Disclosure: We have a Sky World subscription with HD and a Sky+ HD box supplied and paid for by Sky as part of a 3 month customer feedback program.
Hopefully you’ve read the first part of this series (Would We Choose Windows Media Center Again? – Part 1) which compared the interface (UI) of a Sky+ Set Top Box (STB) to Windows Media Center and also covered storage, tuners, and the availability of High Definition (HD) channels. Just to refresh your memory that at the moment the scores are tied at 2 points each so at the moment the decision could go either way.
In part 2 I’d like to cover the main reason for having a Personal Video Recorder (PVR) which is to allow the recording, or time-shifting, of television programs. This is where your PVR of choice really needs to “just work” since the last thing you want to be doing is permanently checking to make sure programs are recording.
Electronic Program Guide
Things have certainly changed since the arrival of Sky+ back in 2001 before which setting up recordings was a matter of manually setting the start, stop, channel, etc, on a video cassette recorder (VCR), although the arrival of Videoplus made things a little easier, and then hunting around for a video cassette that you thought was free but ended up taping over something you hadn’t watched yet (and of course the program started late so you missed what you wanted to record anyway!). Thankfully we now have an Electronic Program Guide (EPG) to select the programs we want to record and in some cases these are even refreshed often enough that a late running show still records.
Windows Media Center (WMC) has a two options for obtaining data for the EPG and depending on which you choose can affect how quickly it refreshes to take account of changes in schedules. Regardless of which option is used the EPG generally holds about 10-14 days worth of data so setting up recordings that don’t start for a couple of weeks is possible. The default setting will see information downloaded from the internet on a regular schedule and this normally holds the most detailed information but doesn’t normally get refreshed quickly enough to account for scheduling changes. The second option, although this isn’t always available, is to download the EPG Over The Air (OTA) and the benefit is that it can be refreshed much quicker but does have some details missing, if the show is a repeat for example (thankfully WMC has an intelligent scheduling system which I’ve mentioned before and will cover in the next section). In our experience the downloaded guide data can be incorrect, missing the information to link shows in a season together or worse still flagging a show as a repeat when it’s actually the first showing. There is a section the an official WMC forum called The Green Button (TGB) here where you can report guide data issues but who wants to spend their free time looking for errors or omissions in an EPG? We have switched to OTA data for the EPG now within WMC and so far this is working out to be the best solution.
The EPG available on Sky+ is first rate and is downloaded OTA without any problems in terms of the quality of data that we have encountered (both now and when we were a Sky subscribers in the past). I can’t comment on how quickly the EPG adapts to changes in schedules as we’ve not experienced such an occurrence during this trial of Sky. As with WMC the data generally covers the next 10-14 days so setting up future recordings is just as easy.
I have to be completely honest and award the point to Sky here simply because we have missed recordings with WMC where information in the guide was inaccurate (episodes of a show flagged as a repeat when in fact it was the first showing). Although we have learned how to work around potential guide data issues when using WMC this has been an area of frustration for us in the past and I’m sure would be for new adopters.
This is one of the sections I have been looking forward to writing because Windows Media Center excels in this area so it is a shame that it can sometimes be let down by the quality of the EPG. Thankfully the intelligent scheduling protects from most of those once you understand them and configure the scheduled records accordingly. This section is much longer than I’d intended but there’s a lot of information to cover which I believe is important when choosing between a STB like Sky+ and WMC.
In terms of setting up a recording through the EPG things are relatively similar between WMC and Sky with UI being the main difference. Ignoring those differences, the basic steps are to find a program in the EPG and press the record button on the remote to set a one-time recording. When using WMC you then press the record button again to set the series recording or on Sky you get a pop-up menu where you can choose between just this showing or the entire series. It is here that the two products take a very different path.
I’ll start with Sky since so far I’ve been giving WMC top billing in each section plus Sky is the easier to explain. Unless I state otherwise then the way single and series recordings are handled is very similar so I won’t differentiate between them. After setting the program to be recorded the Sky+ STB will ensure that it turns on and records at the right time on the right channel and if you have set the series link it will schedule the next recording. You also need to remember that if you prefer watching HD then you need to schedule the recording on the appropriate HD channel as the scheduled recordings are channel and not program based. Normal operation will mean that a recording will only be missed if there is no power, no signal, or no spare tuner (you scheduled more than two things at the same time as there’s only 2 tuners remember). Now if everything worked then your selected program will be waiting for you to watch but if not then in our experience you’re out of luck without some quick manual intervention (looking to see if it’s repeated or maybe you can catch it on a +1 channel where it starts an hour later). Sky+ also only schedules the next program in a series to record as each one is broadcast so when a season ends the next recording isn’t created, you’ll need to keep a lookout for when it’s coming back and setup another series recording. There is the facility to setup manual recordings, which repeat at regular intervals, but these are similar to the old repeat recordings you could set up on a VCR.
