By Jason Coombes

This post is about our experience with the version of Windows Media Center that is currently available in the Windows 7 beta (official and leaked builds) but first I thought it might be useful to explain what I feel is important for a Windows Media Center PC and our experience since deciding to use this as our TV solution. Hopefully both parts of this post will help people when making a decision about using Windows Media Center and provide some details on the upgrade experience for those looking to make the move to Windows 7.

The ecosystem surrounding the hardware that can be installed inside a PC and the software that runs on Microsoft Windows is enormous and innovative but in many ways when it comes to a Windows Media Center PC this isn’t always a good thing. For those of us that use Windows Media Center as their living room TV solution you need a reliable system that does its job 24/7 and ideally never misses a scheduled recording (or if it does you better be able to blame it on the TV networks [;)]). This really means that any Windows Media Center PC needs to be dedicated to that solution and not also used as the household PC. I believe that this is one of the main barriers to Windows Media Center becoming a mainstream product as for many households owning multiple PC’s is a luxury and to purchase a PC that is quiet enough to sit in the living room can be expensive. I appreciate that this is where the Media Center Extenders come into play but now we are asking that same household to make multiple purchases instead of a single dedicated PVR box (of course any Windows Media Center enthusiast knows the benefits of using Media Center Extenders to distribute TV content all around the home).

So can Windows Media Center become a mainstream product? I believe that for this to happen that Media Center needs to be taken out of the Windows client and integrated into Windows Home Server (WHS) which is already an excellent “take home, turn on, forget it” solution. WHS is designed as a device to be left alone and not used as an every day PC and this fits perfectly with the need for a stable platform to provide trouble free TV. The expandability, backup and data storage/integrity facilities of WHS coupled with the features of Windows Media Center through Extenders could make it one of the easiest purchasing decisions for a consumer to make.

So, why did we choose Windows Media Center? I knew that Windows Media Center would be an excellent solution for our TV needs, at the time we were looking to cancel our Sky subscription and switch to Freeview but didn’t want to lose the Sky+ facility that we took for granted, so I’d been selling this idea to my wife throughout the Windows Vista beta. Windows Media Center would have the same facility to record two channels simultaneously, with the option of watching something that was already recorded, provide time-slip (the ability to pause live TV), and allow entire series to be recorded. I also used the fact that we would be able to show pictures and videos in the living room as another selling point. When I had persuaded my wife that we should adopt Windows Media Center as our TV solution it was under the agreement that if it didn’t work we would purchase a dedicated personal video recorder (PVR). Although I could have simply used our desktop I wanted a PC that was dedicated to Windows Media Center for the same reasons as I explained above.

I have nearly always built my own PC’s so it made sense to do this for our Media Center PC. I wanted to try and keep the hardware to within a budget that would buy a retail PVR solution so I selected a cheap motherboard (ASUS P5LD2-VM DH) and CPU (Intel Celeron D 352 3.2GHz) used an existing hard drive (Maxtor DiamondMax10 SATA2 300GB) and 2GB of memory (Corsair TWIN2X1024A-6400). The most expensive item was the case (SilverStone LC11S-300) since it needed to look good enough to be accepted into the living room and also be a specific size to fit under our TV while still being able to take the tuner (Hauppauge Nova-T-500 Dual DVB-T PCI) and graphics card (XFX GeForce 7300GT 256MB DDR2 PCIE). It was really the Silverstone case that took me over budget and then of course there was the operating system licence for which I chose Windows Vista (64-bit) even though it had only been available for a few months (I was already happy with its stability on our desktop). If I were building a system today I think a dual-core Atom based solution would be ideal and make the whole system far more energy efficient.

The fact that we are still using this as our TV solution today is down to the stability of Windows Vista which many might be surprised to read given its undeserved reputation as an operating system to be avoided at all costs. That isn’t to say there weren’t initial teething problems, mostly related to power management (putting the PC to sleep when it wasn’t in use or recording), but within 2-3 months the drivers for our Freeview tuner card became stable and Microsoft was very quick to release updates to resolve the power management issues, which would eventually be rolled up into Service Pack 1, and so for the last 18 months we have enjoyed a a relatively trouble free time. In April 2008 I was lucky enough to win an Xbox 360 so the Windows Media Center PC has been relegated to the study and we now use the Media Center Extender facilities of the Xbox to access Windows Media Center.

