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Moving Your Family to a Media Center Whole Home Solution

Windows Media Center

Image via Wikipedia

Introduction

If you are reading this then you must be interested in a whole home entertainment solution and more than likely Windows Media Center (WMC).  I get questions all the time about how I moved my family over to a full Media Center solution so I thought it was worth writing up.  As you research Media Center and how it could possibly fit into your home it’s easy for excitement to turn into questions and doubt.  Media Center is definitely not for the average everyday consumer, but if you are a PC or an A/V enthusiast at any level then I think you should definitely give Media Center a chance in your home. 

One of the biggest decisions to make when introducing Media Center into your home is if you are going to use it to supplement your current setup or replace your setup entirely with Windows Media Center.  I had this conversation with my brother this past weekend as he contemplates moving to WMC and it seemed like the best solution was an iterative approach of establishing your network, centralizing your media and then introducing Windows Media Center.

Home Network:

This first thing I did before I even purchased my Media Center PC was to answer the question of what my home network would look like.  The majority of the content I would be pushing from my Media Center through my network would be HD.  With that in mind I opted for an almost 100% wired solution and I am glad that I did.  I do not have to worry about my extenders dropping signals or constant network issues.  I am not going to say that I have never had network issues but I think those issues had more to do with all of the other activity on my network rather than issues with WMC.  If I had more networking knowledge I could probably tweak my network to totally eliminate any network issues but honestly I have not had to really do much which is a good thing.

I found a great deal in Cat 5 cable on craigslist and did the wiring myself (which is a post for another day).  I ran 3 network cables from my home office where my WMC lives: two 220 foot Cat 5 cables to the downstairs living room and one 40-50 foot cable to the master bedroom.

I upgraded my wireless router around the same time due to my 6 year old wireless router dying on me.  I chose to buy a wireless N router because I knew that it could stream HD video.  I actually used my Linksys DMA2100 extender, which has built in wireless N, in our guest bedroom for a month straight and the performance was great.  The DMA2100 streamed live and recorded TV in HD well enough to sustain my mother-in-law who was watching a lot of TV as her surgically repaired ankle healed.  It did require a lot more reconnections to the Media Center which was annoying at times and would not have been suitable on the main TV’s.

Everyone’s network is going to be different.  Make sure you make a plan, do not rush into, and do not over engineer it.

Centralizing Your Media:

I use Windows Home Server to centralize my media and all the storage I have accumulated for my media.  As I spoke with my brother about his plans and timeline it made more sense for him to buy a WHS before his Media Center even though I did the opposite.  As I looked back at the evolution of my system I remembered using external hard drives plugged into my Xbox 360 as a stop gap until I had a Media Center or Windows Home Server.  So I guess I was kind of going down this road before WMC as well.

Once you have the network and centralized storage with all of your music, photos, videos and movies you already have the major backbone in place.  At this point you will be able to stream that content to Xbox 360’s, PC’s, laptops or other DLNA based media streamers so you feel like you are half way there.

In my brother’s case the main reasons we set Windows Home Server on his timeline ahead of Windows Media Center was because we wanted to wait for Microsoft has to say at CEDIA this year.  Hopefully Ben’s cable card predictions come true because right now that seems like the best option for a full channel lineup that includes ESPN HD and HBO HD.

Introducing WMC:

So you have a home network setup and all of your current content is centralized on a Windows Home Server (or something similar).  Now it’s time to introduce Windows Media Center and really bring everything together.

The first thing you need is a PC with Windows Vista Home Premium, Windows Vista Ultimate or one of the upcoming Windows 7 equivalents.  A lot of people think about going 64 bit because they think it’s support for high memory configurations is better for Media Center but please do not.  If you absolutely need 64 bit then go for it, otherwise it will be more of a headache than it’s worth.  Windows 7 will see up to 4GB of ram and currently utilize 3.25GB.  I use my Media Center as an office PC and a Media Center and 3GB of ram has always been enough.

TV SourceMedia Center has multiple options when it comes to adding TV sources.  Unfortunately the options are not as straight forward as you would expect.  The TV dream for Media Center is that you could easily plug in multiple sources without changing the end user experience.  Most options are available to you but they are not quite plug-and-play as you would hope.  Here is a great video on getting a TV signal into WMC.   It’s based on Vista but holds true for Windows 7 in almost all aspects.

video_embed
TV tuner options for Windows Media Center

Again Cable Card is the best native solution right now for a complete channel lineup but the current implementation has limitations.  ATI makes the current cable card tuners that I have but they can only officially be used with OEM manufactured PCs and they are not compatible with SDV tuning adapters.  Microsoft and ATI really need to release new Cable Card tuners that are compatible with SDV AND do not require an OEM PC at a reasonable price.  That is a loaded statement but it would be a huge step forward in expanding the Media Center market.

Extenders: Extenders are devices that extend the Media Center ten foot user interface and experience to your television over your home network.  In my house our Media Center PC multitasks and we do not have it connected directly to the TV.  I opted to use Media Center Extenders instead.  I currently use the Xbox 360 on my main TV and Linksys DMA2100 extenders on two bedroom TV’s.

Adding the extenders into the picture is where the Aha! moment really happens.  All you have to do is add an extender to a TV and you have access to all of the recorded TV, music, photos, videos and TV tuners from the media center.  When I show Media Center to friends and family and they see that consistency and unity across the whole house that’s the moment where Media Center goes from being cool and interesting to “I would love to have something like this in my house”.

Conclusion:

Windows Media Center is in a bit of flux in regards to the future of the platform and how Microsoft will move it forward with it.  I have high hopes that Microsoft will give Media Center what it needs to be a viable platform.  I don’t think it will ever be a mass market solution that will compete with cable company DVR’s or TIVO because it’s a more complicated solution.  What I do think is that Media Center will have an adoption curve similar to the social media adoption curve.  Here’s a quick example I put together:

Education

Casual

TV on PC

Whole Home

Advanced

This will be the group of people that learn about Media Center and are not currently aware of it and what it can do.  They will discover it through a friend, commercial or by randomly clicking on the icon on their desk. Eventually after people are educated they may start casually using it instead of Media Player because it looks better and seems easier to use. After casually using Media Center interest is piqued and a TV tuner is added.  Still have another DVR solution but TV usage on the PC picks up. After experiencing TV on the PC they are ready to move forward and have Media Center on more than one screen so extenders are introduced. Full steam ahead with multiple tuners of multiple types, storage is calculated only in terabytes, home automation comes into the picture and more.

So while you may see an advertising push from Microsoft to position Media Center as “TV on your PC” I really think the strategy is going to be used to introduce customers to Media Center and as an easy entry into the entire solution and ecosystem.

Over the next few weeks I’ll dig deeper into all of the areas in the article so keep the questions coming.

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6 Responses

  1. This is a great post. Thanks for putting this together. Will be looking forward to your other posts as well. The video that you have linked to is a great one for 1st time users.

  2. Thanks Pradeep. It was harder to write than I expected. I have the conversation all the time but it is a lot harder to write it down. I thought I would try a high level approach and then start digging deeper in future posts.

  3. Linksys DMA2100 are no longer available. Any suggestions?

  4. John,

    It's unfortunate that the extenders were discontinued. Right now the Xbox 360 is the best extender still for sale.

    The DMA2100 is a great second and third extender. Ebay and Craigslist is about the only place to get them. You can also look for the DMA2200. There are some good deals to be had. My brother has actually had success going this route.

    So far there is no word on what is to come with extenders but in my own opinion I think there will be something new in 2010.

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