Vista Media Center: Ready for the living room?

Vista Media Center: Ready for the living room?

Summary: Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 is the best version of Windows Microsoft has ever released. That's why I’m holding my breath when I look at the big upgrade to Media Center that’s due at the end of this year in the Home Premium and Ultimate editions of Windows Vista. Will Microsoft ruin a good thing? Will its revamped interface just add unnecessary flash and bog down performance? See for yourself in this exclusive image gallery and review of Vista Media Center Beta 2.

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TOPICS: Windows
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Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 is decidedly un-Microsoft-like. For starters, it has a gorgeous interface. It’s a poster child for usability, actually beating TiVo at its own game. It’s fast. And, at least in my household, it’s been surprisingly, almost shockingly reliable.

So, you can understand why I’m holding my breath when I look at the big upgrade to Media Center that’s due at the end of this year in the Home Premium and Ultimate editions of Windows Vista. Will Microsoft ruin a good thing? Will its revamped interface just add unnecessary flash and bog down performance? Will they fix the typo (Media Center techonologies?) in the copyright screen?

 

eb_mce_logo.png

  Image Gallery: See Vista Media center in action

Last week I took the plunge and switched my Media Center setup to Windows Vista Beta 2. It was an eye-opening experience that left me cautiously optimistic and acutely aware of a dark cloud on the horizon. I’ve put together a gallery of screenshots to help you see it in action.

Setup

My initial plan was to install Vista Ultimate Edition on a spare PC that had previously been my primary Media Center box. It’s a 2002–vintage machine that’s been extensively upgraded through the years, and it seemed to have enough resources to handle the task. Alas, that turned out to not be the case. Was it the three-year-old 2.8GHz Pentium 4? The Radeon 9600 AGP card? The anemic IDE bus? Who knows, but after an uneventful setup I discovered that recorded TV and movies skipped and dropped frames.

So after a token effort at troubleshooting, I switched to Plan B. Or, more accurately, Plan D, as in Pentium D. Vista’s version of Media Center was much happier running on a recent-vintage system with a 3GHz dual-core Pentium D, gobs of RAM, and an Nvidia GeForce 6600 PCI Express board with 256MB of video memory.

Installation was effortless – the Media Center features are installed by default with the operating system, which is a huge improvement over the OEM-only configuration of XP Media Center Edition 2005.

Setup detected and installed the drivers for my AVerMedia Purity-3D MCE 500 dual-tuner card (it also recognized the Hauppauge card in the other system). The AVerMedia card gets a big thumbs up for its ease of configuration and excellent inputs. I connected two DirecTV tuners to the box with component cables and finished the Media Center portion of setup in less than 15 minutes.

A new (but familiar) face

Visually, Vista’s Media Center is much more ambitious than its predecessor. The blue color scheme and green logo are still there, but the system puts a heavier load on the video subsystem. For instance, there’s the effect you get when you’re watching a recorded program and you press the green button to display the main Media Center menu. Instead of shrinking to a tiny window in the corner, the program fades to the background and continues playing, with the menu options in the foreground.

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The new Vista interface is designed to be driven by a remote control, but unlike the 2005 edition, this one is optimized for widescreen displays. Media libraries that were organized as lists or grids before are now designed to scroll from left to right. The effect takes some getting used to, but it works.

Just about every media item has an accompanying graphic element: cover art for ripped CDs, poster art for DVDs and movies on TV, thumbnails of a random scene from recorded TV programs. When you pass the highlight over the art, it zooms out and provides additional details about the selected item at the bottom of the screen. One glitch that mars the otherwise stellar appearance is the all-caps text that acts as a placeholder for missing art. It’s especially jarring when the movie or album or TV program has a long title that fills the box with ugly text.

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TV with a dose of DRM

The most eagerly awaited new feature in Vista Media Center is its support for CableCARD-equipped hardware, which will make it possible to record and play back HDTV. Unfortunately, the hardware hasn’t hit the market yet, nor is the OS ready for ittoday, so I can’t tell you whether CableCard support is worth waiting for. But my two analog connections produced an excellent standard-definition image; played on a 50–inch Sony monitor, it was virtually indistinguishable from the original broadcast.

