Going back to Windows Media Center

I'd been using Media Center as my primary DVR since shortly after the release of Windows Vista several years ago. At the time, my intention was to learn more about the other TV-oriented technology at Microsoft, which was of particular interest to me as I worked, at the time, in Microsoft's IPTV division.

I'd been using Media Center as my primary DVR since shortly after the release of Windows Vista several years ago. At the time, my intention was to learn more about the other TV-oriented technology at Microsoft, which was of particular interest to me as I worked, at the time, in Microsoft's IPTV division. I also lacked a DVR at home, so Media Center added new capabilities to my television viewing experience that I previously had lacked.

The main drawback, however, is that the computer I was using did not have a "CableCARD" slot. This meant that I could only receive the signals I would receive if I had my cable wire plugged directly into the back of my TV set.

A CableCARD insert would have allowed me to receive more digital cable channels, such as HBO and Showtime. Unfortunately, it is not possible to buy CableCARD add-on hardware for my computer. Systems that have CableCARD slots have to be certified by CableLabs, the standard certification body for Set-Top Boxes used in the cable industry. In other words, if your machine does not have the required interface slots, there is no way to provide them after the fact.

That's the reason why, when Time Warner Cable (the cable provider in my area of Los Angeles) offered me a DVR package that was cheaper than the Expanded Basic package, I decided to give it a try. Call me cheap, but I see little sense in paying more for functionality I already had, and though premium channel access would be nice, they are not that important to me.

So, I spent the past few weeks trying out a Motorola DVR box running software by a company named Moxi. To put it mildly, my experience has not been good. For some reason, Time Warner thinks it acceptable to multiply the perceived number of channels on its system by repeating many of them twice. Likewise, whole stacks of channels to which I do not have access appear in the guide list. You can only determine which channel is inaccessible by tuning to them and waiting the 10+ seconds it often takes to fail (on that note, the slow channel change times typical of the Moxi system does make me appreciate more Microsoft IPTV's "Instant Channel Change" technology). I understand that Time Warner wants to incentivize me to pay for more channels than I currently have. The ham-fisted way they go about it, however, makes the system a chore to use.

The real killer, however, is how bad the guide in the Moxi system is. Besides the fact that the icon-driven guide UI makes it all but impossible to determine what channel you are seeing, the guide makes it very difficult to see what is coming on TV at any point in the future. You actually must select the target channel in the guide in order to see the next 4-5 shows appearing on that channel. So much for browing the guide to find shows you might wish to record.

I put up with the Moxi system for almost a month. I did have new channels (though the guide problems made me use them much less than I otherwise might have), and one of the things Time Warner used to get me across the line was a year's worth of free access to Showtime. My patience hit a wall, however, when the DVR suddenly decided to record all the wrong shows one weekend. I'm not sure whether the system's internal timing had gone off, or if the DVR had decided to resequence something such that the wrong channel was recorded.

But, I had had enough. Media Center didn't have these problems, and though I must admit that it can be somewhat complicated for first-time users to set up (I have an XBOX which acts as a Media Center Extender), that isn't a problem for me.

Windows Media Center is quite good, has a very nice user interface, and it serves as a single point through which I can access all the media stored on my computer. If new "Mojave" ads are any indication, Microsoft plans to make more noise about this Windows feature, and I can see why.  It is a good competitive differentiator.

I think it would be more popular if they could find an easy way to bridge the digital cable divide without having to buy computers specially designed for the purpose. But, it works for me, as I don't greatly miss premium channels (if I have access to Scrubs and endless repeats of Law & Order, I'm mostly happy). That doesn't apply to most people.

By the way, I may not post that much in the coming weeks. My startup just received a rather sizable investment, and I must spend next week in Prague to do a bit of planning (that isn't completely crazy, as my business partners are already in Europe for other reasons). At the very least, I should have some rather interesting video of Christmas in Prague, which I intend to edit and encode for upload to CNN's iReport. I'll link to that from here once its available.