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Living With Media Center: Live TV and the Guide

The main use of the Media Center in our household is as a source of live TV and as a DVR. The Media Center is intended to replace the Time Warner provided DVR set-top box, not to compliment it. The thoughts below are in the context of experiences in the new Media Center ecosystem vs the previous single set-top box ecosystem. I have also broken up my observations into categories that affect me in my regular everyday use of Media Center.

Another caveat I want to add is that I still use the Media Center PC in my office as a PC. I have been able to surf the net, download files and perform other activities all while both extenders are in use across the house and no performance hit anywhere on the network. Media Center just runs as a background process. I made sure to max out my memory to be able to do this.

Live TV
The Live TV implementation in Media Center follows the majority of the set top box paradigms that have come before it while at the same time taking advantage of the capabilities of the PC platform.

Start-Up: One of the biggest differences between our old TV viewing experience and our new TV experience is the start-up time and the start-up experience. With the Time Warner DVR, or TW-DVR, the start-up was very quick. The TW-DVR never actually turned off. It went into a sleep state so it could be ready to act upon our recorded TV scheduling. From an "off" state, it would take as long as turning on the TV and pressing power on the TW-DVR remote control. The first thing you would see would be the last channel that was watched.

Now with Media Center I have two different start-up experiences due to the two different Media Center Extenders that I am using. In the living room the Xbox 360 has an average start time of 25-28 seconds from a cold state to completely on and connected to the Media Center PC. In the master bedroom we have an average start time of 0 seconds with the Linksys extender. Since the extender runs quiet and cool it affords us the opportunity to leave it on and connected to the Media Center PC at all times.

I have thought about replacing the Xbox 360 as an extender with another Linksys but the performance of the 360 out weighs the noise/heat/start-up issues for me. We have grown accustomed to the start-up time and it has not made a huge difference at the end of the day.

Xbox 360 Media Center Extender Startup Video

Interface: I really like the Media Center interface. I know a number of people do not. I think it is clean and intuitive in most cases. It has nice transition effects, animations and menu transparencies. The quarter screen version of the main menu layered over the active video program currently being watched is a nice touch. The pop-up sub menus are easy to use but not always easy to find. Sometimes I still discover new things that the info button can do depending on where I am when I press the button. I do wish I had more control over how it’s laid out without the need of a 3rd party application, but it works great for the most part.

Media Center Overview Video

Buffer Length: The default Live TV buffer length is 30 minutes. With a simple registry hack (made even simpler with this tool ) you can extend the Live TV buffer up to 2 hrs. I currently have the live TV buffer set to 1 1/2 hrs which has been long enough.

The only negative that I can give the Live TV buffer is that you cannot record from it. This was a big step back from the TW-DVR (and most DVR’s in general). The way most DVR’s work is that if you are watching an hour long show live and are 30 minutes into the show you have 30 minutes in your buffer and can rewind back to the point that you started watching it. Now if you decide to record the show at that point the DVR converts the live tv buffer stream into an active recorded show stream. You capture the 30 minutes you have watched and the remainder of the show as it is broadcast.

Unfortunately Media Center implemented this differently. When you press record while watching a TV show live, it will record from that point forward and ignore anything already in the Live TV buffer. A number of Media Center users have complained about this to Microsoft and I think this will be changed in the next Media Center update (codename: Fiji).

Shared Buffer: One of the Media Center features that I just happen to stumble upon is what I call "Shared Buffers". I don’t know if there is a proper feature name but I think the name works. This feature is only going to benefit those with a multiple location setup (i.e. 1 PC and extenders).

If I am watching a channel live in the living room and I have a buffer built up I can share that buffer with any other of my Media Center locations (i.e. Master Bedroom or Office). The way to do this though is to turn on another extender or launch Media Center on the PC without turning off the first extender. Tune in the same channel you are watching in the first location. Press the info button and you will see an icon like in the screen shot below. I now have the same buffer as the first location and I can rewind back to the point that I started watching it in the last location. Now if I go back to the first extender and turn it off I keep the buffer in the second location.

I’m not sure how often I would use it, but I could envision a scenario in which my wife and I are watching TV in multiple locations and I want her to tune in to the channel I am watching, rewind and check out what I just saw. Definitely a feature that can only be accomplished by having everything run through one central hub.

Multiple Tuners: The ability to have more than 2 tuners was one of the biggest reasons I moved to Media Center. Most people would want to know why you need more than two tuners and I can give you two scenarios in which it affected my family that are now a distant memory.

The first was the never ending network battle for Thursday night. I think NBC started this with the Cosby Show and then Must See TV. We had a 4-way conflict at one point on Thursday nights with Survivor on CBS, The Office & My Name is Earl on NBC, Smallville on theWB and The OC on Fox. We ended up giving up Survivor and the Office and Earl. I hated giving up the Office and Earl but I thought I could just watch it online. Never happened and I fell out of the loop with those shows. Now we have 4 tuners and that will not happen again.

The second scenario that happened more often is that we would come home and two shows would already be recording which prohibited us from watching anything else live such as the news, a sporting event or another new show. It would give us a reason to catch up on recorded shows, but it made us feel constrained. We didn’t like having to give up a show just to watch regular live TV.