The nuts and bolts of Media Center’s DVR features are unchanged. The program guide still contains two weeks’ worth of data and updates itself silently in the background. Recording options are easy to use and highly configurable, esespecially for series.

During the course of testing, I switched the video connection from a VGA cable to a DVI cable. The monitor didn’t change, nor did the video card, but that simple action was enough to trigger a nasty bug in Beta 2. After making that change, whenever I tried to view any content from HBO or other premium channels I saw this “Restricted Content” error message, which I’ve dubbed the Blue Screen of DRM. Microsoft says this bug should be fixed before release, but it’s a reminder that Vista’s Media Center has much more stringent DRM code designed to prevent high-definition content from being copied and shared.

eb_mce_011_small.png

Music, Movies, and More

Media Center has always shared its media database with Windows Media Player. In the 2005 edition, that spelled sometimes painfully slow performance with large media libraries. In Vista, Microsoft says the performance of searches should be dramatically improved, thanks to the improvements in Windows Media Player 11. I loaded up roughly 15,000 tracks in the library and tried a few searches. The results appeared almost instantly, a huge improvement over Media Center Edition 2005.

eb_mce_013_small.png

The Music library offers more views than its predecessor, including a welcome Album Artist view. Unfortunately, both the Album Artist and Artist views in Vista suffer from a bug that has been around for years: entering a letter or two should jump to the first artist whose name begins with those letters, but the jumps don’t work as they do in Album or Genre view.

For movie lovers, Vista’s Media Center doesn’t unroll too many new tricks. Its Movies on TV search feature is still the best way for a film addict to sift through dozens of movie channels in search of the best stuff. By the time it ships, Vista should support HD-DVD and Blu-Ray discs as well as pricey media changers, but I didn’t have the hardware to put either of those capabilities to the test.

As with previous editions, Vista’s Media Center is ideal for showing off digital photos. You can do some basic editing – remove red eye, crop an image – and display the contents of a folder or an entire picture collection as a slide show, complete with musical soundtrack.

Extenders

To play back content from a Media Center PC, you have three choices:

  • Watch on the computer monitor. That’s a perfectly good solution in an office, a den, or a dorm room, but it’s not so good for a home theater.
  • Connect the PC directly to a high-definition TV. You’ll get an image as good as your video card can deliver, but unless you pay big bucks for a home-theater style PC you’ll have a large, probably noisy box cluttering up your living room.
  • Connect a Media Center Extender to your TV and stream Media Center content over a wired or wireless network. For Vista, the only extender option is an Xbox 360. The noisy PC can stay in the office while you watch TV in the living room or den.

The process of setting up an Xbox 360 as a Media Center Extender isn’t as simple or as elegant as it should be, but after a few tries I was able to get it working. The results were a huge improvement over the first-generation Linksys and HP extenders. An Xbox 360 is a pretty powerful PC in its own right, and as a result it can deliver the full Media Center experience.

The success of the Xbox 360 suggests that it’s probably the best way to bring PC-based media into the living room. If Microsoft can simplify the process of setting up the Media Center-to-Xbox connection, early adopters will be able to bring TV and music and movies to their home theater without having to pay for any extra hardware.

For Vista’s Media Center to be successful, it has to be easy to use and exceptionally reliable. Beta 2 is a step in the right direction. Now, if Microsoft can only tame the dreaded DRM…

Topic: Windows

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16 comments
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  • Vista Media Center an evolutionary upgrade....not revolutionary.

