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Microsoft One-On-One

Windows Media Center

Image via Wikipedia

I had an appointment today and was able to get some one-on-one time with Microsoft.  Here is what was covered by topic along with my take.  Thanks to my friend Dana for asking some great questions as well.

Digital Cable: Digital cable is coming to everyone!  Everyone that can handle it that is.  Microsoft will be releasing a small application that will asses the ability of your PC to handle digital cable.  If your PC passes the test then it will be enable to use digital cable (aka cable card) tuners.  The application has not been shown publicly yet so we do not know what it will look like.  It could be an application that you download and run or it could just show up as a tile within Media Center and is run with a Media Center UI.  You will not be able to add the digital cable tuners to Windows 7 until that application is released.  The tuners also need to have the update firmware.

SDV Tuning Adapter support is coming and will require Windows 7 (sorry Vista users) and a firmware update to the ATI Digital Cable tuners.  Windows 7 is required because of the some of the under the hood work that had to be done to enable tuning adapter support.  The firmware update will hopefully be out in the next two weeks but we may have to wait longer for tuning adapter support.  I did not get 100% confirmation but it does not look like the Windows 7 bits that enable tuning adapter support are in the Release Candidate.

My Take: This is a great development.  This and the SDV support really turns Media Center into a true DVR alternative to your cable company DVR.  We have no official date as to when everything will be released but October 22nd would not be a bad speculative guess.

Extenders: I asked about the future of extenders and if there was a roadmap for extenders.  There was no official comment on a roadmap for extenders or about any new products. 

My Take: The Media Center booth was setup with Xbox 360 extenders all over the place.  The message being sent at CEDIA was that Media Center works best with a PC at the center and extenders in the different home zones.  I definitely came away with a feeling that extenders will still be a big part of the ecosystem but I have no idea what that will look like.  After the big update to Digital Cable I could see the extenders becoming one of the next big updates, but not for at least another year.  Get use to the Xbox 360.

TV on the PC: The “TV on PC” message was nowhere to be seen which makes sense since the primary audience at CEDIA are custom installers.  The message has not gone away and you will see it going forward.

My Take:  I never saw “TV on PC” as a doom and gloom for Media Center.  I have always seen this push as just another gateway to get people into Media Center.  Once people start using Media Center on their PC they will start asking how they can start watching that content on the big screen.  After talking with Microsoft about this it seems as if this was always the intention.  The question about streaming media services (Hulu, Netflix, etc) is part of a different conversation.

Integration:  I had a lot of you that wanted to know about integration with the Zune HD.  Microsoft did not announce anything, they did not show anything and they had nothing more to add.

My Take:  Even though Microsoft had nothing to say officially on this it was implied that the move of the Zune teams, Media Center teams and Xbox teams under one roof was not done without forethought.  I came away with the impression that Microsoft knows that we want deeper Zune integration and Zune Marketplace integration within Media Center.  I also believe that a lot of work has been put into Windows 7 to lay the ground work and foundation for this integration in the future.  When?  I really do not know, but I would be surprised if this did not happen in the next 12 months.

WebGuide: No word from Microsoft on the official existence of WebGuide or a future release.  I was told that some of the functionality of WebGuide, such as media streaming, had found their way into Windows 7 in different ways.  I was also alerted to the presence of Doug Berrett (the original author of WebGuide).

My Take:  It’s coming.  I am just tired of waiting.  At this point every other DVR can do it so Media Center needs this back ASAP.

Getting the Word Out:  It seems to me that Microsoft feels they have a version of Media Center that really can be pushed beyond the custom installers and enthusiasts to a more mass consumer market.  I naturally asked about an advertising push and Dana asked about the presence of Media Center in the upcoming Microsoft stores.  No comment from Microsoft.

My Take:  The CEDIA booth would be perfect in the Microsoft stores.  It really showcased how Media Center could be integrated into your home and how a single Media Center PC can push HD to multiple extenders.  I would be surprised to not see something similar in the upcoming stores.  I wouldn’t hold my breath for TV advertising.

Well that’s all for now.  Look for pictures and video tomorrow.

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Moving Your Family to a Media Center Whole Home Solution – Part 2

In my first follow-up to my post on moving your family to a whole home Media Center solution I wanted to give a better idea on what I have in my setup and how it’s all connected.  We have four rooms in the house where we can use and enjoy Media Center.  The following diagram explains what equipment is where and how everything is connected:

Media Center Network

Office:  The home office is where I centered the Media Center and all the supporting components.  I have dual monitors connected to the Dell XPS 420 so I can use one as normal PC monitor and the second to watch Media Center at the same time (actually doing that as I write this post).   Audio is just stereo via computer speakers.

Master Bedroom:  In the master bedroom we are using a Linksys DMA2100 extender that is directly wired into the network.  It is connected to the TV via a single HDMI.  This is a nice clean setup with the least amount of cables (4): two power plugs, one network cable and the HDMI cable.  The DMA2100 looks great on this TV and fits the master bedroom scenario perfectly.  Audio is stereo via the TV speakers.

Living Room: The main TV is located in the living room.  Because of this I am using an Xbox 360.  It gives the closest experience to actually having the PC connected to the TV.  It also looks great over a VGA connection on this TV.  Audio is full 5.1 surround sound.

Guest Bedroom:  The TV in the guest bedroom is rarely used so it is the only TV that is still standard definition.  The great thing about Media Center is that I can still watch all of my HD content on this SD set and it looks like an amazing DVD. Audio is stereo via the TV speakers.  This is also the only wireless scenario I have.  The guest bedroom is right underneath the office so the wireless signal is fairly strong.  I have had experienced a few disconnects over extended viewing sessions but overall it worked great and streamed HD content just fine.

I’ll keep on digging deeper into other aspects in future posts.  Hopefully this helps answers some questions for those considering Media Center.

Moving Your Family to a Media Center Whole Home Solution

Windows Media Center

Image via Wikipedia


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.

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”.


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:



TV on PC

Whole Home


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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Media Center – Enthusiast Only?

Charlie Owen is someone that has been a big part of the Media Center community for a long time and always had a unique perspective since he worked on the Media Center team at Microsoft.  I am in the process of finishing my feature post titled “Moving Your Family to a Media Center Whole Home Solution” and Charlie has just posted a great article on his blog that would be a great companion piece to what I will be posting later today.

The question the was presented to Charlie via twitter was: “Can Windows Media Center Go Beyond The Enthusiast Market?”.  Charlie’s response is very interesting and well thought out.  As I have been writing my article this question kept coming up but I did not know the best way to frame it.  Now I feel like I do.

Go read the article and come back later today for the “Moving Your Family to a Media Center Whole Home Solution” feature post.