Swimming with Vista Media Center

Swimming with Vista Media Center

Summary: Been busy again. Hard to write blogs when you are spending your days and evenings doing the stuff that pays the bills.

SHARE:
TOPICS: Hardware
37

Been busy again. Hard to write blogs when you are spending your days and evenings doing the stuff that pays the bills. I did notice that I now have a very big head hovering over my blogs. Yes, I saw the photo before I submitted it, but I guess the background changes which make it fit the color scheme of ZDNet causes my head to look like it could be used to break into burning buildings (something I do regularly, but it's not supposed to look that way).

Anyway, I've been diving a bit deeper into the Microsoft technology pool of late. I have a bunch of spare computers lying around, and decided I wanted to turn one of them into a Media Center server. So, I burned a copy of Windows Vista by downloading it from MSDN, activated it with an "Ultimate" key (the one that has Media Center enabled) installed a tuner card and new graphics card, and discovered that the cards were too tall for the computer I was upgrading.

D'oh. My original plan was to put the PC on top of my entertainment center, but until I buy a new case for the PC, it was going to have to be this ugly beast with wires hanging out of it that would likely bake wandering cats in a flash, if I had any. That's when I remembered that an XBOX 360 has a Media Center Extender built-in to the game console.

So, I disconnected the cable wire from my TV, connected it to my scary-looking open-to-the-air Media Center (which is now safely squirreled away on a desk elsewhere in the home), and tried to access my Media Center by entering the Media Center section of the XBOX system screens. It detected the presence of the Media Center PC and generated a unique code that Mr. XBOX instructed me to enter somehow on the PC side. So I entered Media Center (which is an icon on the program list that replaces the Windows "Start" button), and it suddenly detected that there was a new extender device on the network. It prompted me to enter my access code, and presto, the Extender device was registered to work with my Media Center.

I was then able to access television services through my XBOX 360 even though no cable wire was connected to my TV set. Essentially, my media center was acting as a streaming media hub in the home, which probably shouldn't surprise me as that's how it is marketed, but I hadn't seen it doing this, so I thought it was pretty interesting. Since Media Center is a Microsoft product, it also integrates well with the standard rip locations for CDs on the local PC (you can set up various locations that it "listens to" for Media). I ripped a few CDs to my Media Center server, and quickly decided that I wanted to have ALL my CDs available that way because it was a much better way to choose an album to listen to. Unfortunately, I have a LOT of CDs so that will have to be a work in progress.

Media Center did re-ignite an interest in the Zune, because of wording in some of the screens related to Media Sharing in an XBOX that indicated that it was compatible media source (and since I'm likely to rip all my CDs for use through Media Center, anyway). Hate to say "I told you so" to those who doubted that Zune WiFi connection would be useful for more than just Zune to Zune exchange of music, but I can leave my Zune lying on a side table in my bedroom and stream music from it through my TV set...wirelessly. A colleague who has owned four iPods and now owns a Zune will let me try his out when I visit Mountain View this week (flying up today), so I may have to visit the company store to get one.

I quickly found ways I'd like to upgrade my Media Center. I only bought one tuner card because this was an experiment, not a long-term commitment to the Media Center lifestyle (though that has changed). However, if you only have one tuner card, you can't record one channel while you're watching another. Further, if I wanted to add another TV to my home (say, by using a cheap dedicated Media Center Extender device), I would need a second tuner, unless I wanted all TVs to watch the same channel simultaneously. Obviously, the rule here is, the more TVs in the home you have, the more tuner cards you need.

Also, the smallish hard drive on my spare PC is quickly going to get filled with recorded video. I need to buy something larger, and given how cheap large drives are these days, there's no reason I shouldn't.

That, however, is one of the more interesting things about Media Center. It's like a geek version of a TiVo device, something you can customize to your heart's content. I've already downloaded a few Media Center plugins, and I have plans to write a few of my own using using XAML / WPF (the same technology which underlies the new UI architecture in .NET 3.0 and Vista, and is the foundation of the subset found in the newly released Flash competitor WPFe) or MCML (the native Media Center development technology that also has a UI laid out in XML). I could write them in HTML / Javascript, but I'm starting to find HTML / Javascript a bit dated, possibly because I've been writing it since 1996.

