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Living With Media Center: Videos

LWMC - Video Library - 01 Main Icon

Of all the features provided by Media Center, the Video Library on the “Pictures + Video” strip is the one my family and I use the least.  Most of my video actually resides elsewhere: Recorded TV, OML Plugin (Movie Library), Video Library Plugin (TV Library).  I do have a few video files that I have downloaded from the internet that I have stored here, but the library is not extensive.

Importing Video – The Video Library suffers from Media Center’s conglomerate “watch folder” approach that the Photo Library suffers from.  It would be a lot cleaner if I could specify to watch just one particular folder for video.  Instead it has folders listed that I never use to store video.  Not a huge deal, but it does muddy the waters for the average user.

LWMC - Video Library - 04 Watch Folders One setup for the all the libraries – video,photo, music

After telling the Media Center to watch my video folder on my network it scans the directory for media files.  It gives you the option to do other things while the scan is running.  I highly recommend that you do not do this.  Let Media Center finish it’s work.  It could take up to 30 minutes but the performance afterwards is a lot better.  One thing to note is that you need to perform this setup on each extender.  More on that when I post about hardware.

LWMC - Video Library - 02 Folders Top

Navigating Videos – Use of the Video Library is straight forward.  The particular folder(s) you asked Media Center to watch will show at the top root level.  What you find when you click on the folder depends on how you have organized your files.  There is no concept of meta data so the ease of finding files is totally up to you.  If you have a lot of rip dvd movie files you should use a movie library plugin like MyMoves or OML (more on those in my future plugins.

I primarily have viral videos that I have downloaded, family videos and music videos.  I have them organized as such.  Since I do not have many videos it is easy to find what I am looking for. 

LWMC - Video Library - 03 Folders

Watching Videos – As long as the video is in a format that the extender supports it will play with no problem.  For videos that doe not play natively I use the Transcode360 plugin to transcode the video file on the fly.  More details on installing transcode360 in a future post, but using it is very simple.  You just highlight the video, press the “info” or “i” button on the remote, then choose “More” on the pop-up menu.  On the next screen select Transcode.

LWMC - Video Library - 05 More LWMC - Video Library - 06 Transcode

I have a folder that I have set to watch named “Transcode Me”.  One thing I realized is that transcode360 changes the video files into and MPEG2 format that I can then take and convert to DVR-MS for easier use.

Video Playlists – One thing that I have discovered is that you can create video playlist.  For some reason this only works with videos in MPG format.  You would think that DVR-MS Media Center files would work but they do not.

All you have to do is create a video playlist in Media Player on the PC.  Save the playlist as an ASX file in the same folder that you store the videos.

On the Media Center navigate to the folder and select the playlist.  It will now play each video on the list in order as a playlist. 

If you would like to customize a logo for the playlist just put a JPG file in the same location as the playlist file with the same name as the playlist.  So in my case I have playlist named “All Pop – Shuffle.asx”.  In the same folder I have an image file named “All Pop – Shuffle.jpg” and I now have an icon image for my playlist.

LWMC - Video Library - 07 Playlist

Wrap-Up – So that is pretty much the extent of my use with the Video Library.  It’s name is misleading because it has no real organizational abilities to suggest that it is a library.  It should just be named videos.  Overall not a bad way to get some downloaded internet videos on your TV without hooking up the laptop.

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Living With Media Center Videos Online

I have finally completed the videos that go along with my Living With Media Center posts.  Here are all of them in order.  I have also gone back and updated the posts to include the videos.  The shortcut to all the Living With Media Center` posts are on the right hand side.

I also wanted to ask if for request.  If anyone out there is thinking about Media Center and wants the answer to a particular question in video format or wants to see something in action, just let me know and I will make a video and post it.  It is always easier to see things in action than read about them.

Videos:

Media Center – Startup

Media Center – Overview

My OLD Time Warner TV

Media Center – TV

Media Center – Music

Media Center – Photos

Living With Media Center: Photos

This post will cover the out-of-the-box Photo support and feature set of Windows Media Center. The purpose is to explain how my family and I use or do not use these features in our normal usage scenarios.

Read more below.

Importing Pictures – Getting your pictures to show up in Media Center is very easy and pretty straight forward. The experience is greatly improved if you already have your pictures organized in some logical way.

Our picture collection is organized under one main folder called "Pictures" with sub-folders for each year. Within each year folder there all sub-folders for the events such as "Christmas", "Thanksgiving" and "Jacob’s Birthday".

