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R.I.P., Windows Media Center

Microsoft discontinued development of Windows Media Center in 2009, but enthusiasts have held out hope that the feature would get one more reprieve for Windows 10. Sorry, folks, that's not happening.

Windows Media Center is dead.

In a private meeting this week at the Build developers' conference in San Francisco, a Microsoft executive confirmed to me that there will be no update to the company's Media Center software for Windows 10.

The decision is a disappointment to the small but incredibly vocal army of Media Center enthusiasts, who had held out hope that a Windows 10 Media Center add-on, similar to the one offered for Windows 8, might appear at the last minute.

That's not happening. Any PC that is upgraded from Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 to Windows 10 will lose the Media Center functionality, and there's no way to get it back.

Update May 4. Microsoft's Gabe Aul has confirmed the news on Twitter:

He added, in two follow-up tweets, "If you have WMC now, we'll have a DVD option for you in an update later this year... The main scenario people used WMC for was to play DVD. We'll provide another option for DVD playback in the future."

If you try to install the most recent build of Windows 10 on a PC running Media Center, you get this stark warning before setup will continue:

wmc-incompatible.jpg

Windows Media Center "isn't compatible with Windows 10," and it's not going to be.

That decision shouldn't come as a surprise. Media Center, once a signature feature of Windows "premium" editions, has been on life support for years. The team developing Media Center features was broken up in 2009, shortly after delivering the final Media Center code for Windows 7.

Microsoft grudgingly offered an extra-cost Windows Media Center Pack add-on for Windows 8, which installed the required codecs and Media Center features to that version, but it was a straight port that included no new functionality. It was introduced with a post that pointedly declared that Media Center was not part of "the future of entertainment."

And with the rise of the "cord-cutting" movement, with consumers increasingly turning to streaming services and ditching cable subscriptions, it's hard to fault the economics of Microsoft's decision.

Media Center debuted in 2002 as part of a special edition of Windows XP, offering support for PC-based TV tuners and a "10-foot interface" for controlling media playback, including DVDs and music, with a remote control.

Over successive versions, Media Center was upgraded significantly, to include support for high-definition TV, CableCard-based tuners, and an SDK that enabled apps from third-party sources like Netflix as well as support for playback of Blu-ray discs.

An independent Media Center community, The Green Button (named after the signature home button on a Media Center remote control), was so successful that it was purchased by Microsoft in 2008.

The Media Center interface was groundbreaking, and its DNA is still present in the Windows 10 user experience. But plug-ins written for Media Center never took off, and most of them are abandonware in 2015.

A year before the launch of Windows 8, then-Windows boss Steven Sinofsky justified the decision to leave out Media Center by citing economics and low usage. Today, usage of Windows Media Center is "infinitesimal," as measured by Microsoft's automatic telemetry. Most of that usage is to play back DVDs, where other software solutions are readily available.

So what are the alternatives for enthusiasts who are still convinced that Media Center on a Windows PC is the best solution for the living room?

The simplest answer is to stick with Windows 7 (or Windows 8.1 with the Media Center Pack add-on) and forgo the free Windows 10 upgrade completely. Media Center still works on those operating systems, which will be supported until 2020 and 2023, respectively. On a Media Center PC dedicated to living room use, a Windows 10 upgrade offers nothing of value.

For playback of TV programming on big screens, the Xbox One is the best modern alternative for Media Center refugees. The Sling TV service, available as an Xbox One app, offers a diverse array of content, live and on-demand. There's also a new live-TV option for the Xbox One, using a Hauppauge tuner to deliver over-the-air programming via the Xbox.

TiVo's hardware, of course, is still a viable option, delivering external DVR capabilities with CableCard support, albeit with a monthly fee that will pain anyone accustomed to the free Media Center listings.

If you aren't afraid to roll your sleeves up and learn the ins and outs of a new platform, Media Portal comes recommended. (I haven't tried it personally.) Any HTPC forum can probably offer other, similar alternatives.

And as painful as it might sound, the best alternative for those who want time-shifting functionality from a cable or satellite provider is to rent a DVR from that provider. Those options might not match the Media Center experience, but Comcast's Xfinity DVR and equivalent products from DirecTV have improved significantly in recent years.

For those concerned about being able to play back recorded TV programs on Windows 10 without the Media Center add-on, try installing VLC from the Windows Store. On a clean install of Windows 10 it had no problems playing back files saved in the Windows TV (.wtv) format.

Meanwhile, any Media Center fans who need a little closure (and maybe a chance to vent) are welcome to meet me in the comments below, where fond remembrances and eulogies are welcome.


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