Polska Brain Jelly

Media Center PC part 1

by on Aug.13, 2009, under TV

A little while back I started exploring options after I dropped DirectTV for telling me they carried local stations when they didn’t. I started thinking with the digital transition about to happen and local tv stations broadcasting in HD, why not try the free approach first and go from there.  Half a dozen different antennas and varying results later (of which the best was three stations out of thirteen), I decided it was time to start pumping TV back into the house through a provider.  I also figured since I was starting from scratch again, why not go the Media PC route.  That way I could record shows and then share them over the network to other computers in the house, something I wasn’t able to do when I had Dish or DirectTV.  I knew there were digital tuner cards for over the air broadcasts, and figured there would surely be cards that integrated into Windows Media Center for cable and satellite as well.  *BZZZZZZT*, wrong answer, for the most part.

Starting my research, I learn all about NTSC, ATSC and QAM.  I also learn that HD uses the h.264 standard.  Then I learn that Media Center doesn’t support h.264.

What?

Digging a little further, I find that MCE (media center edition) only recently started support for QAM based tuners, and that was with an OEM only update to MCE.

Oh, bother.

Seems Microsoft has been treating MCE like an afterthought.  I’ve enjoyed it for the most part on my XBox 360 to stream music and videos from my XP machine.  There are some limitations since I’m not using MCE on my XP box, but it wasn’t a big deal.  However, since I’m making this PC the hub for TV entertainment for the entire household, I want to make sure it works and works well.  If it doesn’t even port in the cable or satellite feed that I want in the first place, I’m done before I even started.

For the next two months I dig further into the dark pit that is Microsoft Media Center.  I read posts from customers and enthusiasts who want desperately to enjoy their vision of a unified media experience, and devise clever and complex ways to work around the limitations of MCE.  I read posts from disheartened former customers who have moved on thinking MS has abandoned them.  I read mixed reviews on CableCard implementations and hopes for a satellite solution.  I read a lot about hopes, but little about actual satisfied customer experiences.

Then Windows 7 RC is released, and hope springs alive.

I had been messing around with the Windows 7 Beta for a while on a virtual machine, but hadn’t looked into it in much detail.  While on my MCE research project, I find that MCE is going to be offered in all three of Windows 7’s versions (Home, Business, and Ultimate).  That’s a great leap from earlier versions where it was only offered on Home Premium and Ultimate for Vista, and it’s own version for XP based off of the Professional build (but with certain pro features disabled).  It looks as if MS is actually taking MCE seriously.

The next few posts will detail what options I looked at and their implementation into MCE, and then what I finally decided on.


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