    As someone who uses two XBOX 1's as media center extenders, an XBOX 360 as a MCX, and owns a dual-core media center gateway, I was expecting more significant features to be added to media center. It appears that media center is getting more of an evolutionary update rather than a revolutionary one. I was particularly hoping to be able to watch TV and listen to music at the same time through the media center. Sports fans tend to do things like watch a game while listening to music. I was also hoping that whole-house music broadcasting would be implemented so that I can have my media center and all extenders playing the same music simultaneously. This would be perfect for me being that I have 3 MCX's and the media center pc itself. Also, a more direct integration of Directv with HD support would have been nice, considering there's a lot of talk about Cable Card support going around. Finally, it'd be nice if Urge was actually integrated into the media center interface as well as being accessible from WMP 11.
    sportsunit
  • Vista Media Center feature set...

    I see that your outlook on Vista Media Center is taken very seriously. But, where does a normal user like myself that has over 2,000 dollars invested in Media center and extender products go to voice my opinion on what features should be included in future versions of Media Center? I see that the XBOX team really relies on user feedback, as well as their own desired features, when considering updates to the 360 dashboard. Does the Media Center team work in a similar fashion? Just curious...
    sportsunit
    • Talk to the Microsoft guys

      There are several members of the Media Center development team who have blogs and accept comments. Charlie Owen and Matt Goyer are the two examples that come to mind. I know they are very receptive to feedback.

      You can find the URLs to both these blogs in the Links section at http://www.edbott.com/mediacenter/.
      Ed Bott
  • Vista will beat all other OS's and will be better than Media Center 2005

    I anticipate the release of the full version of Vista with Media Center and will plan to use it with one computer as my central surround sound movie system and all around media center. You are talking about a BETA so there will be temporary snags and busg but that is why it is called a BETA. THEY WANT TO LISTEN TO YOU SO REPORT THEM. It will be good since it is the biggest OS and code over any other OS. Also I do not know what people complain about DRM. It is to prevent STEALING. If it was not there people would copy the music and give it away to people for free without paying for the music. That is copyright infringement. If people did not do that there would be no need for DRM would there? I do not even have a portable CD player anymore. I use the Creative Zen Photo, the best portable .WMA player there is that beats all others including the dreaded and over-rated Apple iPod.
    erniem1970@...
  • Looks like the latest Linux release

    hahahaha!
    Sorry, I couldn't resist.
    corticus
  • Could you talk more about the limitations

    You barely mention DRM in your article, and to me, this is a major oversight. This is where all the media center pc type devices will fail. If they do less than your current device (VCR, Tivo), then why would anyone spend thousands of dollars to buy one? No one wants a new tech toy to do less, they want to do more.

    Can I do the following:
    1) record a movie/song and burn it to dvd/cd?
    2) play a recorded movie or song on other computers, at a friend's house, in my car, etc., etc.?
    3) can I control how long a recording is kept for, or will the DRM automatically delete it at the whim of the copyright holder?
    4) can I record anything I want or is that going to be something that is no longer allowed by the copyright holder?
    tic swayback
  • Future enhancements?

    Hi,

    one of the most annoying things about MCE 2005 is the fact that it can only support limited tuner types in the same machine, for example here in the UK, we don't currently have any method of capturing HD signals (that I know of), therefore we are restricted to either capturing analogue signals or digital signals separately - other media center applications can make use of multiple sources, when will MS sort this within MCE?

    Thanks
    Tony
    tony_park@...
  • Hybrid TV Tuners

    Something I want to know about Vista is if it will support hybrid tuners like the Kworld Digital/Analog HDTV Tuner that I have? This is because I built my own Media Center PC and originally bought that one only to discover that I need an analog only tuner before I could use it. And even then I could only use the digital tuner because Media Center doesn't acknowledge hybid tuners.
    aka_tripleB@...
    • Doesn't look like it

      Looks like Vista Media Center has the same problem with hybrid tuners. You can only use ATSC or NTSC, not both. You need a second card to get them all. I pulled over my old Hauppauge analog card and it now recognizes both.

      Steve
      stevestrange
  • Digital HD TV?

    So how does it fit in with my other technology? If it's in my living room, its talking to a Sony Bravia -- but will it be paying attention to anything the Bravia has to offer? Will the analog and digital tuners be ignored or cared for?
    leegee
  • Ed, I need SERIOUS HELP with my Vista MCE!

