Getting the Most from Your Media Center

My first glimpse at Microsoft's Windows Media Center technology, during a pre-Consumer Electronics Show (CES) briefing in early 2002, was eye-opening. There before me, I could see the future of TV: Windows Media Center offered live and recorded TV functionality. Although set-top boxes from TiVo and Replay were pioneering digital video recording (DVR) functionality, the Microsoft solution was far more interesting because it came wrapped inside a true Windows XP-based PC. Surely, I thought, the future of TV was one in which TV content could be enjoyed in a variety of places, and on various devices, whenever desired.

Since then, XP Media Center Edition (MCE) 2005 has taken off in the market, thanks largely to some concessions and price reductions on Microsoft's part. Today, XP MCE 2005—not XP Home Edition—is the standard XP version sold on most consumer-oriented PCs. As a result, millions of people around the world finally have experienced Microsoft's premium digital-media environment. Curiously, most of these people don't actually use Media Center to interact with their TVs—one of the previously mentioned concessions is that Microsoft doesn't require PC makers to include TV tuners on Media Center PCs. And that's too bad, because Media Center's TV experience is top-notch.

Like TiVo, Media Center lets you watch, pause, and rewind live and recorded TV. (You can also fast-forward recorded TV, of course.) If you have the right hardware—dual TV tuners and two or more TV signals—you can even watch live TV while Media Center records a second TV on a different station. And with over-the-air (OTA) HDTV hardware, you can record HDTV. The Windows Vista version of Media Center, shipping in Vista Home Premium and Vista Ultimate on January 30, 2007, will also support cable-based HDTV signals, although only through new CableCARD-based PCs. Therefore, you'll need a new PC to enjoy this capability: There won't be any upgrades to support this functionality with XP MCE 2005.

That said, there's still a whole world of TV-based entertainment to enjoy, even if you decide to stick with XP MCE 2005. Because content is all stored on a normal PC, you can copy it to portable devices, stream it to other TVs in your home, archive it on a home media server, and—with the right tools—even convert that content into more space-friendly formats. Users with Windows Mobile-based PDAs and smart phones can even sync that content with those devices. When you think about it, this kind of functionality is the ultimate example of time shifting, because you can also device-shift to use a device that's more at home in your car, an airplane, or other places. It's what DVR is really all about.

Moving Content Around Your Home
Microsoft has yet to come up with a PC-to-PC solution for sharing Media Center-based content (apparently that would be too logical), but the company has put various solutions in place for streaming Media Center content to other TVs in your home by using various devices. Current Media Center owners can choose between an original Xbox running the Media Center Extender program disc, a hardware-based Media Center Extender from networking companies such as Linksys, or the Xbox 360, which includes Media Center Extender functionality built in.

Functionally, the Xbox 360 is going to give you the best experience: Its Extender software completely duplicates the look and feel of Media Center, whereas the versions in the original Xbox and hardware Extenders are a bit toned down because of the limitations of those devices. For example, you don't get the nice animations during photo slideshows.

Whichever Extender solution you use, you're going to need a fast 802.11g-based or 802.11a-based wireless network or—better yet—a wired network (100Mbps or faster).

Taking Media Center Content on the Road
If you've got an XP-based notebook of any kind, you can simply copy recorded TV shows (which are stored in a proprietary Microsoft format called DVR-MS) to your notebook and play them in Windows Media Player (WMP)—and if you have a Media Center-based notebook, you can of course use that application. That solution works fine, but DVR-MS files are humongous, occupying over 1.5GB of space per 30 minutes of content. That's right: A two-hour movie takes up over 6GB of space (and takes an eternity to transfer across your network). If you know you're just going to delete the recorded TV shows after you've watched them, the huge file sizes might not be a concern. But if you're running low on hard disk space or would like to archive TV shows, you're going to need another solution.

Sadly, the market for DVR-MS-compatible video-editing suites is smaller than you might expect, and although there are some free solutions, I've never found one that works reliably. If you don't mind spending the money, the $99 TMPGEnc 4.0 XPress is excellent and works with DVR-MS format. Or, if you can wait until Vista, the version of Windows Movie Maker (WMM) that ships free with that OS can also convert DVR-MS files to smaller versions.

There are a variety of formats to choose from when you’re transcoding (or converting) from DVR-MS, but I've found that Windows Media Video (WMV) format offers excellent file sizes, quality, and compatibility. (These files will also work with all Extender types, notebooks, and other Microsoft-oriented devices.) How good is the compression? A WMV file that is visually indistinguishable from the DVR-MS file will occupy about 280MB of space. That's right: It's less than a fifth the size. Of course, transcoding takes time. That's one of the reasons TMPGEnc 4.0 XPress is so nice: It can run overnight in batch mode on multiple recorded TV shows.

You can also use these solutions to create content that will run on smaller devices, such as portable media players (e.g., the Microsoft Zune), Portable Media Centers (e.g., the Toshiba Gigabeat), or even Windows Mobile devices. Because these devices have small displays, you can often cut down dramatically on file sizes yet again: A 30-minute Zune-oriented WMV file (at 320 x 240 resolution) typically takes up about 150MB, for example. WMM and TMPGEnc 4.0 XPress both ship with profiles oriented toward various screen sizes and device types.

Making Movies
If all this talk about transcoding and editing movies sounds somewhat daunting, you can also burn DVD movies of your recorded TV shows: Virtually all Media Center PCs include that capability out of the box. All you need is a stack of recordable DVD media and you're good to go.

Trouble in Paradise
As always, there are a few caveats to this technology. First, because TV stations can protect their content by using a technology called Broadcast Flag, it's possible that some transmissions can't be transcoded into smaller WMV files or even played on other PCs. Today, HBO is the biggest offender: All the content HBO provides through its HBO and Cinemax pay-TV channels is protected with Broadcast Flag, so although you can stream this content to other devices in your home, you can't copy it to other PCs or transcode it to other formats. In the future, CableCARD-based digital TV and HDTV signals will suffer a similar fate. Still, the fact that you can move this content around as much as you can now is somewhat impressive, and if you're truly die-hard, you can even edit out commercials before transcoding. Not too shabby.

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