TV service you have, and where you are located. This is vital information that lets Media Center download the correct program guide information for you. It also lets you set up your display and speakers correctly. Once setup has finished, you will be sent to MCE’s main menu, which is also where Media Center will default to opening in the future.
From here, you can select whichever aspect of Media Center you wish to use by navigating up and down through the available choices. When you are on a given selection, you can often navigate to the right as well, given you direct shortcuts to recently played media and/or specific shortcuts (like going directly to recorded TV). The next section will cover each menu option in more detail, with tips to help you get the most out of your Media Center experience.
If you navigate in through the main My TV button, you are presented with a screen broken into three parts: a menu (on the left), a list of recent recordings (top right), and a list of things soon to be recorded (bottom right). There is also room toward the bottom left that is normally empty, but if you already have something playing (DVD, TV, even music) then there will be a picture-in-picture style miniaturization playing there, so that you can navigate the MCE interface without having to stop or pause playback. Every screen in Media Center has this area, actually, so that wherever you need to go your media can follow you.
The left menu options allow you to go to Live TV, Recorded TV, the Guide, a Search page, or Movies. Incidentally, the two TV options and the Movie link here take you to the same place within MCE that the direct shortcuts mentioned earlier do.
Live TV is just that – live TV. You can surf channels, like any normal TV, but you can also pause, rewind (to a certain extent), or begin recording what you are viewing. Because of the way Media Center interacts with the TV tuner(s) in the computer, any show being viewed is also temporarily recorded. That is what allows you to pause and, to a lesser extent, rewind and fast-forward. You cannot rewind any further than when you began viewing a given channel or about 10 minutes, whichever is shorter, and you cannot fast-forward any further than where the recording is taking place. Being able to simply pause in case there is an interruption, or rewind to recap a great sports moment, is quite convenient.
Recorded TV provides an interface for viewing past recordings, or setting up new ones. You can control properties about a recorded program or something scheduled to be recorded by selecting it with the remote, keyboard, or mouse. You can set up new recordings for individual episodes, or for whole series. Additionally, you can control what quality something is recorded at, how long before and after the show is recorded (to make sure nothing gets missed), how long the recording will be kept, and in the case of a series what airtimes and channels you want recorded. If you manage to schedule multiple recordings for a single time-slot, Media Center will notify you and allow you to select which show to actually record. If you record multiple series, you can also set the default priority order of those series so that you don’t have to manually monitor each time two recording overlap. Of course, you could also get a dual-channel tuner and not have to worry as much about recording conflicts – but hardware selections like that will be dealt with later in this article.
The Guide is a very helpful tool, which is updated automatically to provide you with 7 to 10 days of information on what is playing at what time on each channel. The accuracy of the information here is dependant on you having set everything up properly, with the right zip code and type of TV service. You can select a program airing currently to go directly to it, or you can set up a recording in advance by navigating directly to the channel and show you want. Sometimes this can be easier than using the Recorded TV interface, particularly if you know when something is on but not its exact name. The Guide can also make it easier to find something good on TV if you don’t have any pre-recorded shows to watch.
Alternatively, you could use the Search feature. It allows finding a scheduled show based on the name or a keyword. Because the remote control doubles as a text input device, performing such searches doesn’t require you to get off the couch – and is often the quickest way to find when a program is on (or what channel it is on, etc). Again, just like with the Guide, you can set up recordings directly from this page.
Lastly, the Movies page provides a cleaner interface that caters only to feature-film-length programming. You can use any of the other interfaces to find movies as well, but if you are looking specifically for a TV airing of a movie then this page makes it much easier. You can view movies currently in progress, ones that are starting soon (within about 2 hours), perform a search, or view all movies that are scheduled by genre or actor. To make recognizing a specific film even easier, thumbnail views of the movie poster or DVD cover are also provided (if you are connected to the internet). And, once again, you can schedule something to record directly from this interface.
Tip: As long as you have plenty of space, you might as well record as many different programs and/or movies as you’d like. With enough shows readily available you may never need to channel surf for something to watch on TV again.