    I've looked and asked EVERYWHERE ELSE I know to... been through Dell Tech Support (essentially clueless)... Posted at "The Green Button" forum, on the Dell Forum, on Microsoft's Vista forum, done multiple internet searches, and RE-INSTALLED Vista from scratch half a dozen times to get rid of this bug, only to have it crop back up after a few days, for no apparent reason, each time.

    Every time since I began upgrading to Vista in early March, a few days into my new Vista installation, just as I'm settling in and getting the programs I want recorded scheduled, and so forth, Media Center starts giving me a repeated problem that will neither let me play recorded content, nor record new programs. The error message I get (for which Microsoft has NO DATABASE INFORMATION they're willing to admit or share) is...

    "APPLICATION FAILURE: A critical Windows Media Center process has failed. Please restart the computer and try again. If the problem persists, contact your hardware manufacturer for assistance."

    (I have run Device Manager on ALL my hardware and everything checks out.)

    I found ONE OTHER POST with this problem on Microsoft's webforum; it was more than 2 months old; and there was NOT A SINGLE RESPONSE TO IT. This reminds me of when I was stuck with MCE 2004 and I kept running into the "MCE is missing files needed to display video" error message, which was similarly unsupported and I could never find a fix for, other than to reinstall the OS... But with my Vista being an upgrade (and although I know you showed us how to do a Clean install, I have reasons for still going through my original XP, such as keeping the rights to other software I bought with the computer)... Plus, Dell shipped an "upgrade assistant" DVD that gets the computer ready for the upgrade, and everything works fine -- for the first few days.

    This most recent time, I was having permissions issues with the documents folders and some other folders on my C: drive, and wasn't able to change them individually, for some reason, even at administrator level... So I clicked on the Drive, itself, and globally changed permissions to allow me access to all folders. After that, MCE quit working. But the previous time, it quit after I just added external hard drives as "watched folders" for TV (I have A LOT of old programs saved on several external drives)...

    At any rate, after nothing else would fix the issue, I actually did a System Restore to take me back to the point before I changed permissions for the drive, but that DIDN'T fix the issue with Media Center. This has GOT TO BE the hinkiest component Windows has ever incorporated.

    It would seem to me, at any rate, that they'd offer more support for it. When you go to the Tech Support section on their Website, there's VERY LITTLE support offered for Media Center, and NOWHERE can you find a list of the error messages. It seems they just don't consider that when people buy a computer with a faster processor, extram RAM and a dual TV tuner in it, they JUST MIGHT have a use for Windows that highly incorporates Media Center!

    You may be my last hope, at this point!

    Do you have ANY THOUGHTS or anywhere you can POINT ME?
    Jeff Hayes
    Jeff Hayes
  • Vista MCE Extenders?

    Are there any commercially available Media Center extenders for Vista yet other than Xbox? Or do you know of any near term offerings that will be on the market?

    Thanks!
    en56
    • Not yet

      v2 extenders other than the Xbox are due in the fall, supposedly.
      Ed Bott
  • RE: Vista Media Center: Ready for the living room?

    well I found MUCH MUCH better for MEDIA CENTER
    look this company
    www.ii-view.com
    they Have a TV MEDIA CENTER with Bluray, in 22, 32, 42, 47 inch.
    INCROYABLE GOODDDD !!!
    this is the future....
    cyril1313
  • RE: Vista Media Center: Ready for the living room?

    My homegrown 64 bit Vista Home Premium Media Center experience shows that it's ready for the living room. Only one problem. My connection to a 52 inch Samsung LCD Tv is by HDMI and when I turn the TV off and then back on the audio is gone until I reboot the PC. Anybody got any ideas about how to fix that?
    dave_gus
    • Driver

      What's the audio hardware and driver you're using? I had this problem back in July 2007 but it was fixed long ago after a driver update.
      Ed Bott