On that note, I also found areas I'd like Media Center to improve. One thing I liked about the XBOX's ability to play shared media (a function parallel to accessing media through Media Center) was the visualizations you get on your TV screen. Media played through Media Center directly on a PC has visualizations, but when played through the Media Center Extender on an XBOX, lacks them. In other words, if I were to return to my original plan and hook Media Center directly to my TV, I would get all the visualizations I can handle.

The difference when playing through an extender is likely that the visualization code can't be "extended" to a remote device so easily, particularly if they are written in native code. You can't take snapshots of a fast-moving visualization and hope that customers will be happy with that. It really needs to be something that runs locally (as MCML code apparently is).

Media Center Extender devices do some local processing with MCML plugins (according to my sources), but not so with XAML/WPF plugins. XAML/WPF plugins require a .NET runtime to "remote" properly, something that probably doesn't exist in a Media Center Extender device. If they did update extenders to include a .NET runtime, however, provided visualizations were written in .NET, both XAML/WPF plugins and visualizations could be served up to the extenders to be run remotely. That applies to other advanced bits of logic (e.g. support libraries), and that's when things start to get interesting.

Just a thought, and for all I know, the Media Center team is already thinking along those lines.

Topic: Hardware

John Carroll

About John Carroll

John Carroll has delivered his opinion on ZDNet since the last millennium. Since May 2008, he is no longer a Microsoft employee. He is currently working at a unified messaging-related startup.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

37 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Bandwidth?

    I am curious how well this would work if you install a HD DVD player (pick you flavor) and then streamed it. Is there enough bandwidth for it?

    Also, what if you are watching a streamed video and someone else watchs another show (second video tuner) or fires up some music. Do we run into bandwidth limitations?
    No_Ax_to_Grind
    • Interesting questions

      The DVD player isn't available through an extender...yet. It should be, though it isn't right now. I would like to see this change (though HD-DVD is supposed to allow offloading of video, so I guess the idea is that, eventually, you would store your HD movie on your media center system and stream it).

      As for bandwidth limits, I want to get more extenders and more tuners and figure out how far I can go with it. So, I expect to write more on this. Right now, I just have one TV, one XBOX360 (the extender), and one media center.

      Others in Redmond have likely pushed these limits, so I'll try to get an answer.
      John Carroll
      • You know what?

        I think this is why I haven't really cared for anyone's PC based media center concept. I've looked at MS, Apple, and various "roll your own" set ups and find htey all have "pieces parts" missing form the solutions offered.

        You can play a DVD over here but not over there, bluetooth controls are cool, as long as you don't get to far away or have interference, this display is fantastic, but you can't display this or that from this source. Yes you can save/record a video file but it only plays on this or that under this or that conditions and we may delete it for you at some point. HD sent over satellite can't be recorded unless you buy a DVR contract with a monthly subscription. It can't be played anywhere but where it was recorded.

        Naw, I just don't see any thing on the market that spins my prop yet.
        No_Ax_to_Grind
        • How odd...

          All of the problems you observe, except bluetooth interference, are the result of DRM, trusted ownership (aka trusted computing), and market based standards, all of which, as I recall, you've tacitly advocated? Nothing will trip your trigger so long as the market you cannot control is seduced by half-operable gadgets, and realizes too late that they've surrendered the control they had with their VCR.

          No accusation. No conclusion. Just an observation and a prediction.
          John Le'Brecage
          • Granted...

            ...and if the idiots who screw things up for the rest of us would stop thinking "IP is evil" and trying to post this stuff on trading networks, it wouldn't be a problem.

            Barring that (which won't ever happen), DRM is with us. I do think they will manage to build a secure DVD to extender system with strong DRM protections. Obviously, though, that requires buy-in from content companies, as it should be, as it is THEIR content.
            John Carroll
          • You make a very important point...