Because of all the extra data stored about each song, there are a number of ways to access files with this interface. You can view all albums (with art, if you’re connected to the internet), or you can sort by song name, artist, or genre. You can also perform searches by typing in an artist name or a song title with the remote control’s keypad or your keyboard.
While a given set of music is being played, you can control things like whether it goes in order or is shuffled randomly. You can also have it repeat continuously or just go until each song has been played once. You can even burn a CD directly from the interface, making it easy to create compilations of your favorite music to use elsewhere.
If you are just going to sit back and listen to music, having a visualization run on the screen at the same time can be an extra treat. A visualization is simply a graphical representation of the music you are hearing, and Windows includes several for your viewing pleasure. You can also download others off the internet; just make sure they are compatible with Windows Media Player (so that they will also work with Media Center). There are a variety of websites that host both free and share-ware visualizations, such as microsoft.com and wmplugins.com.
Tip: For ease of use, I recommend copying all of the music from your favorite CDs to your computer. This process is called “ripping”, and can be done from Windows Media Player. When your music is copied in this manner, it is added to your computer’s library and can be easily accessed from within Media Center without requiring you to swap CDs in and out constantly. You can also change the quality of copied music, and control whether or not it is copy protected (to deter illegal use).
You can also add other folders to the list, in case you have archived videos located in other places on your computer (or network). The most convenient use I have found for this myself is that I can have my second computer linked to the shared network folder where TV programs are recorded on my main computer. That way I can watch recorded TV in my bedroom – without having an additional tuner in that system.
Tip: If you do plan to stream video across a network, make sure that the network can handle the amount of data involved smoothly. Wired networking should be fine, but if you running a wireless network you may find that, unless you are using high-speed WiFi (like 802.11G) and getting a near-perfect signal strength, the video feed may stutter somewhat.
There are some neat extras here as well- like the ability to play a slideshow of pictures. You can even have a slideshow going at the same time as music is playing, by starting playback via My Music beforehand. You can also create a CD or DVD containing some of your pictures directly from this interface, assuming that you have a CD or DVD burner installed in your computer.
Tip: Giving a slideshow of digital camera pictures on a computer or TV in this way is much easier than setting up a projector and slide viewer like you may have done in the past. You can control the slideshow via the remote, or just let it go automatically – and either narration or an appropriate musical soundtrack can make it even more enjoyable.
Tip: If you are getting poor or no reception, make sure the antenna is plugged in to the tuner on the back of the computer, and then try moving the antenna wires around.
Tip: For the best DVD viewing experience, have surround sound speakers and make sure that they are properly set up – both in Windows’ settings and in Media Center.
Tip: If you have trouble changing something or finding a solution, you can get a lot more information and help from enthusiast websites like thegreenbutton.com
Memory is also not a huge deal, as generally the only program running will be Media Center. 1GB is probably a good starting point, and again get more if you plan to use the computer for other tasks as well.
The more important hardware choices for this type of system are going to be the hard drive(s), video card, TV tuner(s), and (perhaps surprisingly) case. The hard drive is important because it is going to be holding any TV recordings you make, as well as any music and video files you want to store. Normal TV signals (not HDTV) take up about 3-3.5GB per hour, on High quality. I personally recommend having 30+ hours of recording space (a minimum of 100GB) just for TV, and then another 50+ GB of storage space for music (either ripped from CD or downloaded via an online music service) and video files. Based on those numbers, plus having room for Windows itself and any other applications you might want to install, a 250GB hard drive is an excellent choice. You might also consider going with a smaller system hard drive and a separate drive for media storage, or even potentially a RAID 1 array (so that if a drive fails you don’t have to re-record/rip/download your files again – for more info on RAID, see this article).