So for Media Center I just add "C:\Pictures" as a watch folder. Media Center will scan and automatically find all the folders, sub-folders and files anywhere within "C:\Pictures". Media Center then continues to watch that folder for any updates which are automatically reflected within Media Center.

The process is fairly easy and straight forward. The only issue I have is that there are folders that you have not set to watch that show up under photos. Looking at the screenshot below you will see my main Photos folder highlighted.

To the left there is an Adobe folder that I did not add and to the right is the Video folder that I set to watch for Videos. This is not huge but I cannot remove the Adobe folder as much as I have tried and I would rather only have the Video folder show up under Videos.

Navigating Pictures – Media Center has three main navigation options after selecting one of the top level folders that you see under Photos. The three methods navigation methods are Folder, Tags and Date Taken.

  • Folder: This navigation is very straight forward. You will see folders that represent the actual folders on your computer. Your personal photo storage organization method will have a direct impact on how much you like this view.

    My organization makes sense for me and my family so this is the navigation method I use the most.

  • Tags: The tags navigation method is slowy becoming my favorite. I say slowly because it takes some effort to actually utilize this method. I tag photos with family member names, locations and events. The screenshot below shows what it looks like when you have tags set and choose to navigate using your tags.

    I will talk about how I set tags later.

  • Date Taken: This is actually a very cool way to look at your photos that I had not really explored until I stared working on this post. Here is what is looks like:

    If you navigate using the folder structure you can further sort within the folders by filename or date. It always thought that meant date taken but it did not. It was using the modified date. So if you tagged the photo or rotated it then the modified date would change to the current date and move this up within the list.

    So you need to select date taken as soon as you get into your photos and you can see everything in order based on the time stamp assigned by your camera. This works well with slideshows.

Viewing Photos / Photo Slideshow – At any point while navigating you can choose to view a single photo or view a slideshow. The slideshow is just a series of single photos with nice animations and transitions.

To start a slideshow you select it from the top of the screen. In the screenshot you can also see that I have music playing. You need to start the music first and then your slideshow so that it will accompany the photos.

Here is the first photo of the slideshow.

You can also see the overlay showing what music is playing with the slideshow. Clicking the info button on the remote gives you options for picture detail and rotate in case you need that. Here is what picture detail looks like:

So viewing photos is pretty easy and has just enough options. Everything I have described here is the experience through the extender since that is how we use it. There are a few more options using Media Center directly on the PC.

Photo Management – I have not done much photo management to date. Nothing compared to the work I put into my music collection. I basically create a folder with an event name underneath the appropriate year folder and drop my pictures in there.

I have recently started to tag my photos to take advantage of the tags in Media Center. I am using the Windows Photo Gallery application that comes with Vista.

Within Windows Photo Gallery I set it to watch the same "C:\Photos" directory. It even gives me some of the same navigation options as Media Center.

To tag a photo I just right click on the photo and select "Add Tags…" from the sub-menu.

Then on the right hand side you add as many tags for that photo as you want. So if multiple people are in the photo you can add a tag with each person’s name.

Plugins – There are plugins for Media Center to view photos from Flicker or view photos from Picasa. I have not had a need to try either one yet. I plan on trying the Picasa plugin since my family shares a lot of photos through Picasa web albums.

Media Center – Photos Experience Video

Wrap-Up – So that is Media Center with Photos. It’s easy, works great and for the most part gives you exactly what you expect. I will update this post with a video demo as soon as possible.

Living With Media Center: Music

I know a lot of people have complained about the music functionality in Media Center, but I really like it.

It has a really cool slick UI.  You can sort you music by a few canned sort options such as Year, Genre, Artist, Album.  You can see all of the album art in a small icon or large icon in almost all of these views.  Looks very slick.  Overall I am satisfied.

One of the biggest complaints in Media Center’s music implementation is the album art.  If you have taken the time to make sure you have nice high resolution album art prepare to be slightly disappointed.  Media Center does not show the album art directly from the MP3 tag.  It actually pulls a copy of the album art out of the MP3 file and places it in the folder in a 200×200 resolution version.  On a small TV, no problem.  On a 52” HDTV not so hot.  I personally have a 42” HD set and at the end of the day it does not bother me too much.  It’s not horrible, but it could be better.

Media Center – Music Experience Video

Another thing to be aware of is that Media Center relies 100% on tag metadata.  You do not have an option to traverse your music through a folder structure.  Because of this I highly recommend that you have your tag metadata in order before you add your music to Media Center.  I actually put my music in a TEMP folder first, fix/update the metadata with MediaMonkey and then move the files to a subfolder of my main music folder.  This has kept my music in a nice organized condition.

