Media Center Disappoints Again

My wife and I like to watch old movies, murder mysteries, and reruns of 80’s sitcoms. Our content of choice pretty much mandates that we watch streaming video; NetFlix is our provider of choice today. We watch on a regular basis between 9 and 10 at night because our kids won’t let us near the TV at any other time. And that’s okay. The point is, by the time we get around to settling down to a good movie, the kids are in bed and we can’t really use the home theater. We have to watch in our bedroom to keep the noise level down.

To facilitate this habit, I’ve strung a VGA cable and a ministereo-to-RCA cable from the back of the flat panel TV in our bedroom to a shelf a few feet away where I set the laptop when streaming NetFlix content. This works well, but short of paying for various accessories like an air mouse, I’ve had to jump up and hit the pause button occasionally, whenever we’ve wanted to discuss a point in the movie – usually a mystery.

Yesterday I upgraded my HTPC (64-bit 2.84 GHz quad processor AMD) from Vista Ultimate to Windows 7 and found the new features of 7MC to be nothing less than wonderful. The user interface enhancments are exactly what you’d expect, given the UI enhancments between Vista and Windows 7. The new TV card management software in 7MC is much better than the Vista version. The new Guide actually represents all of the available channels now (plus a few I didn’t even know about!), as opposed to the previous 30 percent coverage provided by the Vista MC Guide. The Internet TV feature is now out of beta, and seems pretty nice. And lastly, and most importantly, the integrated NetFlix interface is just nothing short of cool.

Or so I thought. But Microsoft seems to think that I’ll only ever want to watch streaming content on my PC. I just don’t get that mindset. Who do you know that sits at their desk and watches TV?! I’ll answer for you: no one. Neither NetFlix nor the new Internet TV features are supported on the extender interface. Thus, my only options for watching NetFlix on my TV remain as follows:

  • Connect my HTPC directly to my TV.
  • Continue to use my laptop as above.

As far as connecting my HTPC to my home theatre system, well, that was always the ultimate goal, but I’ve grown accustom to having the unit in the play room, where I could mess with new features in comfort with convenient access to its insides if necessary. I’ve sort of allowed myself to dream of the possibility that the XBox extender would just become better through the years until it finally did everything I wanted it to.

Recently, I read a comment on a blog somewhere that indicated that Microsoft was motivated (monitarily, of course) to NOT allow streaming content on the XBox extender. The rationale was that the XBox console was using NetFlix streaming content as a hook to get people to buy XBox Live Gold memberships. Well, I’ll be hanged if I’ll pay a subscription fee just to get extender support for a service I already pay NetFlix for.

Wake up Microsoft! These are two different market segments. Will gamers mind paying for an XBox Live Gold subscription? No, they’re already paying for a subscription anyway. Will they go out and buy an HTPC so they don’t have to have that subscription to stream NetFlix? No, they bought that subscription for other reasons (games).

On the other hand, will home theatre enthusiasts pay for XBox Live just so they can stream NetFlix content to their big screen or bedroom? Possibly a few, but most (like myself) will be too angry with the marketing tactics to play along. Will they buy a Gold subscription because they might want to play games too? Possibly a few will, but mostly, gamers are gamers, and home theatre enthusiasts are into movies.

So why emmasculate Media Center and alienate your hardware partners by disallowing some of the most enticing reasons to get an extender? Again I say, wake up…please. I might buy an XBox for my bed room just to use as an extender – if I had a good enough reason.

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Getting the Most Out of Your HTPC

Well, now that you have this wonderful Home Theater PC (HTPC), what do you do with it? In this article, I’ll provide some insight on how to configure your HTPC for maximum enjoyment. You paid a lot for this fancy piece of hardware. In fact, I paid as much for my HTPC as I did for my Denon 7.1 channel digital decoder and amplifier, and about half as much as I paid for my 720p projector. There’d better be a good reason for spending that much. Let’s explore…

Watching on the Big Screen

The first thing to consider is how you’ve connected your HTPC. Mine is not connected physically to my video system. That is, I have my HTPC sitting in another room of my home that I currently use as a den or study. It allows me the peace and quiet that I need to continue the on-going process of converting my movie collection into streamable media that I can serve from my HTPC.

I recognize that some people may want to connect their HTPC directly into their home theater system. Eventually, I’ll do this myself. But I have a problem, and you may also. Unless you have the latest video and audio equipment in your home theatre, you’re probably facing a physical connection issue that can’t simply be ignored. By this I mean that your slightly older video display (projector or TV) probably accepts, at most, analog component video (YPbPr) inputs. But the connection on the back of your HTPC (if you purchased the Gigabyte motherboard I mentioned in that first HTPC article) has only VGA, DVI-D and HDMI outputs.