I only have one caveat in my multiple tuner setup. The first two primary tuners that I bought are Cable Card digital cable tuners. These tuners are the ones that replaced the tuners in my TW-DVR. I was planning on buying and adding other Cable Card tuners but went with the cheaper HDHomeRun Network tuner. The drawback with this tuner is that I only added two more tuners for Network HD channels (ABC HD, NBC HD, CBS HD, FOX HD, CW HD, PBS HD) because it only tunes in open unencrypted QAM channels. I do not get any of the standard cable channels that most tuners give you. Since 70% of the shows we record are network shows this was actually a pretty good option. The HDHomeRun tuners also record without DRM so I can do more with the shows I record through them. So far it has been a great combination.

We normally do not have Live TV being watched in multiple locations but this would allow for all three locations to be watching Live TV while leaving a 4th tuner available to record.

Stability: Stability is where Media Center gets a few knocks but at the end of the day not many. In the first few weeks as I configured the cable card tuners and the system I had a number of signal drop issues and restricted content issues. After switching out the cable cards with Time Warner, upgrading the firmware on the Cable Card tuners and adding in the HDHomeRun network tuners the system had really stabilized. All calls for the return of the TW-DVR have subsided for the most part.

The only unstable part of the setup now seems to be the Xbox 360. For some reason after doing the last round of updates to my system the Xbox 360 now drops the Media Center connection at least once every viewing session. After doing anything for about 30 minutes the Xbox 360 drops the connection. Once you reconnect you are good to go for as long as you want without another drop. Very strange and I have not been able to track this new issue down yet. I do not have this issue with the Linksys extender.

The Guide
Microsoft provides guide data free of charge via its partner Zap2It.com. Media Center gives you two weeks worth of guide data at time versus the standard one week that most set top boxes allow for. This has really been good for being able to set shows or specials to record as soon as you hear about it. With the TW-DVR we would have to wait until the following week when it shows up on the guide to set it to record. Here are a few thoughts on some specific topics related to the guide.

Guide UI: The guide uses the majority of the screen and does a cool overlay effect on top of any video that may be playing. It has multiple options that are not easily noticeable at first.

On the left hand side of the guide is the "Categories" bar. This is one option that we find ourselves using a lot. It filters the guide down based on the category chosen. The available categories are Most Viewed, Movies, HDTV, Sports, Kids, and News. So when we select HDTV the only channels in the guide are channels that are currently showing something in HD.

The other option in the guide the comes in handy is the option to view listings for a single channel. Selecting the channel number and call sign in the guide will show you the listings for a single channel. You can scroll down as far as you have data which is usually two weeks worth of listings.

That’s all for now. Next post will cover recording.

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6 Responses

  1. Thanks for the rundown on how the setup functions. I am very envious of your setup, and want to get started, but on a tight budget. I still have a couple of questions:* The Homerun has two coaxes in, and one USB out. From what I can surmise, this is able to take in your basic cable (after being split into a Y) in two ports and tune all of TWC’s channels up to 78 or so, just like any TV built in the last 20 years. Also, though, it will scrape the local HD channels that TWC officially offers in the low 200s (the HD tier), but actually has to provide in the basic tier if you can tune it (but doesn’t like to admit it)? Is this what QAM is? I’m thinking of just getting an XBox 360 for the den and using it as an extender to start with. * When you’ve been using an extender, have you noticed a sag in performance at the computer when surfing the web, using Excel, Word, or Quicken??? * When you add plug-ins to VMC on your computer, do they just magically show up on all of the extenders? For instance weather, photo viewers, video collection viewers, etc. Isn’t their a MAME emulator plug in for VMC? How would that work with an XBox 360?

  2. hoopla,I am a very visual person. Tonight I will post supporting videos to the article.I think that will help answer some of the questions.As far as performance, I see no performance hit. I have a 3.0 GHZ processor and 4GB of memory. I can use the computer in the office as normal. I will try to do some video of that too.

  3. Andres,Can you pickup the HD broadcast stations (NBC, ABC, CBS, etc.) with your digital cable tuners. I’m just wondering if I need to purchase the HDHomerun with the DCT to get the broadcast channels in HD.Thanks

  4. Trevor,You do not need both of them combined. You can use the HD Homerun by itself and get the HD Local Broadcast channels either using cable or an over the air antenna.Go to this website and input your zipcode to see what channels you would get with the HD Homerun. The channels in blue are from an over the air antenna and the channels in green are from cable.http://www.silicondust.com/hdhomerun/channels

  5. Question for you about media center extender…

    Can you watch LIVE TV on a media extender that is wirelessly or ethernet connected to your media center pc?

    If YES, which ones? Xbox 360? your Linksys?

    I've got media center up and going… just figuring out how i'm going to get video to my TVs in the house 🙂

    thanks!

  6. @jono55 – Yes you can watch live tv on the extender. That is what I do around my house. In the video attached to this post I am using the xbox 360. I also have 2 linksys extenders – one wired and one wireless. Both get Live TV.

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