My family’s everyday use with music has been positive.  I have a few playlists ready to go and it is super easy to build a playlist on the fly.  You can search for music using the number keys on the remote control or by typing on the keyboard if you are at the PC.  It has been great during parties with friends and nice to have music coming through my main sound system without having to hook-up the iPod.

One of the best ways I have found to make playlists though is with Windows Media Player or MediaMonkey.  Just save or export the playlist to a subfolder in your Music folder that Media Center watches.

We do not use Music as much as the TV/Movies functionality but when we do it works well for us and overall we really have no complaints.

Living With Media Center: Recording TV

The main driver in moving my family to a Media Center system was for the perceived advantages over the DVR supplied by Time Warner Cable (our cable provider) or over buying a Tivo.

The advantages I expected to deliver to my family were

  • Recording without regard to space
  • Smart/keyword series recording (i.e. record all “sports” with “University of North Carolina”)
  • Easier series management
  • Record once, watch anywhere

So far I would say that we have definitely realized these advantages, but have discovered a disadvantage or two along the way.

The hard drive space that we have is shared with all the content, not just recorded TV.  So for the most part we can record TV without thinking about space or without deleting other content first.  I currently have 12 HD movies recorded, 10 episodes of the Daily Show, 10 episodes of the Colbert Report, 4 episodes of House (HD), 5 episodes of Hell’s Kitchen (HD), 6 episodes of Desperate Housewives (HD) and other shows in HD and standard def.  This does not even account for shows that I have archived with the myTV plugin.  There is no way my Time Warner cable box can compete.  They are just now allowing an external hard drive to help with the storage situation.

My Old Time Warner Experience Video

The series recording and series management has some great convenience features.  One unexpected convenience is the default series recording settings.  For 99% of you recordings you usually want to record only new episodes only.  Now this can be the default for all series (along with other settings).  Next time you set a series to record you do not have to deal with the series recording options.

Another quick convenience is setting a series to record from the guide.  If you see a show you want to record on the guide just highlight and press the record button.  This will record the one episode.  If you want to record the series just press the record button twice and the series is set using the default settings.  Quick and easy!!

The most used convenience is the record once, watch anywhere.  I can now watch any TV that I record in the office on the Media Center PC, in the Master Bedroom with and extender or in the living room with the Xbox 360 extender.  Long gone are the days of wanting to relax in bed and watch some recorded TV but not being able to (unless I had 2 DVR’s and recorded the show twice).  Once you have this option you will never want to go back.

Media Center – TV Experience Video

UPDATE: Ok so all of that is great but what are the disadvantages?  The disadvantages we have seen are live buffer recording and Cable Card.

There have been a few times in which I was watching something (usually the news) and then wanted to record it for my wife to see when she got home.  This worked great on the cable box since it would record everything that you had in the buffer for that show.  The media center does not do that.  It starts from the point you press record.  This has burned us a few times.

The second disadvantage in the new system is the Cable Card stability.  Both of my ATI Digital Cable Tuners work great without the cards and the cable signal has been tested and is very strong even after I attach the splitter.  One of my tuners works perfect with cable card 100% of the time.  The other tuner sometimes loses signal on specific channels. 

For example, we record The Daily Show every day.  Comedy Central, channel 52, unfortunately is one of the channels that the Cable Card loses signal on.  To fix that I need to tune to another channel close by (53 or 54) and then tune back to Comedy Central.  After that it works and it works the Daily Show and the Colbert Report right after it. 

Luckily with the Daily Show if I am not alerted in time to manually fix it at 11pm the Media Center will automatically reschedule to record it at 1am.  If it was not a show that was repeated, I would have just missed it.

To help alleviate this situation as much as possible I have gone into the registry and reordered my tuner preferences so that the tuner that works 100% of the time is the primary recording tuner and the other tuner is the primary viewing tuner.  It helps but has not fixed the issue.

So the advantages severely outweigh the disadvantages and I could not imagine going back to a regular cable DVR.

Next post: Music

Windows Live Writer Test

I just downloaded Windows Live Writer and I’m taking it for a spin.

I am behind on my Living With Media Center posts but I hope to pick those back up today and complete them by this week.  I have had a number of things just get in the way (rest and relaxation being one of them).

UPDATE: Testing updating existing posts.  Seems to only work for posts that I generated from Live Writer.  Bummer.

UPDATE 2: Thanks to Joe Cheng from Microsoft for leaving a comment and letting me know how to update previous blog post.  I am definitely a Live Writer fan so far!!

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.