I have taken a few steps to ensure continued availability, which so far have proven unnecessary, and that was to install a Windows Home Server (WHS) to ensure that the Windows Media Center PC is backed up every night (in addition to our desktop PC) and I also still have the same tuner card in our desktop to act as both a fallback recorder and to test new drivers. The WHS also allows us to centrally store family photos, videos, and music which can then be played back on the Windows Media Center PC in the living room.

The decision to use a PC opens up the possibility of upgrading to a new version, so long as the new hardware requirements are within the capabilities of your existing PC, although that conflicts with the need to ensure a stable system. So having talked about the importance of stability why am I even contemplating upgrading from Windows Vista to Windows 7, an operating system that isn’t even released yet, and possibly risking my very safety in the process should things go wrong and the family rises up against me? There are two reasons, the first is the safety net provided by WHS since I can always restore a previous backup and return to Windows Vista and second is due to the quality of Windows 7 even in beta.

Like many others I’ve been testing Windows 7 since the public beta became available (build 7000) and have found this to be a very stable and capable operating system even though it is still only in beta. I was, however, disappointed to learn of an issue with the Windows 7 beta release which meant that our Nova-T-500 Dual DVB-T (a hybrid dual-tuner card) could only be used as a single tuner. I also understand that there have been some performance issues with Media Center Extenders but I feel it is important to remember that the code is still being optimised. With that said I did find build 7000 to be very stable for watching TV but with the loss of a tuner, and therefore the ability to record two channels at the same time, this wasn’t ready for our Media Center PC. Unfortunately Microsoft are not allowing the general public to access new Windows 7 builds so like many others I have been downloading the leaked builds that have become available on various torrent sites. While this might be illegal I ease my conscience with the fact I’ll be placing a pre-order for Windows 7 as soon as retailers allow.

After trying build 7048 which again proved stable for TV, although it still suffered from the same dual-tuner issues, build 7057 of Windows 7 was leaked and Microsoft had fixed the dual-tuner issue so that both tuners are available for use. I have installed this onto our desktop PC and then connected the Xbox 360 to this PC to test out the Extender. This meant that the family could try out Windows 7 Media Center for watching live and recorded TV while the existing Windows Vista Media Center continued to do the actual recording (a new feature of Windows 7 is a very simple way to view recorded TV that is stored on another PC or WHS). It also meant that if things didn’t work out I could switch back and connect the Xbox 360 to our Vista Media Center PC.

After a weekend without issues I decided I would try upgrading our Windows Media Center PC to Windows 7 so after taking a final WHS backup I inserted a DVD containing build 7057 and followed through the prompts to upgrade. The upgrade process was problem free and upon starting Windows Media Center for the first time, in the Windows 7 operating system, I was asked if I’d like to import the existing settings. I chose to do this and after an automatic installation of PlayReady, a scan for channels, downloading of guide data, I waited while our existing recording schedules were imported. I can honestly say that the entire process was trouble free and all of our existing recording schedules are intact (although they have been updated to keyword searches which I feel is a good compromise). The only manual work required was to hide the channels that we do not use.

With our Windows Media Center PC upgraded to Windows 7 for a few days now I have no major problems to report. There are some small problems with the interface sometimes being slow to respond on the extender, although this works fine when using Media Center directly, and also having to set the Xbox to use PAL 50mhz instead of PAL 60mhz to get a stutter free picture. I should also add that we don’t import DVD’s, etc, so I’m unable to comment on the suitability, in its current beta state, of Windows 7 Media Center for those that do. I feel that with Windows Media Center mainly being used by an enthusiastic community that people might be looking to upgrade before Windows 7 is officially released, most of them probably looking for native support of high definition channels, and I also appreciate that some households might not be in a position to do the type of testing I did before upgrading our Windows Media Center PC to Windows 7 so hopefully my experience will prove helpful.

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