Saturday, February 28, 2009

Windows Media Center: Way to go, Microsoft!

Microsoft has gotten a lot of flack over the years for their software. Windows 98, Me, XP, Vista, Office, Outlook, Internet Explorer, you name it, people have dumped on it for one reason or another. However, some bits of code the Microsoft churns out work like a charm. XP Pro SP2 comes to mind. It's been stable for me for years. Even rarer yet, some MS apps are total game-changers, meaning they are so useful that they change the way we use computers. In my humble opinion, one of these applications is Windows Media Center.

About 2 years ago, I decided that I wanted to build a DVR (Digital Video Recorder) to record my favorite TV shows and movies. I could have opted for my cable company's bundled DVR/cable box, but I found it lacking in features and too pricy. Besides, building a PC is fun for tinkerers like me. I could tailor it to be exactly what I wanted. So, I bought the parts, assembled it, and ran GB-PVR as my media center front-end software. It was a little buggy, but a very good (free) solution overall. When I switched to Verizon FiOS, I found out the hard way that my cable box was not supported under GB-PVR, so I needed an alternative. Enter Windows XP Media Center Edition.

XP MCE has a clean, easy to use interface. It has a program guide for every TV service in America, hosted by Microsoft and available for free. It has the ability to record in Mpeg2, so the quality is there. Record reruns and/or broadcast premiers with ease. It has the ability to stream your audio and video from network shares, and organize them in a nice, presentable fashion, including tags, descriptions and cover art.

One thing that it is lacking is automatic commercial skip. However this is available with a 3rd-party plugin called DVRMSToolbox. One hardware requirement is the MS proprietary "Media Center" remote. The XP version is no longer made, but is available from eBay for about $30. The XP version of Media Center is being phased out in favor of the Vista version. Even though Vista is, by and large, crap, the Media Center component is even better and more robust than the XP version, or so I've heard. I haven't played with Vista Media Canter at all yet, but reviews I've read are very positive. Also, there's no native HD recording or Blu-ray support in either version of Windows Media Center yet.

If you're looking to roll your own DVR, or you have an older PC that needs a new use, I highly recommend giving XP MCE a go. It's usable, reliable, clean, low maintenance, and cheap. You won't be sorry.