            While many seem to cheer the copyright offenders on, they can't seem to connect the dots between that and losing thier freedoms. It is indeed sad...

            Eveyone is losing their freedoms for the actions of a handful of crooks and social misfits.
            No_Ax_to_Grind
          • The fact of the matter is

            that as long as it is possible to steal, it will continue to happen. With all the electronic security we have in stores now, shoplifting still goes on. And much like it is the average law abiding customer who winds up setting off an alarm because the cashier didn't properly deactivate the chip (thoroughly embarrassing the poor sap) it's the law abiding customer that gets put out the most with the current implementations of DRM. While the crooks keep on stealing.

            The whole Napster thing, which started all of this, started simply because the masses were ignorant of what was illegal and what was not. And of course once they found out it was illegal they were upset that they were now being required to pay for something they thought was free. But now that basic DRM is in place and you cannot bootleg so easily I think it would be wise for copyright holders to be flexible. Yes, I know they can bring down the hammer because they are the owners, but that always bites you in the long run. They've stopped the common folk from stealing, now it's just the expert shoplifters. Like any other business owner they should balance the need for security with the need to be customer-friendly. And just like a Wal-Mart customer would not want to go through an X-ray machine and a pat down every time they leave the store, so would a Disney customer not want to have a retinal scan every time they watch Bambi.
            Michael Kelly
          • For No axe...

            Everyone is losing there freedoms because the market you advocate is weak and prefers media over freedom. Time will come when the freedoms you - yes, you No_Axe - personally enjoyed when you were 17-30 will be eliminated.

            How dare you deny freedom to your children that you, yourself benefited.
            John Le'Brecage
          • The idiots who screw things up for the rest of us?

            By this phrase, I assume you mean the suits at the RIAA and the MPAA, as they're the ones screwing things up for the rest of us. C'mon John, you're a smart guy, you must understand that DRM has nothing to do with combatting piracy, but instead is all about new revenue streams and charging customers for things they used to do for free. This is about companies trying to milk more money out of the consumer. It has nothing to do with infringement. Don't be fooled by the lies.

            Let me ask you something--if p2p networks never existed, if it was impossible to trade songs and movies over the internet, would DRM still exist? Funny, I seem to remember having region-encoding and Macrovision long before Napster ever existed. Kind of blows a big hole in the argument that p2p infringers are to blame here.
            tic swayback
          • No...

            ...I think DRM would never exist if people had the moral fibre not to steal music and put them on "trading networks." That's wrong, and that's the reason we have DRM.

            Yes, DRM creates some revenue stream potentials, but it is a response to a very real threat that gathers steam as the speed of the network connection available to the average user grows.

            [i]Funny, I seem to remember having region-encoding and Macrovision long before Napster ever existed. [/i]

            Granted, but region encoding approaches the level of a flag in terms of complexity. Bottom line: it is their content. If they go too far, people will buy less content. Last I checked, I don't NEED to buy that DVD copy of "Clicked."

            No, it doesn't blow a hole in the theory that P2P infringers pose a threat, because anyone with a PC and a network connection can find software that enables them to download copyrighted music, for free, to their heart's content. That applies to video, though currently, HD movies are so large that most won't bother.
            John Carroll
          • You contradict yourself

            I'm confused, first you say:
            ".I think DRM would never exist if people had the moral fibre not to steal music and put them on "trading networks." "

            Then you accept the fact that DRM existed long before "trading networks" existed, and that it's original purpose was to artificially raise prices in particular markets (region encoding). So which is it, would DRM completely 100% go away if we did away with p2p networks and filesharing?

            Obvious answer: No.

            ---Yes, DRM creates some revenue stream potentials, but it is a response to a very real threat that gathers steam as the speed of the network connection available to the average user grows---

            It is not a response to anything, as we have both admitted, it existed long before that threat appeared. Also, given that it has proven to be 100% ineffective, that not one single DRMed piece of content has failed to appear (within seconds of release) on p2p networks, it's not much of a "response", is it? If it doesn't do what it's supposed to do in any way, shape or form, why are we stuck with it, as you seem to think? Wouldn't something more effective, or perhaps a new business model be more appropriate, rather than sticking with a solution that annoys customers but does not actually solve the problem at all?

