After a few months of research into the options for media PCs, I finally found an option that I wanted to go foward with.  The only thing left to do was put all the pieces together and see what the puzzle looked like.

To start, I needed a computer.  Not wanting the expense of building one from scratch, I had an Emachines Media Center PC lying around that I figured would fit the bill for a testbed.  After my research, I knew that I would be using Windows 7, so I wiped the Windows Media Center 2005 off the hard drive and installed Windows 7 Ultimate RC.  It also came with only 512MB of RAM, so I bumped that up to 2.5GB with sticks I had around the house.  From here, I hooked it up to the tv using the d-sub connector and commenced to testing.  Windows 7 installed without a hitch and recognized all of the hardware so no drivers needed to be installed.  An antivirus download and an update later and I was ready to test Media Center.

Media Center ran well for the most part.  It was a little sluggish on screen transitions, and starting videos was time consuming, but other than that, it ran okay.  I had already figured on upgrading to a PCI Express video card, and this confirmed that it was needed.  I also needed to get a tuner card, and I decided on a cheap NVidia GeForce 8400 and a Hauppauge WinTV HVR-1600.  I also ordered a Media Center remote because the tuner didn’t come with one that worked with Media Center.  I also was dismayed to find out that the board didn’t have an S/PDIF connector on it (the MSI boards that Emachines installed appearently were stripped down versions, this one doesn’t have S/PDIF in or out or the extra surround sound connectors on the board).  So I found an old SoundBlaster Audigy card and slapped it in the third and final slot (other than the PCIe x1 slot).  Now I will have digital audio that can run to my A/V reciever and surround sound speakers.

After installing all of the hardware, I also download Windows 7 Professional RTM through my MSND account and set forward to perform a clean install and get everything going.  The install went okay, although finding the correct drivers for the Audigy card was a little frustrating.  So with everything installed, I take the freshly installed cable from the back of the set top box Suddenlink installed and split it and hooked it up to the Media PC.

After running the TV signal setup in Media Center, I get… nothing.  No signal.  Great.  I take the lead out of the tuner card and hook it to the digital box.  Nothing.  Take the splitter off and hook it back to the digital box.  Cable.  Okay, so there must be enough signal loss when splitting that the tuner can’t read the signal.  So I dig out a signal amplifier and hook that up before the splitter, hook the leads to the tuner card and run the TV signal setup again.  This time I decide to run both the analog and digital setups.  Signal detected, channels added!  Whoohoo!

Only, the digital channels it picked up weren’t the digital channels it was supposed to pick up.  It seemed to pick up the analog equivalent of the digital channels and assign them to the digital numbers.  It was a mess.  Not only that, but I had no idea how Suddenlink mapped their digital channels.  Just to make sure it wasn’t a signal problem, I hook the split feed into my TV.  I run setup and it picks up both the analog and digital channels and maps them correctly according to Suddenlink’s channel guide, all without my intervention.  Huh.  Too bad my tuner card can’t do that.  Back to the Internet to look and see if I can find how the channels are mapped (my TV automatically mapped the digital stations to the 700 numbers, so I couldn’t go off of that).  Three hours later I finally find a site (thank you SiliconDust!) that shows the correct channel numbers along with their station names.  So I spend the next two hours manually adding the missing digital stations (my local HD channels) and combining and cleaning up the analog and digital signals it did pick up.

I now have an operational Media PC.  The guide is accurate and works well.  I also downloaded a utility that inserted the station logos.  Windows 7 Media Center is running very well with the hardware I installed.  Despite the troubles I had getting everything up and running, I am enjoying my unified media experience.  I have Windows 7 running on my main PC as well, and it has many Gigs worth of music and videos, so with HomeGroup I’m able to share those files with my Media PC.  All said, I’m enjoying it.

I have to wonder why Microsoft and others haven’t streamlined this and made it more available.  This type of frustration is only going to be overcome by enthusiasts and techies.  If Media PCs are going to take off, the complexity (which isn’t too bad now) needs to be reduced, and there needs to be many more options on integrating more TV feeds (digital cable (although there is CableCard, from what I have read it’s even more of a pain to set up and the equipment is many times cost prohibitive), satellite (DirecTV had a project going with a Media Center tuner, but that has been dropped.  Only Project Draco, which is Dish Network’s Media Center tuner, is still viable) and IPTV (still in it’s infancy, and there has been some success in getting U-Verse and Fios running in WMC) into the Media Center environment.

There is money to be made here, and I can’t fathom why there hasn’t been more of a push to go get it.

My only wish is that I had more HD programming.  My local HD stations suck. It’s severe storm season, and every time they do a weather watch overlay, the channel switches to an SD feed, so the shows that I should be getting in HD are now SD because the monkeys running the TV stations here can’t figure out how to overlay a digital image on a digital signal (except for the CBS affiliate, they seem to get it right, but who watches CBS).  Now that I know everything is working and my vision is complete, I will be doing incremental upgrades to the system, starting with a new case that is a little more pleasing to the decor than the old Emachines case.