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My Movies 3.0 Review

Overview

The king is back!  All hail the king.  My Movies was the de facto standard for organizing online and offline movie libraries in Windows Media Center.  It was there at the beginning with Windows XP Media Center 2005 edition and slowly transitioned to Media Center in Windows Vista with the majority of new development focused on the database and back-end of the application.  The plug-in has made a huge leap forward in the User Interface and released My Movies 3.  Since the majority of this release is based on the Media Center client and not the database I will focus on that piece in the review.

Movie Overview

What’s New

The most obvious is the MCML User Interface upgrade.  My Movies 3 has four different views: Covers full screen, Covers and details, Covers centered, and List and details.  Covers full screen is the wall of covers with no menus or metadata to obstruct the view.  You can choose to have 2-6 rows of cover art.  Covers and details changes the view by adding a sidebar of metadata about the highlighted movie.  Covers centered is unique in the the movie highlighted will always be in the center row on the screen and a small strip of metadata flares out to the side of the cover art if you hover over a cover for a few seconds.  It takes getting use to but I kind of like this view.  I think most will choose between the first two options.

Parental controls have been implemented in this release and they work great.  The parental control option must be enabled in the collection management software but that is a one time setup.  You choose a 4 digit pin number that will be used to change parental control options in the future and to temporarily disable parental controls in the UI.  The nice thing about the implementation is that the controls can be set specifically for each extender as well as the main Media Center PC.  If you tie this feature in with the ability to disable the menu’s then you can really lock down an instance of My Movies 3 and get the perfect solution for an extender used primarily by the kids.

Fan art / backdrops support has been added in this release which catches My Movies up with MediaBrowser and OML in that feature.  If you leave the focus over a title for a few seconds the backdrop will fade in to cover the screen.  You will also see it when you drill down into the detail of a movie and as you scroll through the list of movies in the List and details view.

Movie Details

Trailers are not new to My Movies but the placement of the trailers button on the movie detail page is new.  If you are on the detail page of a movie and the application can find a trailer for that movie it will place a trailer link on the detail page.  This is a great help when you are trying to decide on a movie and someone in the group had never heard of the movie.  Most of the time you play the trailer and that’s all the convincing you have to do.  Since it’s pulling streaming trailers you will get more success on newer movies than old ones.  Oh and it does work on the extender!

Similar movies is also a new feature worth mentioning.  When you are in the detail page of a movie you can scroll over to the far right and see Similar Movies.  This feature will display movies from your collection that are similar to the movie you currently are reading the detail for.  The bigger the movie collection the better the results will be.

Overall there are not that many new features as this release was aimed at taking all of the features found in previous versions of My Movies and updating them in a new MCML platform.  Now that the base is complete Brian can start to think about new features and functionality that the users have been asking for but we not really feasible before.  I personally am looking forward to a Resume feature in a future release.

What’s Been Updated

At the top of my list for updates that I wanted to see were performance updates.  According to Brian Binnerup (the developer of My Movies) there would be a significant speed increase in loading movie titles in this release.  He claimed that the application could load 500 titles in 2 seconds, 2500 titles in 3 seconds, and 10,000 in 5 seconds.  I was really excited to see this action after my woes with MediaBrowser but unfortunately I did not experience these loads times at first.  My collection is about 430 so I was looking for an almost instant load of my collection.  Instead the load ranged from 15-30 seconds.  I must also place the caveat that my database is on a home server and not on the actual PC so network latency is always a concern.  So I can see and extra second or two added on but not 15 – 30 seconds.  By mere accident I deleted the database on the home sever and had to  rebuild it by scanning for the mymovies.xml files in the folders.  That accident ended up improving my results dramatically and now my load times is in the 3-5 seconds range on the PC and 5-7 on the extenders.

The main navigation is now hidden up top instead of persisted on the left.  It’s taking some getting use to but I like having it out of the way and not taking up screen real estate.  If you have seen this in MediaBrowser then you already have an idea of what to expect.  The My Movies implementation seems to be cleaner and more polished though.

During installation a My Movies strip will automatically be added instead of the option to choose on first launch.  Since you can disable these strips now in the Manage Extras settings it’s not a big deal.

Collection Management

This has been the strongest part of My Movies for a long time and that has not changed.  In fact the collection management software looks almost exactly the same as it did before.  The obvious changes are in the Options menu since it supports the options for the new user interface.