            ---Bottom line: it is their content. If they go too far, people will buy less content---

            I agree 100% here, and that's why we won't always be stuck with DRM. For DRM to be effective, it must severely limit the customer. But if it severely limits the customer, the product is no longer worth owning. It's a catch-22. There's no way DRM can ever do anything to thwart piracy.

            It can, however, be used for other purposes. The RIAA and the MPAA are smart enough to realize this. Piracy is the excuse given for its existence, but the real reason we have it is to generate new avenues for revenue. Locking movies and music to one computer means you'll have to buy them multiple times. It means you can't lend your movie to a friend, he has to buy it too. Best explanation I've ever read is here, in an article about Amazon's amazing Unbox DRM. Hey, how's that product doing these days?
            http://www.boingboing.net/2006/09/15/amazon_unbox_to_cust.html
            "I once attended a DRM negotiation where an MPAA vice-president said, "Watching a show that's being received in one room while you're sitting in another room has value, and if it has value, we should be able to charge money for it." Siva Vaidhyanathan calls this the "if value, then right" theory -- if something has value, someone must have a right to sell it. So while you might be accustomed to extracting unexpected value from your old media -- ripping a CD to play it on your iPod, copying a cartoon and sticking it on your fridge, taking your books with you when you move overseas -- forget about it from now on.

            Every conceivable source of value for DRM digital movies is now potentially for sale. I've heard proposals for "discounted" movies that you can't fast-forward ("discounted" in the sense that products you buy with a store loyalty card are "discounted" -- they raise the price unless you use the card). Prepare for the future where every button on your remote has a price-tag on it. "
            tic swayback
          • p2p did not start piracy

            It was merely in a different form at the time, and region-encoding and Macrovision were 'somewhat' effective at the time.
            No holes there.

            The real problem is usage; DRM is like locking your car when parked in a big city. Will it stop a professional thief? No. But it will keep 'pettily dishonest' people honest.
            The problem is the Rights holders are also attempting to use it in the way you suggest, for more revenue streams. Its the wrong tool. And when you attempt to pound a screw in with a hammer, you wind up with problems
            mdemuth
          • I really, really, didn't want to open up this can of worms...

            I was noting how advocating DRM, trusted computing, and market-driven standards and then complaining that nothing trips your trigger is quite confusing behaviour (to me). They're not judgements. Just observations.

            To then justify all the factors as necessary because of infringement? Well, I only have to ask this: Did the justification make all the devices work together?

            If no, then somethingelse, another solution, is needed.

            PS: Lest we forget P2P grew up because as much as the media companies were given in the anti-circumvention portions of the DMCA; they refused to release music, video, or any of their other possessions onto the Internet. For what were they waiting? I submit they were waiting for DRM to be ready. I submit DRM wasn't a response to piracy; DRM was the plan from the beginning.
            John Le'Brecage
          • So are you saying?

            [i]Lest we forget P2P grew up because as much as the media companies were given in the anti-circumvention portions of the DMCA; they refused to release music, video, or any of their other possessions onto the Internet. For what were they waiting? I submit they were waiting for DRM to be ready. I submit DRM wasn't a response to piracy; DRM was the plan from the beginning.[/i]

            So are you saying that if they had released all their content on the internet before they had any way to protect it, people WOULDN'T have "traded" it, for free, on the Internet, and would still pay money for access to the content?

            Sorry, that fails the giggle test.
            John Carroll
          • As the OWNERS, that is their choice

            "Lest we forget P2P grew up because as much as the media companies were given in the anti-circumvention portions of the DMCA; they refused to release music, video, or any of their other possessions onto the Internet."

            Gee, and I decide where to drive MY car. You see, that is how OWNERSHIP works. THe OWNDER, not the crooks make the decisions.
            No_Ax_to_Grind
          • For No_Axe.

