Fun With Windows Media Center – An Epic Journey

It may not be quite "epic", but it has been quite a journey.

First, let me explain what Windows Media Center [let’s just say WMC from now on] is. WMC is an application that runs on Windows [for the sake of discussion, let’s keep it Vista specific] and allows you to host music, pictures, videos, TV, DVDs, radio, etc. on a computer which is connected to you home entertainment system [TV & stereo system usually].

As a small point of history, Laura and I have moved around a little in this area discovering the good/bad/ugly of the local cable systems and DirecTV. Not that DirecTV in and of itself is bad, but the outages during high winds and storms was unacceptable. We tried local cable: Comcast first and now Cox. Verizon Fios is out but not yet at our house. In the course of trying out the different cable systems and DVRs, we fast discovered that both cable system boxes are VERY bad. The Comcast box was better, but the guide was awful and had advertisements all over it. It was slow and never quite worked for On-Demand videos. The Cox  box works just fine – if  you like slow and non-responsive at times. However, the DVR portion of this box is absolutely horrible. There’s no "series priority" setting that the Comcast box had – in other words, you couldn’t program 3 shows to record at once [of course, since there are only 2 tuners] and have it chose the top 2 in case of a conflict in time. I can’t even view the list and settings of my scheduled recordings. I have to guess. Also: I can’t record a series with the settings: "all new shows on all channels". Even recording "all shows on this channel" isn’t smart enough to know that it has already recorded that episode – it records it anyway and fills up the disk.

So I thought I’d remedy the problem by using Laura’s "old" computer as a WMC station. By "old" I mean only a year old. The only newer computers in this house are the server and my work laptops – only 1 of them, actually. So it’s not really that old. It came with a tuner and has a 300GB hard drive which at first glance is enough to be a basic media center.

Configuring the basics of the WMC and connecting it to the TV/stereo was a joy: everything worked great. I had digital audio connections and a VGA jack right into the TV. It would have been better with HDMI I’m sure, but that would have been an upgrade at a later date when I found out if it worked like I wanted it to. The only initial problem was WiFi signal strength [don’t do this, by the way – go for wired connections] which I have now solved by using an Ethernet over power line adapter. The great thing about this is that I could now [once the network problems were solved] listen to all of our music CDs which I painstakingly ripped to MP3 over a series of months and stored on the server. Now, there is no need to dig through a box of disks searching for the right one. I just load up the music library and Boom! Tons of music. Success!

It also worked great for some downloaded episodes from Amazon Unbox – some NCIS or CSI episodes we missed and needed to catch up on played very well. DVDs played wonderfully as well, even transmitting digital surround signals to the amplifier [I don’t have all the speakers mounted yet, but will soon… I hope…].

Then came the big problem. The whole reason I started this journey [not the "whole" reason really – I did want to play our music and videos from the server as well…] was to eliminate both the extra cost and evil [yes, I mean "evil"] interface of the cable guide and DVR. If you’ve ever seen the interface of WMC, it’s really slick. I’m not just saying that out of loyalty, but out of experience. The WMC interface is quick, intuitive, and very pretty. It makes the cable box interfaces look like 80s video games… like "pong" or "Space Invaders" instead of "Halo".

So – what’s the problem with that, you ask? Well, the tuner. Yes. The tuner. The system itself ROCKS. As far as analog cable shows go, it’s the system to have… if you have only analog cable. Digital cable is another story altogether. I found that my tuner would only work with analog signals and over-the-air HDTV signals. Anyone who lives in a hilly or mountainous area will immediately recognize the flaws with that. Right – over the air in Virginia? Not. In Houston, I know this is not only possible but works quite well. It just doesn’t work for me. So I tried another tack: many cable companies will send digital channels over "clear QAM" or unencrypted digital signals over the cable. My card didn’t support this, so I picked up one at a nearby store and tried it out.

Success! I could now view digital channels… but… wait… only 13? I thought I was paying for 150 or so. Where’s all the other channels? It seems that only local broadcast channels are sent in the "clear". All the others are encrypted. What should I do? After some research, I discovered that there is a system that will support this called CableCard. This is a method by which encrypted signals are decoded and able to be played by a media system or even TV which has this capability. I thought I’d found the solution.

The more I read, though, the more disappointed I became. CableCard tuners only seemed to work on pre-configured systems with special BIOS that would support them. What this means in English is that in order for me to get the channels that I wanted on my WMC PC, I would need to spend about $1500 or more on a new computer just to escape the ugly interface and clunky DVR. I wasn’t ready to do that. I am glad I didn’t buy the tuners – returning them would have been a pain. So I was stuck. Well, not only stuck, but I found out that Cable Labs who makes these "standards" for the cable industry keeps changing things. There’s now a new standard for bi-direction digital cable encryption/decryption that cable companies will be utilizing, thereby obsoleting any system that I would have purchased or configured.

The conclusion of this story is that I have relocated Laura’s computer back to the basement, created a virtual desktop running Vista, installed WMC, created a local copy [which is synchronized via Live Sync] of all of our music, and connected a Media Center Extender to the stereo and TV which now lets us play our music and videos on the main entertainment system.

Oh – and that now includes a Blu-Ray player which I had intended to add into the WMC computer.

I’m not giving up, though. Verizon Fios will be coming soon and their DVR system and cable box is based on Windows CE and a custom version of what looks a lot like WMC.

Maybe one day, cable companies will do something smart… or helpful… or maybe not.

One can hope, yes?

5 thoughts on “Fun With Windows Media Center – An Epic Journey”

  1. Sorry to hear that…sounds like a cable-card capable TIVO is your best bet. It also will double as a Netflix streaming and Amazon VOD front end, if FiOS gets delayed.

    I”m still rockin” the OTA solution in Houston. It”s been six years since I had regular access to cable TV. I don”t even have time to watch the shows I record OTA :).


  2. You know how windy it is at Mandy”s. They have DirecTV, and they don”t complain about losing a signal all the time. I wonder where their dish is mounted to prevent that.


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