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Windows Embedded Media Center Boxes

Well it looks like something that I was predicting is coming true, partially.  The first Media Center dedicated boxes with Windows 7 Embedded are being shown to the public.  Check out what Acer and Asus are showing over at EngadgetHD.

CEDIA is just around the corner and I am expecting/hoping that Microsoft is going to show some support and love to these systems to help build the ecosystem.  It would be great to be able to share protected recorded TV and recording schedules with these devices.  Time will tell.


Windows 7 Embedded & Media Center

Windows Media Center logo

Image via Wikipedia

I am not sure how many of you have kept up with the release of Windows 7 Embedded but it seems that this could be the Media Center dark horse and the one to watch.

What Is It?

So what is Windows 7 Embedded?  It is basically the ability to install Windows 7 directly onto a chip.  What does that mean?  It means you can install Windows 7 or some version of Windows 7 on devices like set top boxes.  Your cable box, game console and cell phone all have embedded software that makes them run.

Microsoft announced that Media Center features and functionality would be part of Windows 7 Embedded.  The cable card features will be missing at first but are expected to be added in the future.

So What?

So why is the important for Media Center?  It allows Media Center to start showing up in multiple for factors.  It would allow for the introduction of a few interesting Media Center products in my opinion:

  1. Media Center DVR:  Companies could create a Media Center set top box that competes with Tivo and other DVR’s.  It would allow them to create a streamlined experience that just works.  It could include a Blu Ray drive and a number of TV tuning options.  It would also increase the probability of a satellite based Media Center like the Dish Network Box demonstrated at CEDIA last year.
  2. New Bare Bones Media Center HTPC Kits: It would be possible to sell/buy Media Center bare bones kits in multiple form factors that the enthusiast could then take and begin to customize.
  3. New Extenders:  This may be where I am completely day dreaming but it would be possible.  The community has wanted a SoftSled extender for as long as I can remember.   SoftSled extenders are basically software versions of OEM only extenders.  This would give enthusiasts the ability to make their own extenders.  Now I do not see this coming but I do see the possibility for an OEM to build an extender that uses Windows 7 Embedded with Media Center running in an extender mode that would only be supplied by Microsoft to OEMs.  If this sees the light of day the extender platform would finally realize it’s potential.  I could still have a small form factor box like my Linkysys DMA 2100 that runs absolutely quiet with a unified TV Tuner pool and recorded TV list but has all of the functionality of an actual Media Center.

Will It Happen?

Well now that we know what some of the possibilities are how likely are we to actually see some of this happen?  At this point I feel it’s 50 / 50.  When I was at CEDIA and asked about extenders there was no news other than the fact that Microsoft likes the extender paradigm.  Could the lack of news been a result of not wanting to spill the beans on Windows 7 Embedded to soon.  Possibly.  It makes sense.  At the end of the day we do not have a roadmap and I do not think we will hear anything new until CEDIA which seems to be the preferred announcement time for Media Center.

The biggest strikes against this that I see are the Xbox 360 and the dissolution of the Media Center Integrator Alliance.  The Xbox 360 continues to become more and more of an alternative set top box.  The only missing component is Live TV which could be ending with option like ESPN 3 integration and the rumored Hulu integration. 

Also the custom integrator channel was seen as the biggest champion for continued Media Center adoption but we have no idea where that support lies.  When I was at EHX in March there were still a lot of integrators that had no idea what Media Center was an how it worked.  If they did know what Media Center was they did not know how to begin selling it to their customers.

The Future

While we cannot predict the future I still feel like Media Center’s glass is half full and not half empty.  With Google entering into the market and Apple rumored to be refreshing Apple TV as an iOS4 product you can bet Microsoft will not let their lead and experience just dissipate.

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The New Media Center Extender / Xbox

new360front Microsoft unveiled the updated Xbox 360 yesterday during their E3 Media Briefing.  It is small enough to fit inside the original Xbox 360 design.  The one thing that caught my attention in relation to Media Center is that Don Mattrick said it was “whisper quiet” as he was introducing the new design.

Could this new Xbox 360 design be the Media Center extender we have been waiting for?  The price is right and it is still the most powerful extender but I don’t know if they would ever update it to allow silverlight streaming since the 360 has its own version of Netflix and now ESPN3.com.

The other interesting thing that is potentially Media Center related is the new Kinect Xbox 360 controller.  It is a total hands free experience.  You can use your hands and voice to control the Xbox 360 dashboard and all of the media playback.  I really hope this functionality finds its way into the Media Center portion of Xbox 360.  I can control Media Center with my Xbox 360 controller today so there is hope of being able to control my Media Center with just my voice.

Do not expect anything new until CEDIA in September.  If you want to get the new Xbox though, it goes on sale this week.  You can pre-order now from Amazon.

Windows 7 Launch Party

I was selected to host a Windows 7 launch party almost two weeks ago.  I applied to be a host after receiving the following email:

Launch Party

I received an email today letting me know that my Windows 7 Launch Party pack will be shipping soon which means that I should have my full retail copy of Windows 7 Ultimate within a week or so.

As a host I was asked to select a theme for the party and it should come as no surprise that I chose the “Media Mania” theme.  You can see the other themes in the image above.  The “Media Mania” theme has a heavy focus on Windows Media Center and all that it can do.  I get a number of inquiries and perplexed looks when it comes to my Media Center setup so this is going to be a great chance to explain to my non-tech friends and family what this Media Center thing is all about.

My Media Center PC normally sits in my home office upstairs in my house but for the party I am going to bring it down and hook it up the the main TV.  I am also going to use extenders in two more rooms downstairs so that I can show the multi-room capabilities of Media Center and also demonstrate one of my new favorite Windows 7 features – Play To.

I will post pictures of the party the next day.  The party is scheduled for Oct. 24.

Cable Card Works on My Old Laptop

Now that Microsoft has opened up the flood gates on Cable Card usage in Media Center there are a lot of people that may be wondering if that old PC could be repurposed as a Media Center.  I have thought about it as well as I talk to friends about adopting Media Center so I decided to run a test.

I took my almost 5 year old laptop which is currently running Windows 7 RC and setup Media Center on it.  Since the tool to enable Cable Card has not been released yet I used the Cable Card hack to get my ATI Cable Card running on my laptop.  Here is the equipment list for the test:

  • HP Pavilion dv4000 Laptop running Windows 7 RC (1.73 GHZ Pentium M, 1 GB Ram, 1.0 System Rating)
  • ATI Digital Cable Card Tuner (1.17 firmware)
  • Linksys DMA2100

Step 1 – Install the TV Tuner:  The first thing I did was install the Cable Card hack which worked like a charm with no hiccups.  I think unplugged the ATI DCT from my main Media Center PC and plugged it into my laptop.

Step 2 – Run TV Setup: The next step was to run the TV tuner setup.  I only setup the one ATI DCT so the test was with a single tuner.

Step 3 – Test HD TV on an extender:  My laptop does not do well with HD video.  I know this from testing Home Group in Windows 7 with HD recordings from my main media center PC.  Because of this I used the extender as part of this test.  The extender was connected wirelessly while the laptop was hard wired via Cat5 to the network.  Below is a picture showing system resources while watching Hellboy on HBO HD.  There is also a YouTube video demonstrating the performance.

Low Power Media Center

Not bad huh?  This should definitely give hope that the cost of entry into Media Center is going to be low.  Of course you can buy a cheap desktop PC that blows this laptop out of the water and just add a cable card tuner to it.

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.