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.

Welcome Back

I hope you enjoyed reading “Would We Choose Windows Media Center Again?” Part 1 and Part 2 and I would certainly appreciate any feedback or comments.  Looking back the Sky+ solution is currently trailing Windows Media Center by 3 points to 6 and so far if we were making a balanced decision I know which we would choose.  In this final part of this series I’m going to look at features beyond the core experience that I believe a good Personal Video Recorder (PVR) should offer.  Although none of these features would particularly influence our choice, since we tend to only use the core features, I still think it is useful to compare how Windows Media Center compares to the Sky+ Set Top Box (STB) offered by a big player like Sky.

Remote Control

Consider these scenarios; you are staying away, running late, or hear about a new show that sounds interesting.  In the first two scenarios you’ve forgotten to schedule a recording and in the last you really want to do it now in case you forget later.  The solution is being able to remotely schedule recordings.  There is an additional scenario where you know the power has been out at home and either want to check if something recorded or perhaps make sure that a repeat will be recorded instead.  What if you’ve gone away and realised there isn’t enough space left for everything that is going to record during that time?

These aren’t the sort of scenarios you’d expect a PVR to be able to accommodate but in this increasingly connected world why not?  During our trial of Sky I have made use of their remote scheduling via the website and this works as you’d expect (except that it creates a single recording and doesn’t set the series link option).  There are also applications for most smartphones that allow you to view the Electronic Program Guide (EPG) and schedule recordings.  The limitations here is that you are using the satellite to send remote commands and that is a one way street, so cancelling recordings or managing the space used by existing recordings isn’t possible.  The main benefit is that the Sky+ STB doesn’t need to be on as I understand Sky will queue these commands plus you are viewing an online EPG not the one stored on the STB.

Since Windows Media Center (WMC) runs on a computer, and so long as that computer is connected to the internet, the possibilities are much richer.  I reviewed one such application, for Windows Phone (WP7) devices here.  There are plenty of other solutions available, across most smartphone platforms, although they will require some software to be installed on the WMC computer and ports re-directed on the router (if you require access from outside the home).  These remote control applications offer far more functionality since you can often view not only the EPG but scheduled recordings, change recording preferences, delete existing recordings and in some cases stream them to your device.  It is also important to note that all of the solutions require that the computer is turned on in order to receive the commands remotely (so you’ll need to do this when it’s recording or configure the computer to wake up on demand).

This is a tough one to choose as while Sky+ is quite limited when it comes to remote control it does work without any setting up by the user.  I am going to award the win to Sky since although it offers limited features, only remote recording is possible, it does so without any additional software which although relatively simple to setup does add a level of complexity.

Media Capabilities

There is no denying that a modern PVR has changed the way people watch television and generally we view more recorded TV than watching live.  As people store more and more digital memories (photographs, videos) and are moving away from music on physical media (compact disc) to downloads (MP3’s).  There is no doubt that Personal Media Players (PMP) like iPods and also smartphones are quite often used to consume this content but what if you want to share with visiting relatives on the big screen?  Media streaming devices that can be hooked up to the television are becoming popular, which use DLNA to play files stored on a computer, but wouldn’t it be great if you could use your PVR instead of adding yet another device under the TV?

WMC-MediaLooking at WMC the facility to play all your media is built-in, and the reason why it’s called Windows Media Center and not Windows TV Center, and when you’re using Windows 7 and the WMC computer is directly connected to the TV you’re all set.  Even if the digital media isn’t stored directly on the WMC computer then you’ll need to configure the HomeGroup to include those files in the library.  It is important to note though that if the media files, music for example, are protected using Digital Rights Management (DRM) then it might not be possible to play them on a computer that wasn’t used to purchase them.

When using a Media Center Extender (extender) this can overcome these DRM limitations, so long as the WMC computer holds the licence, since you are in effect playing them on the computer you are connected to.  The downside to using an extender, like the Xbox 360, is that not all media types are supported but generally this doesn’t affect music or pictures so really it is just the format used by your video camera.

The Sky+ STB does have a network port but at the moment this isn’t used so it isn’t possible to play your own personal media or stream it from a central location like a Windows 7 computer.  This really does mean that WMC is the clear winner in this area, we very often have music playing while showing a slide show of pictures when visitors are over, although again this is going to come down to personal preference as some people might not have any need for this ability.

Streaming Media

Almost all of the main channels have a catch up TV service these days, so that you can stream a program in case you missed it, but these are normally limited to viewing on a computer or laptop.  Wouldn’t it be great if your chosen PVR could also bring these services to your big screen TV?  When comparing a Sky+ STB to WMC it isn’t as straight forward as it should be due to the fact that extenders don’t support Flash which is what most of these services use.

The Sky+ STB doesn’t support streaming of online content but there is a service called Sky Anytime which is where the Sky+ box automatically records programs when the tuners aren’t being used.  This content is deleted automatically and really this can’t be called streaming since the content is coming from the STB itself.  There is an additional service called Sky Anytime+ which is a streaming service but is limited to Sky Broadband customers.  In each case the programs available are only from the Sky packages and currently don’t include shows from BBC1, etc.

WMC-SkyPlayerThings get better when looking at WMC although there are added complications as availability of content depends on the setup.  If the WMC computer is directly connected to the TV then you can install additional software, TunerFreeMCE for example, that integrates with the WMC interface.  There is also a way to watch Sky, either live or catch-up, content on WMC using the SkyPlayer software that integrates nicely but you can’t record any of this to watch later.  The ability to watch Sky content does require a subscription although Sky do offer a SkyPlayer only subscription but most premium content isn’t available.  In some regions there are other WMC streaming options like Netflix in the US.

Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, when using an extender most, if not all, of these streaming services are unavailable due to the lack of Flash support.  Now all isn’t lost if you using an Xbox 360 as an extender as you can access SkyPlayer, or Netflix in the US, via the Xbox Dashboard but this means outside of the WMC interface.  Without digressing from the topic too much these services also need an Xbox Live Gold subscription when used via the Xbox Dashboard.  If, after reading this series, you are also choosing between a Sky+ STB or WMC then you should certainly look into the SkyPlayer option as it might be that the content you want is still available albeit with on-going monthly fees.

This isn’t something that would influence our decision either way but when comparing the two WMC is the clear winner here.  Even though it does require additional software with the exception of TunerFreeMCE these are installed through the WMC interface, so the only downside is the potential for confusion that the extender issue could cause.

To InfiniTV and Beyond

Apologies for the terrible heading and unless you follow Windows Media Center news outside of the UK then you might be slightly puzzled.  In the US there is a tuner called the Ceton InfiniTV 4 which not only contains 4 tuners but it allows them to be shared out across the network.

There is something similar available for WMC but with the added benefit of working with many different tuners.  I’m talking about DVBLink TV Source with DVBLink Server Network Pack by DVBLogic and we utilise this software to allow our tuners to be installed in our Windows Home Server (WHS) instead of the WMC computer.  This means that clients, including the WMC computer, can access a tuner as if it were installed locally.  This means that other computers or laptops can act like extenders but since WMC is running locally you get all of the benefits (SkyPlayer, TunerFreeMCE, etc) without the limitation of no Flash support.

There really is no equivalent for Sky except for the multiroom that I described in part 2 or taking advantage of the SkyPlayer or the Sky online streaming service.  The reason I wouldn’t consider it an equivalent is because with WMC you can also record the programs in exactly the same way (with the same scheduling features I described).  The only downside to using this type of solution over an extender is that you don’t get a unified EPG so anything you schedule must be recorded on that computer (you’d have to use one of the remote control applications or access the main household WMC computer to manage the main scheduled recordings).

I’m not going to award a point here since generally it means purchasing, installing, and configuring additional software and I really wanted to compare out-of-the-box (OOTB) experiences.  I will say that this is something that we have become used to and if the choice between WMC and Sky+ weren’t as clear cut it would be a serious consideration.


I must admit I was slightly concerned when the trial was offered to us as I knew that giving up Sky+ had been partly through circumstance rather than choice, so selecting WMC was potentially a case of selecting the closest alternative.  Would we choose Windows Media Center again?  Taking a final points tally it’s 8 points to WMC and only 4 to Sky+ and while writing this feature, and using Sky+ on a daily basis as part of the trial, I am certain that we would choose WMC again.  I am pleased to say that everything I discussed in part 2 are the main reasons for this and the topics discussed in this part simply provide additional reasons to support that decision.

The way that WMC intelligently schedules recordings and then allows us to watch those recordings anywhere really does set it above Sky+ and I know that it’s only the fact we’ve kept WMC running concurrently that frustrations haven’t arisen with the limitations of the Sky+ PVR.  It’s also important to consider that the addition of DRM to Freeview and/or Freesat would prevent some of that freedom but even then the intelligent scheduling is far superior to anything offered by Sky+.  Now obviously WMC can’t compete with the Sky service in terms of content, both the availability of HD channels and also programming like sports and movies, so if you really can’t live without that premium content Sky+ is possibly the only option.

Looking to the future and the prospect of Windows Media Center being available on a STB running Windows Embedded Standard 7 (WES7), and these still support extenders, it really does make me wonder what might be possible if Sky adopted that as it’s STB of choice.

Would you choose Windows Media Center as your PVR?

3 thoughts on “Would We Choose Windows Media Center Again? – Part 3”
  1. Good set of articles thanks. very interesting.

    I think you were too generous to award the remote scheduling to Sky. With sky you can’t set a program to record remotely if it is due to start within 30 minutes. With all of the media center options, you can do it even after the program has started. Personally I use Big Screen byRemote. It has PC and mobile interfaces, and works a treat. Much better than sky. But then perhaps you felt bad that Sky was losing so badly and wanted to give it a pass on that?


  2. Hi Martin,

    Thanks, I’m pleased you enjoyed reading them. I appreciate your point and I have to say I originally had WMC as the winner on that segment and really spent some time considering the final choice. In the end I chose Sky for the reasons I stated because I’ve had a situation where I wanted to use Big Screen byRemote and the WMC computer was asleep. I appreciate there are ways around that but it all adds to a level of complexity with the potential for it to break. There is also the consideration that opening your firewall does prevent a security risk (no matter how small).

    When I balanced all those things up I decided Sky just worked although I appreciate it is a personal choice and of course even Sky has it’s limitations as you pointed out. I hope that if you read these articles you can interpret them from a WAF point of view and I can tell you that the WAF of Sky+ has not been good when programs have clashed or failed to re-schedule. With that in mind the WAF wouldn’t be good if I couldn’t setup a remote recording because, for example, I couldn’t wake the computer. At least with Sky it would just work so from a WAF point of view I had to award the point to Sky.

    It’s good to hear alternative views though so any further comments from yourself, or other readers, is very welcome.

  3. Great article. I also use WMC for my tv viewing. 2xDVB-S2 tuners and all movies/music/pics are held on a network drive.

    I have augmented my setup with Witopia IP service ($50 a year) which give me an American IP address which allows me to watch Hulu/Netflix (family in the US account) and Boxee due to the amount of third parts apps that can be installed.

    The hulu destop app can be launched from within MCE and when I close it MCE restarts. This give me access to all the major US tv channels.

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