What’s Missing

Nothing really.  All the functionality that was present in My Movies 2 has been updated and included in My Movies 3.   There are some features that I would like to see in a future release:

  • Delete movie from title detail page
  • Resume
  • Play all (if you have a title that has multiple discs
  • The ability to change options via interface vs. collection management
  • Dynamic filters (all the filters have to be made ahead of time in collection management tool)

Vs. The Competition

Vs. OML: My Movies feels like a clean and polished version of OML at times without some of the nifty features like dynamic stackable filters and custom shortcuts from start strip.  My Movies database and collection management are a million times better than OML.

Vs. Media Browser: MediaBrowser has a lot of eye candy and My Movies has learned from it’s competitors.  It also has a nice home screen, title resume and better support for TV series.  My Movies is head and shoulders about MediaBrowser when it comes to performance and reliability though.  It will be easier for My Movies to catch up on the other stuff now that it has a good foundation.

Vs. Native Movie Library:  The only thing the native Movie Library app has going for it is the simplicity of setting it up.  It’s right there and all you have to do is point to your movie library folder.  The movie library does not scale well with large collections and performance will starts to become a hindrance.  It can automatically pull in movies recorded on TV which is nice but not enough.

Still To Come

On the Media Center Show Brian Binnerup said that he was working on the following features but they would not be in the first 3.0 release: resume, smart watch status (flagged watched based on amount watch, when watched, who watched), bookmarks (favorite scenes, share bookmarks with community), richer meta data for box set, cast and crew titles will include meta data from online to see what you own and what you do not own that the actor is also in, direct playback of chapters, new release around Christmas.

Wrap-Up

My Movies was the standard movie library plug-in for Media Center since the Windows XP days.  Now it has a new base MCML foundation to continue to build advance functionality in future iterations.  My Movies has a free version but it does lock out certain functionality based on a point system.  Read Damian’s review over at MediaSmartServer for more information on what features are effected by this.  Based on what I have seen you owe to yourself to try it out if you want a good looking stable movie library application for Media Center.  The other apps are bringing great competition but need more time to mature before I can rely on them again.  Go download My Movies 3 and let me know what you think.

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Media Center Studio released for Windows 7

One of my favorite utilities for Windows Vista Media Center is Menu Mender.  It is a very intuitive and easy tool that allows you to customize the menu strips in Media Center.  The changes to the underlying architecture of Windows 7 did not allow Menu Mender to work with Windows 7 but as of yesterday not only is there an update but there is a whole new version of the application named Media Center Studio.

If you are familiar with Menu Mender then you will be instantly familiar with Media Center Studio.  There is some additional functionality like the ability to apply themes to the Media Center UI.  You can still turn strips on/off, rename strip menu items and move them around. 

The only restrictions is that native menu items (think “recorded tv”, “movie guide”, “music”) can only be moved to native strips and not custom strips.  Over on the Green Button there is another application that is out (but set to receive an update at any moment) that will allow you to move native apps to custom strips.

After trying out Media Center Studio I may end up using both applications.  I really want the “movie guide” from the native “Movies” strip to be moved onto my custom movie strip with MediaBrowser and OML and mikinho app from the Green Button seems like it will let me do that but I still like the simplicity of Media Center Studio.  Try them out and let me know what you think.  Remember these are both Beta software releases.

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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My Movies 3.0 Is Coming!!

MyMovies was the go to plugin for organizing your movie collection in Media Center. Over time it started to show it’s age. We did get small updates and a nice Windows Home Server version to centralize the database. Finally after much anticipation we have news on MyMovies 3.0 from Ian Dixon:

I have some exclusive screenshots of the all new My Movies 3. On Tuesday I will have an interview with Brian Binnerup the developer behind My Movies and he is going to talk about the new features and UI in the Vista and Windows 7 version of My Movies. Tuesday will also be the release of the beta of the new movie app so listen to the show next week to find out all the details. I have to say its a great looking Media Center application!

I cannot wait to check this out. I really hope it brings much needed speed and stability to my movie collection. Check out Ian’s post for the screenshots.

MyMovies 3.0 Screenshots and Release Date

UPDATE: I just checked out the MyMovies website and I am stoked! It seems that it will have the speed improvements that I am craving. Check out this quote from the site.

My Movies 3 is mainly a new MCML (Media Center Markup Language) based interface, which will be much faster than our current interface. The interface is able to launch a collection of 2.500 titles in 3 seconds, and a collection with 10.000 titles in 5 seconds – the limitation on collection sizes with good speed will be above 25.000 titles.

My collection is up to about 420 movies so this should work great for me.

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