Now WMC takes a different approach as you are opting to record a program not a channel even though you might pick that program from a specific channel in the EPG (this subtle difference isn’t obvious at first for a new user). When the scheduled time approaches WMC will make sure that the computer turns on and that the program is recorded at the right time and a channel appropriate to the settings (either standard or manually configured). This is what sets Sky+ and WMC apart because if you have set your preference to be HD and the program can be found on a HD channel then it will be recorded in HD (so long as you have a tuner capable of receiving HD of course) otherwise the standard definition (SD) will be recorded. As with Sky the program will be recorded under normal operation but if things go wrong then the intelligent scheduling steps in to try and save the day. When a scheduled recording is missed WMC scans the EPG to see if the program is available in the future and if possible another scheduled recording will be set automatically (this happens even if you’ve set a recording to be “first showing” only). This intelligent scheduling also spans across seasons of a program, since you are telling WMC that you want to record a program and not when or on which channel, so if a program goes of air for a period of time WMC will remember and automatically record it again when it returns. Another example of this smart scheduling is that if you select a series to record that has already started, you forgot to schedule it or a friend recommends you start watching it for example, WMC can pick up repeats of episodes you missed if the EPG data includes the tags to tie the series together. This intelligent scheduling also extends to manual recordings as you can create key word searches, for example have one that records anything with “F1” (Formula 1) in the title or description, and these can even be as detailed as recording all programs with “Samuel L Jackson” listed in the cast or a specific director, genre, etc. You can also set manual recordings to repeat at specific intervals as with Sky+ should the need arise.
As I’ve mentioned the WMC approach isn’t perfect and issues with the EPG can cause a breakdown in the system. Each time you create a scheduled recording you can subsequently alter the options to change how this intelligent scheduling works. There is an option to say “record only new episodes”, which can be handy if there are repeats of a previous season shown (Top Gear for example), but we have had programs that weren’t recorded because the EPG showed them as a repeat. We work around that issue by setting our recordings to “new and repeats” or sometimes “all occurrences” which means we might record episodes that we’re not interested in but it’s better than missing them entirely. This is a good compromise as WMC also has intelligence where it “remembers” if it has already recorded an episode of a program and ignores any repeats of that specific episode (soap operas like Coronation Street are good examples of where this intelligence works really well as they’re quite often repeated).
Another limitation, although Sky+ also suffers from this on some channels, is that although with WMC you are recording a program, not specifically the time or channel, there are occasions when the tag that links episodes of the same program together is missing which means that the series recording option isn’t available. Luckily with WMC you can work around this even easier than you can with Sky+ thanks to the “keyword” recordings you can set up. This same issue can also arise with programs that alter the name slightly each time they are on, Formula 1 is a good example here as the name of the program often includes the fact it’s qualifying or the location of the race which changes (this is why I use a keyword search as I mentioned before).
There is no doubt in my mind that WMC wins in this area and we miss how the scheduling works in WMC especially in the early days where on occasion we switched off the Sky+ box at the wall socket resulting in missed recordings (which weren’t rescheduled or worse still the series link chain was broken). The way the Sky+ box works also had me creating scheduled recordings twice when I realised we weren’t taking advantage of all the available HD channels.
Resolving Recording Conflicts
Since the Sky+ box only contains two tuners and Windows Media Center has a maximum number that is supported (although the amount of cabling required to max it out is most likely the limiting factor) conflicts in the recording schedule are inevitable since there aren’t enough tuners available. It is really important that these circumstances are handled in a timely and pro-active manner, to allow the conflicts to be resolved, and this can really impact the experience and benefits of a PVR.
Although we now have 4 tuners in the computer that is used for WMC we only had 2 until quite recently and since we’d not had a big problem with missed recordings I had always thought it was enough. Now having Sky+ again for just over a month it is quite clear that this was down to the intelligent scheduling of WMC even though I don’t feel we record that much. Unfortunately the way Sky+ handles conflicts means we were regularly missing programs although I must be honest and say that this was partly due to taking advantage of the HD movie channels so we were recording more than normal.
