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Using Windows Vista as a home theater hub

Thinking of using Windows Vista's Media Center in the living room? Follow along as Windows expert Ed Bott offers a guided tour to his Vista-powered home theater setup.
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1 of 16 Ed Bott/ZDNet
With a single internal 500GB drive, the PC at the left of the cabinet is serving up music, pictures, videos, and recorded TV (including over-the-air HDTV) to the entire network. That's a wireless Bluetooth keyboard to the left of the display and a Media Center remote to the right.

Read the full story:
Vista Media Center takes over the living room

Also see:
Connected homes aren’t just for the super-rich anymore
Vista Media Center: Ready for the living room?

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2 of 16 Ed Bott/ZDNet
I chose the Dell Dimension C521 because of its small form factor, only slightly larger than an Xbox 360 (shown here for scale). It's the right width to fit in the AV cabinet with the other components, but it's so impressively quiet and unobtrusive that I'm in no rush to move it yet.

Read the full story:
Vista Media Center takes over the living room

Also see:
Connected homes aren’t just for the super-rich anymore
Vista Media Center: Ready for the living room?

160344.jpg
3 of 16 Ed Bott/ZDNet
All three low-profile slots in the C521 are in use. From top to bottom, that's a 256MB ATI Radeon X1300 Pro (OEM, included with the system as shipped), an AverMedia combo TV tuner with digital (ATSC) support, and a Creative Audigy SE sound card.

Read the full story:
Vista Media Center takes over the living room

Also see:
Connected homes aren't just for the super-rich anymore
Vista Media Center: Ready for the living room?

160345.jpg
4 of 16 Ed Bott/ZDNet
Pressing a general-purpose PC into Media Center service means dealing with wires and dongles. At lower left is a Creative digital I/O adapter with a TOSlink (optical) connection to the receiver; above it is a DMS-59 to dual DVI-I breakout cable, with a 6-foot DVI-to-HDMI cable going to the display. Coax runs to an indoor antenna, and that's a Cat-5e connection to the network.

Read the full story:
Vista Media Center takes over the living room

Also see:
Connected homes aren't just for the super-rich anymore
Vista Media Center: Ready for the living room?

160346.jpg
5 of 16 Ed Bott/ZDNet
With up-to-date drivers, the Creative Audigy sound card delivers superb 5.1 surround sound over the digital connection. The Test buttons to the right of these options make it easy to confirm support for audio encoding and sample rates.

Read the full story:
Vista Media Center takes over the living room

Also see:
Connected homes aren't just for the super-rich anymore
Vista Media Center: Ready for the living room?

160347.jpg
6 of 16 Ed Bott/ZDNet
ATI's Catalyst wizard (revision 7.7) made short work of HDTV setup amd looked equally good with Media Center in HDTV and with the Windows Vista desktop. After installing the correct drivers, it took only a few minutes to get the display calibrated correctly.

Read the full story:
Vista Media Center takes over the living room

Also see:
Connected homes aren't just for the super-rich anymore
Vista Media Center: Ready for the living room?

160348.jpg
7 of 16 Ed Bott/ZDNet
That's an impressive set of performance numbers for a base system that cost well under $500. The CPU is a dual-core AMD Athlon 64 X2, the RAM is 667MHz DDR2, and disk access is over an onboard SATA connection.

Read the full story:
Vista Media Center takes over the living room

Also see:
Connected homes aren't just for the super-rich anymore
Vista Media Center: Ready for the living room?

160349.jpg
8 of 16 Ed Bott/ZDNet
The single most important addition to this home theater setup is the Logitech Harmony remote. Download the latest software (Windows only), choose the names and model numbers of your devices, and then follow this wizard to set up activity buttons that configure each component correctly. It's seriously close to magic.

Read the full story:
Vista Media Center takes over the living room

Also see:
Connected homes aren't just for the super-rich anymore
Vista Media Center: Ready for the living room?

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9 of 16 Ed Bott/ZDNet
Logitech makes a dozen or more Harmony models, but the 680 is the best choice if you plan to integrate a Media Center PC with home theater components. The 680 has the trademark green button, and it's easy to customize the remote so that volume controls go to the A/V receiver instead.

Read the full story:
Vista Media Center takes over the living room

Also see:
Connected homes aren't just for the super-rich anymore
Vista Media Center: Ready for the living room?

160351.jpg
10 of 16 Ed Bott/ZDNet
For most media-related activities, I use the 10-foot interface, driven by the remote control. Having this wireless keyboard handy makes some tasks more handy, like downloading tracks from the Yahoo Music subscription service or starting a slideshow from Windows Photo Gallery.

Read the full story:
Vista Media Center takes over the living room

Also see:
Connected homes aren't just for the super-rich anymore
Vista Media Center: Ready for the living room?

160352.png
11 of 16 Ed Bott/ZDNet
Setting up Media Center is nearly painless, thanks to these wizards, which are designed for use with a remote. DVD playback, surround sound, and HDTV just worked, and it took just one push of the OK button to make a slight overscan adjustment.

Read the full story:
Vista Media Center takes over the living room

Also see:
Connected homes aren't just for the super-rich anymore
Vista Media Center: Ready for the living room?

160353.jpg
12 of 16 Ed Bott/ZDNet
With a tiny indoor antenna, the AverMedia card is able to tune and record high-definition video from most local channels. The thumbnails shown here are chosen automatically by the Media Center software; if you prefer a plain list format, push the Info button and adjust the settings. Notice how the interface takes advantage of the wide (16:9) display.

Read the full story:
Vista Media Center takes over the living room

Also see:
Connected homes aren't just for the super-rich anymore
Vista Media Center: Ready for the living room?

160354.png
13 of 16 Ed Bott/ZDNet
While music is playing, the default display shows album art and elapsed time. To see playlists, switch to the Queue display, where the album art appears at half size in the lower left corner.

Read the full story:
Vista Media Center takes over the living room

Also see:
Connected homes aren't just for the super-rich anymore
Vista Media Center: Ready for the living room?

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14 of 16 Ed Bott/ZDNet
Vista's Flip 3D feature might seem gimmicky on a desktop display, but it's actually useful in the living rom. In this case, pressing the Flip 3D shortcut, Windows key tab, cycles between the Media Center interface and media-related programs that use the Windows UI.

Read the full story:
Vista Media Center takes over the living room

Also see:
Connected homes aren't just for the super-rich anymore
Vista Media Center: Ready for the living room?

160356.png
15 of 16 Ed Bott/ZDNet
After getting initial configuration hassles out of the way, this system has been rock solid, working day in and day out with no hangs or slowdowns. Those two red X's in the bottom row aren't Vista's fault. Both are unexpected shutdowns - one caused by accidentally hitting the switch on a power strip, the other caused by a brief local blackout. Without them, the Reliability Index would be a perfect 10.

Read the full story:
Vista Media Center takes over the living room

Also see:
Connected homes aren't just for the super-rich anymore
Vista Media Center: Ready for the living room?

160357.jpg
16 of 16 Ed Bott/ZDNet
Anyone with network access can share pictures and tunes stored on the Media Center machine. I'm not worried about losing any of the music or pictures, either, because it's backed up daily (in the middle of the night, actually) by a Windows Home Server machine on the network.

Read the full story:
Vista Media Center takes over the living room

Also see:
Connected homes aren't just for the super-rich anymore
Vista Media Center: Ready for the living room?

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