            Your out of context quote was not my point. My point is they were given the tools and failed to respond until they had piracy at which to point. Why? I would posit that ordinary consumers would revolt against DRM and that the "thievery" response was planned from the start - and probably planned from the moment that the Betamax case was lost. Just a suspicion though.

            Now, onto your claim:

            [i]Gee, and I decide where to drive MY car. You see, that is how OWNERSHIP works. THe OWNDER, not the crooks make the decisions.[/i]

            Your car is not intellectual property. It is physical property and has different rules under law.

            Can I have fair use of your car? No? However, I can with traditional media, but not under DRM. Even though it is a permited right.

            Can I time shift or space shift your car? Move it to a different parking place? Make it available to me at a time more to my preference, even years from now? No? I can with traditional media, but not under current oppressive DRM.

            Can I use your car without your permission, but with your likely knowledge and not be convicted of stealing? Yes? And I'd likely win under primissory estoppel. Not under DRM media, but yes under traditional media.

            Can I connect your car battery to my car and use it for a jumper? No. Can I use a portion of media of my selection to empower myself? Can I connect any two devices and transfer media? Yes, under traditional media, but no under DRM.

            Your car in no way resembles copyrighted material under the law No_Axe. And as i first indicated, you give up substantial freedoms - the very same ones about which you initially complained. I'm sorry No_Axe, but the law doesn't work as you wish.

            Keep writing your letters. So shall I. Move to DC. I'm sure we'll meet up at a luncheon sometime.
            John Le'Brecage
          • For John C... No.

            I'm saying, just a sentence because I'm running out of time here: that you have it backwards. Piracy didn't drive the demand for DRm, rather "fear of piracy" drove the demand for DRM - well that and a powertrip. Let's not rewrite history: the flagrant and conspicuous violations of copyright distribution grant did not occur until after the media companies [i]refused[/i] to release the media on their own - the condition of the Clinton administration in authorizing the DMCA.

            One could even suspect - ordinary consumers would revolt against DRM and that the media company response - "look at all the piracy. help us honest consumers" - was planned from the start and probably planned from the moment that the Betamax case was lost. Just a suspicion though. Let's not deal in suspicions even though that seems to fit the crafty pattern.
            John Le'Brecage
          • More for no Axe...

            read the other post first.

            You complain about the exact problems with DRM and yet still support it? What does that suggest about your character? Your thoughts? Your action and speech, when you act against your own complaints?

            You are a poor advocate for your own complaints.
            John Le'Brecage
          • Considering DRM, correct assumptions.

            DRM does make sense in the context of certain assumptions:

            - The content companies did not want to use the internet for distribution. And would not allow others to do so, either.

            - File sharing grew in response to the absence of alternatives for internet distribution.

            - Ironically, file sharing increases the profits of content companies because of the greater exposure. (Or is at worst no worse than neutral. Even studies paid for by the content companies themselves found that no more than a third of sales reductions were caused by file-sharing.)
            Whether legal sharing has the same effect is unknown.

            - File sharing could be seen as thievery by a quarter of the US population. Faced with the greatest crime wave since Prohibition, government became determined to give the content companies the ability to defend themselves.
            This is an IP economy, and the government endorses IP.

            - The Supreme Court recognized in the beta max decision that non-infringing uses were a defense. A landmark decsision, and the target of subsequent actions.

            - The DMCA and consequent decisions are thus expressions of sympathy for the content companies by offering the content companies greater authority over use of their material.


            As a result, the content companies have the ability to restrict use, and so can increase profits by causing the same material to be sold more frequently to the same people.

            The alternative was huge profits selling the same and new material to immeasurablymore people, but the contwent companies are not yet at a stage of development allowing them to accept money from all the people eager to force it on them.

            To say file sharing is responsible is like saying that an axle is responsible when someone's driving causes a car crash.
            Anton Philidor
          • Even though I don't fully agree...

            Very skillfully done Anton.
            John Le'Brecage