The Sky+ box will warn you if you schedule too many programs and provides way to select which program to cancel should you prefer to. Should an automatic scheduling conflict arise then when you come back to watch your recordings the dreaded words “Clashed” or “Part Recorded” instead of “Recorded” will be displayed. As I described above the program is not re-scheduled automatically so unless you can find a repeat your in trouble (of course there are catch-up TV services but I’ll discuss that later). This is bad enough but it gets worse and I’ll use an example to highlight how terrible the experience can be. Our eldest asked if we could record something the following week and since the Sky+ box only schedules the next episode in a series as each one airs the schedule appeared free for the appropriate time so no message was displayed when we scheduled the recording. Now fast forward a week and by pure luck I happened to be watching one of the series that was recording, while another series recording was also happening so both tuners were in use, when suddenly a message popped up that something else was about to record (the program our son had requested) and an option to either cancel that recording or the channel would change (since the 2nd tuner was busy recording the other program). I deliberately let the Sky+ PVR handle the conflict so I could see what happened and compare it to WMC as I already had this post comparing them in mind. As stated the channel changed, the show I was watching stopped recording, and the new program started to record! The Sky+ PVR had actually stopped recording something half way through to start another scheduled recording. I then stepped in and stopped the recording and manually set the previous program recording again. A positive note is that things have changed since we previously had Sky+ as now the 2nd recorded segment of the same program was appended to the 1st part of the recording (when we watching the recording a message was displayed saying the signal was lost) where as previously the 1st part of the recording would have been lost.
As with scheduling recordings WMC handles things very differently and we’d really become accustomed to this without even realising it. When you schedule a program to record, that causes a conflict, this is resolved automatically by the intelligent scheduling I described in the previous section. This automatic resolution of conflicts refers to a list of recording priorities so that the shows you have put as higher priority are recorded first and most definitely aren’t missed in favour of a program with lower priority. This list is built automatically in the order that you create scheduled recordings and you can manually re-order that list as required. A final step is if a lower priority show isn’t repeated but a higher priority show can be found repeated later then the fact that it is possible to record both will take over. After all that intelligent scheduling you might still be left with scheduled recordings that still can’t happen and so WMC will either display a pop-up warning with an option to resolve manually or when you look through the list of scheduled recordings you’ll see an exclamation mark to inform you action is needed. When you resolve a conflict manually WMC will also ask if you want to change the priorities just on this occasion or permanently.
As with the scheduling of recordings how WMC handles conflicts is a clear winner over Sky+ and thankfully we still have WMC setup to record all our programs so can fall back to this if something isn’t recorded on the Sky+ STB.
Scheduled and Recorded TV
This is yet another topic where Sky+ and Windows Media Center take different approaches. WMC keeps recorded programs and scheduled recordings completely separate and so it is much clearer when looking at what is scheduled. As I mentioned before you can also see every program that is scheduled to record from the EPG so any potential conflicts will be clearly shown with an exclamation mark. Each scheduled recording can have the series settings edited to change the preferences; HD or SD preferred, search across all channels, or record on a specific channel (the specific channels is limited to information contained in the EPG). You can also change the view of scheduled recordings to sort by date or title and recorded TV uses a Metro UI element to allow the views to be easily switched between date recorded, title, and original air date.
The Sky+ interface keeps recorded and scheduled programs in one list, called the “Planner”, with previous recordings at the top of the list followed by any currently scheduled recordings. This can make it harder to find future scheduled recordings and also means you run the risk of accidentally deleting a recorded program when in fact you just wanted to stop any further recordings.
I’m sure that this is a personal preference but for us going back to Sky+ then it’s another point for WMC as we’ve struggled with the unified view.
Multiroom and Beyond
So you’re watching and pausing live television, mastered the art of scheduling the shows you don’t want to miss, and programs are recording nicely on your chosen PVR. The problem is your kids are using the games console on the television or you’re feeling tired and figure you’ll watch some TV in bed before settling down for the night. What if you want to catch up on some recorded TV during your lunch break at work or perhaps you’re working away.
