You may have seen in the various ads for computers now a days, that a lot of laptops and desktops are advertised as being installed with Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005. I get a few questions from clients on what Media Center Edition is.
Windows SP Media Center Edition 2005 is a version of Windows XP that Microsoft released in October 2004. Media Center was available previously, but only form Tier 1 system builders (HP, Dell, Compaq). In Oct 2004 the new version was released and it was made available via the standard OEM channels (yes you can get it with new hardware from most software vendors). We built our first MCE test PC within a few days of the release.
So what is Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE)? It is an operating system built on Windows XP Professional , with some features disabled, that is designed to be an all in one entertainment center for your home. Depending on how the system is built it can, record and playback TV shows, be connected to a wide screen or standard tv, playback photos as slide shows, listen to radio, surf the web or watch DVDs and Videos! MCE is the base operating system on the Intel VIIV software platform. The Media Center application looks great on a PC and on a TV and can be operated using a MCE remote control unit.
I built my Media Center PC when the disk showed up in my October 2004 Microsoft Action Pack update. I had a brand new motherboard and processor from Intel (3 GHZ 775 processor and an Intel Micro ATX motherboard) so I used these for the PC. I added some memory (1 GB), a Hard Drive (200 GB SATA), a video card (Powercolor ATI X300 PCI-E with TV Out), and a Microsoft Approved TV Tuner (Avermedia 1500 MCE). I also picked up an OEM MS remote control set.
Putting the PC together and installing the software was the same as building any other PC. There is one extra CD to run (you get prompted) for it. A word of note if you plan on building your own, save the hassle and used MCE approved hardware only.
Once the PC is built I decided that I was going to hook it up to the gaming TV, a 32″ JVC that was moved when we got our Sony Wide Screen HD, to our living room and had the spare Shaw Digital box (DCT) and the three video game systems that we own. I hooked it up to the S-Video connector from the Video card out to the S-video in on the TV, hooked up a crt for set up to the dual display and started up the PC. I configured the video card to display to the TV and went through the MCE application set up. In a nutshell you set up the screen and the speakers you have, run through a set up of your video input source, set up the channel guide based on your source, test the IR blaster, arrange for storage and space and then away you go. The OEM MS remote comes with 2 IP Blaster cables that attach to the devices remoter IR ports and change channels just like the remote control.
I rebooted the PC and went tried to watch a TV program… Error No video, hmmm what did I do wrong? Restart, run set up again, still no video from the TV. Check the net.. Found out that I needed a DVD codec! The Cyberlink player software version that I had installed was not an MCE supported one. I purchased Nvidia’s decoder from their web site, installed the software, re ran the MCE setup, perfect I could watch live TV! I ran through the whole thing and was able to view a slide show of the sample pictures that came with the OS. Next it was testing the FM tuner built into the Capture board.. Yup it worked. Play a CD and a DVD yes!I checked out the TV guide and the recording function next. The guide is powered by Zap2it.com and I find is more accurate than Shaw’s own guide on their DCT boxes. To record a tv program I highlighted a program in the guide, pressed the red record button on the remote and that was it. It recorded the program successfully.
Over the last two years this machine has become the workouse PC in our home… It is on 7/24/365, and has gotten a few upgrades over the year…
In February of 2005 I was approached by Nvidia asking if I was interested in testing some hardware for them. This was a direct result of purchasing the decoder from them. I filled out the application and sent it off and was accepted into one program. Sure enough that program got cancelled but I was asked if I wanted to be another program. I said yes. I received a hardware beta version of a dual analog tuner capture board and all the software. I had to purchase an additional Shaw DCT (I found a used one cheap), because in order to use dual tuners with MCE you need 2 identical input sources (this is due to the guide). I hooked up the second DCT and then installed the dual tuner card.. Sweet now I could record 2 programs a the same time or watch one and record another etc. In July 05 we were told the testing was over and did not hear anythindg until May of 06 when I went back to the NVidia Beta team after seeing the card had just been released. I am still running the beta drivers and have not yet upgraded but the quality is excellent and the card works!