A video card is also a significant part of a Media Center system, because it is responsible for connecting your computer to your monitor or TV and giving you a good, high-quality video feed. The reason that the choice here is important is that you don’t want to go overboard, but you want to make sure that the video card has the right connectors to support your TV/monitor. Almost all video cards these days have one (or sometimes two) DVI connections, which can usually be adapted to support older VGA monitors as well. Many cards also support S-Video, and mid-to-higher-end cards come with adapters to provide HDTV signals via Component Video cables. Some onboard video solutions also offer these features, and again as long as you are just playing back media (and maybe surfing the web) you don’t need much power from your video card. Unless you are gaming, you will want to avoid the high-end cards because they tend to put out a lot of heat and require fans that generate a lot of excess noise. If at all possible, either an onboard video solution or a passively cooled video card (one without a fan) is going to be the best way to go.
Hardware Recommendations (Continued)
The other device in your computer that will contribute to video quality is the TV tuner. Under Windows Media Center it is responsible for both tuning into a channel properly and recording it. MCE records TV in a special variation on the MPEG2 codec (similar to how DVDs are encoded), and because this is a rather demanding task there are special chips built onto the tuner card itself that handle this (usually complimented by a small amount of memory). The quality of the tuner itself and the MPEG2 encoder will determine how nice the TV signal will look when you are viewing it. ATI makes a great TV tuner chip, the Theater 550, which several manufacturers have created cards based off of. You will also need a program that can do MPEG2 decoding (like a DVD application) so that MCE can properly play back TV (and DVD). The software you choose for that role may also impact video quality, so I suggest getting something that takes advantage of your video card’s MPEG2 decoding capabilities (all modern video cards have this feature – Avivo for ATI, and PureVideo for nVidia). There are also dual tuner models that have a pair of physical tuners (and encoders), allowing you to record and/or watch two different channels at the same time (like this one). The same thing can be accomplished using two separate tuner cards, but then a signal splitter would also be required.
Lastly, we come to what should probably have been the first decision: the case. Most home theater owners will want their computer to blend in with the other parts of their home theater setup, like receivers and amplifiers. For these situations, a nice, sleek looking, rack-style case is probably best. Silverstone makes several cases that work great in such a setup, including the LC17 and LC18. Other users may want a traditional mid-tower case, but one that is as quiet as possible. The Antec P180 is the perfect solution – it combines a larger, more upgradeable tower design with plenty of airflow and features designed to specifically quiet the noisier components of a computer (the hard drives and fans). Lastly, there may be people who want simply the smallest computer possible – perhaps for a dorm or bedroom. Again Silverstone comes through with the MicroATX-size SG01. It is also extremely portable, and has an optional duffle-bag-style carrying case.
There are also modifications that can be done to a case, such as replacing stock fans with quieter models and lining the inside with sound-absorbing foam. These sorts of add-ons will cost a little extra, but can make a noticeable difference if you want to make an HTPC that is as quiet as possible.
Windows Vista and Digital Cable Support
Sometime early in 2007, Microsoft is expected to launch their next version of Windows – known as Vista. It will ship out in several variations, with both full and upgrade versions (for people currently running XP). Two of the expected versions (Home Premium and Ultimate) will include Media Center functionality, very similar to what is available now.
The main difference so far revealed is support for digital TV tuners. Digital television is becoming quite popular these days, because it sends the video and audio signals directly in way that computers (and other digital devices) can understand. It also takes up a lot less room (or bandwidth) than analog television when being broadcast, which means a cable or satellite company can provide more channels (and more advertisements) to their customers.
Adding support for this means that, assuming hardware manufacturers build compatible devices, you should be able to hook your digital cable feed directly into the computer rather than having to go through an external tuner box. Besides eliminating the need for the extra hardware, this should also improve the image quality for digital-cable customers and remove the extra step of encoding TV shows (since they will already be digitally encoded). Perhaps even more significantly, it should open the door for HDTV cable tuners – meaning that better video cards (to decode the signal) will be needed, along with larger hard drives (since HDTV signals take a lot more space than either normal digital or analog signals).
Once Vista is released and the necessary hardware becomes available, we will update this article with new recommended parts and any other Media Centric features Vista adds.
For more information on the existing Media Center platform, see Microsoft’s website
For more information about Windows Vista, check out the following links:
And lastly, here is our Certified Home Theater Computer, featuring Windows MCE 2005