Windows Media Center has always had great support for these scenarios, I believe the term is “place-shifting”, and things have got even better in the version of WMC included with Windows 7. It is important to note though that much of this comes from the fact that with Freesat and Freeview the programs are transmitted and recorded without any Digital Rights Management (DRM). This is vital to the freedom to enjoy the programs you have recorded away from the computer it was recorded on. Look for the colour draining from the face of someone in the US if you say the phrase “copy once protection”.
So getting back to the subject in hand you can configure the computer running WMC to share the recorded TV files with other computers, either by directly playing them from shared folders with HomeGroup or streaming them, so long as they understand the media format (DVR-MS for XP and Vista Media Center or WTV in Windows 7). You can also use other devices, like a Windows Mobile/Phone, to synchronise the recordings over a USB cable. All this means that not only can you watch your recorded TV programs around the house but you can take them anywhere you go. I’ve even streamed our recorded TV outside of the home to a laptop using the sharing capabilities built into Windows Media Player on Windows 7.
Another alternative is to use a Windows Media Center Extender (extender) and although there used to be devices made by other manufacturers the Xbox 360 is the only extender device available to purchase new. The extender allows you to “extend” the WMC experience into any room by simply connecting the extender device to a TV and configuring the connection between it and the WMC computer (it does require a wired or wireless network connection). This means you can enjoy all of the core PVR functionality on the extender including watching and pausing live TV, setting up and changing scheduled recordings, and many of the other media capabilities of WMC (I’ll cover these in part 3 as they’re not core PVR functions). When using an extender all of this works without interrupting any of the other extenders or even the main WMC computer, the only exception to this when trying to watch live TV and there are no more tuners available.
The Sky+ box does offer some freedom but this comes with limitations and can also mean an increase to your subscription. The Sky service can be upgraded to include multiroom and this places another Sky STB in another room and hooks up directly to the satellite dish with it’s own set of tuners. This allows the freedom to watch any live TV but doesn’t allow you to view recorded programs from the main Sky+ STB. You also can’t access the list of scheduled recordings on the Sky+ STB so if you see something you want to record you’ll have to go use that instead. There is a final option as the Sky+ STB, or even a standard Sky STB, offers a coax output so you can “extend” the viewing to other televisions but this also has limitations as you can only watch the same live or recorded TV as is being played on the main STB. You can purchase IR blasters to allow you to remotely control the STB but you’re still at the mercy of someone changing channels or stopping the recorded TV program. The positive side is that this type of “extended” experience does allow you to maintain scheduled recordings so long as you have the IR blaster working. It is also possible to use this coax output to re-record programs onto another device but this is strictly real-time and involves actually playing the program while the other device records it again (there will be a loss of quality too especially where HD content is concerned).
Unfortunately Sky+ is very much a walled garden with recorded content mostly locked away and only accessible on the STB. I think it’s important to remember that with Sky you are getting premium content and the only way they can obtain the agreements with the media companies is to protect it. This means DRM and limited abilities to record and then place-shift those recordings. There are other ways to get this content and I’ll cover that in part 3 as it’s really outside the scope of the core PVR features.
Another area where you could argue this either way but given the focus it’s another point to WMC as the level of freedom it gives us we couldn’t give up now. There are times when we genuinely start watching a recorded or live TV program in one room, say the kitchen while preparing dinner, and then finish watching it via the Xbox 360 extender in the living room later once the kids are in bed.
So that brings me to the end of part 2 and for anyone keeping score it’s now 6 points to 3 in favour of Windows Media Center. It really is the core PVR functions that sets Windows Media Center apart in terms of ease of use, functionality, and making the content available almost anywhere (although changes in legislation could change that if our broadcasts became DRM protected). At the moment part 3 should be the last part in this post and I’ll cover features that fall outside the core PVR function like remote scheduling, playing personal media (pictures, music and videos), and finally streaming media (catch up TV services for example).
One thought on “Would We Choose Windows Media Center Again? – Part 2”
After reading your first impressions of the BLACKGOLD BGT3620 dvb t2 tuner I have subsequently purchased one.
One of the reasons for choosing this tuner was its ability to accept aux inputs namely composite, s-video, component, and RGB.
I have subsequently discovered that despite the hype this tuner WILL NOT ACCEPT RGB OR COMPONENT INPUTS. I have requested advise from Blackgold who advise me that the problem is with WMC and they are currently in discussion with microsoft to resolve the issue.
Are you aware of the problem and is their any fixes that would the system to accept an RGB input.