That’s nice you might say ,but what if I have more than 1 TV I want to use MCE on or what if I just don’t want a PC in my main TV room? You can get what is called a Media Center Extender to connect to your MCE machine. Linksys makes an extender as does HP, there is a kit you can get for the Xbox and if you own an Xbox 360 you already have an extender. How does it work? I have 2 of the Linksys Media Center Extenders. These devices look like stereo components and you connect them up to a TV you want to “extend” to. The Linksys features component, s and composite video out as well as coax audio out. You connect the extender to your TV and then to your home network (Linksys supports wired and Wireless 802.11 A, B and G). Run the software on your Media Center PC and it will find the extender and it will work. When you want to watch a tv show, video or slide show from the MCE PC you turn it on. The interface is identical to the MCE one. In the background the box is basically a thin client that uses remote desktop to connect to the MCE PC. The only thing you can’t do is watch protected content (DVD across the network). These devices work really well. I have two set up. One connected to the main tv A Sony Wide Screen HD TV and one in our bedroom on a 20″ box. Both are connected via hard cable (I had the house cabled when we built it) so there is no issue with Video quality. The only issues we have has is that it occaisionally drops sound for less then a second while watching tv or the box needs a reset if it has been left on too long. If you are going to use extenders please ensure that you have lots of RAM in your MCE box (approx 512Mb per extender).
As I stated, this PC has been running for almost two years. There are a couple improvements and additions I have added to the PC to make it more functional. I have installed DVD authoring software that can convert non protect DVR-MS file (proprietary MS format) as well as do editing and then burn to a DVD. I added a card reader for memory cards to move pictures easily to the PC. I purchased TV2Go software that allows me to convert and transfer video from the MCE to my Windows Mobile 5 Pocket PC via a compact flash card. I added a Microsoft Infra Red Media Center keyboard that combines the remote control and mouse onto the one small keyboard. Other additions are a new chassis designed for MCE PC’s that looks like a stereo component and I have a UPS for the device to guard against power failures. I also upgraded and added to the hard drives. The machine now has a 300 GB main drive and a 250 GB storage drive.
While the MCE operates like a PVR, why not just buy a PVR device which is a little cheaper? In our house the MEdia center is a dedicated device. Yes it operates mainly as a OVR but it could od so much more. Pictures can be added and displayed as slide shows, Video can be transfered from a video camera and viewed on there, TV shows can be easily burned to DVD and because it is networked it is a fully functional PC for email and web surfing. A good example of a use of this is every Christmas Eve I use IE and surf to the Norad Tracks Santa site (www.noradsanta.com) I show the kids videos of where Santa is from when they wake up that day until when they head to bed. Another use as indicated above is for copying TV shows to DVD or my pocket PC or PSP to take with me, viewing pictures from another extender, or even just watching TV from the DCT from our bed room tv. Two interesting free services that are available are remote record from MSN that allows me to program the MCE to record shows from any Internet computer, and ORB Networks. www.orb.com that allows me to watch TV shows record on the MCE PC from any where as well as sharing photos stored there with family and friends.
In addition the PC is upgradeable something that really can’t be done with a PVR device, if you want to add more storage space it is not difficult at all to upgrade the hard drives or add additional drives!
Cool, you want one right! Well here is one thing I warn all my clients about. If don’t think it is very wise to use the MCE PC as a PVR and as a primary family PC. Why? Because recording TV shows will really eat up hard drive space quickly. We record most of the shows our kids like and watch them that way (fast forwarding commercials) and watching on their schedules, not the networks. As a result I have had to upgrade the machine a few times to add more storage space and will probable continue to do so as hard drives drop in price. Without an extender you may not wnat to watch TV on a computer monitor if you have a wide screen TV. If you don’t wnat to buy an extender then consider just using the MCE machine where ever your entertainment system might be (just get a nice case).
My beefs about MCE… Well they are few but.. I don’t like the idea of having to use two identical video inputs but I can understand the problem. Secondly HD TV support. The HD TV tuner boards available now are only for free to air HD signals. So unless you live in Vancouver or Toronto (or most US cities) where a couple of HD broadcast stations exist, you can’t record HD signals in HD. And lastly although the PC is based on XP Pro you can’t connect it to a domain (if you run one). There is a hack available to allow it but it is unsupported and basically comprises domain network security as it is always connected and open.
The final verdict. In our house we love the MCE PC. My wife finds it easy to program to record tv shows (1 touch recording). She also lists movies that she wants to see and if it shows up in the guide it automatically gets recorded. It has more space that our DVD recorder so if we are away we can record 2 weeks worth of programming. And finally it is extendable and expandable meaning that it will be around for a while!
What about Windows Vista… MCE components and the application are actually built directly into most versions of Vista so it will just be a software upgrade to the PC.
Let us know if you are interested in getting an MCE PC and we could help you in setting it up. If you are interested in seeing a demo, please contact up and we can arrange a viewing of our home system.