Direct Digital Connection

If you’re lucky enough to have newer home theater equipment–a 1080p projector with HDMI inputs, and a newer 5.1 channel digital decoder/amp with HDMI video switching capability, then you’re really set. Just plug the HDMI output from the onboard ATI video circuitry into one of the free HDMI inputs on your amplifier, and start watching!

The nice thing about an end-to-end digital connection is that you’ll be able to watch your Blu-ray content in the highest resolution available to your display device. Such a connection between your HTPC and your TV will provide exactly the same home theater experience you’d get from your 350 dollar Blu-ray player.

Direct Analog Connection

As mentioned, to get the most out of a direct connection, I really need to use the digital (either DVD-D or HDMI) outputs. But, short of upgrading my amp and projector, I have little recourse here. My somewhat older Denon amplifier has component video switching capability for up to three inputs switched to one output, which is really nice for older devices and monitors. But unfortunately, none of this is compatible with modern digital signals. Until I come into some spare cash, I’m going to have to settle for an end-to-end analog signal between my HTPC and my projector.

To make matters worse, VGA has nothing whatsoever to do with component video, except that they’re both analog signals. Unfortunately these two analog signals operate in different color spaces, so there’s no ad-hoc wiring harness that you can solder together that will allow you to generate component video from the VGA signal at the back of your HTPC.

The solution to this problem is an inexpensive video transcoder. There are various devices available for reasonable prices that will actively convert from one color space to the other. Some of them have more capabilities–and are thus more expensive–than others. I’ve mentioned these devices briefly in my first HTPC article, but I’ll cover them in more detail here.

The device I’ve found that seems to be the best compromise between price and performance is one manufactured by Audio Authority called the 9A60 VGA to Component Video Transcoder. This is a sweet little device–the sweetest aspect of which is the price. In the first place, it does exactly what you want it to do, no more and no less. It converts an RGB signal from a VGA connector to YPbPr Component Video via the standard 3 RCA jacks, with no video scaling or dimensional transformations.

Incidentally, the best price I’ve found on the 9A60 is at mythic.tv for 105 dollars.

Setting Video Card Resolution

Regardless of the type of connection you establish, you’ll have to configure your HTPC’s video card to provide the exact resolution and format expected by your projector or television. An HDMI connection will make setting the computer’s resolution a bit easier, but it has to be done nonetheless.

The resolution expected by your viewing device of choice often depends on how you’ve configured it. For televisions, the resolution is somewhat hard-coded into the device, but projectors can usually be configured to display in different resolutions. Both types of devices can automatically handle a slightly varying range of resolution, regardless of configuration, the rendering quality of which depends on the quality of the display circuitry in the device.

You also need to understand the correlation between TV industry display resolutions and computer display resolutions. In the television industry, resolutions are defined in terms of number of scan lines and whether the signal is progressive or interlaced. Thus, you’ll often hear of TV’s that can display 480p, 720p, 1080i, or 1080p. The numeric values indicate the number of horizontal scan lines displayed, and the letter is either “i” for interlaced, or “p” for progressive (non-interlaced).

The number of scan lines directly corresponds to the vertical resolution on your HTPC. Thus, to generate a 1080p signal to your HD television, you’re going to have to configure your HTPC’s video card to display a resolution of (‘something’ x 1080). The ‘something’ is determined by back-calculating the horizontal resolution from the aspect ratio of your television.

The aspect ratio of US televisions (I mean NTSC/ATSC, rather than the European PAL standard) is either 4:3 or 16:9. So, on a wide-screen (16:9) US television, you would use the following formula to determine the horizontal resolution of your video card:

   Hr = Vr * 16 / 9

where ‘Hr’ stands for Horizontal resolution, and ‘Vr’ stands for Vertical resolution. Thus, the proper horizontal resolution for a 1080p display is 1080 * 16 / 9, or 1920.

The biggest problem you’re likely to run into in this process is actually finding a conforming resolution in the list handed to you by the Microsoft Windows video card configuration dialogs. Windows wants to query the monitor to find out what it can handle, and then transform this information into a set of resolutions compatible with your monitor, but when your monitor is effectively the Audio Authority 9A60, you’ll find it to be quite uninformative regarding what it can handle. Windows responds by giving you a minimal set of choices.

Fortunately, there is free software available in the form of an application called PowerStrip by a Taiwanese company called Entech, which allows you to manually choose your horizontal and vertical resolution, as well as color depth, and horizontal and vertical sync rates. These values must be chosen carefully, or you can damage your display device, but most TV’s and projectors are much more resilient than computer monitors. PowerStrip is pretty self-explanatory, and there are guides abounding on the Internet, so I’ll forego the details here.

Extender Technology

Before I’m ready to connect my HTPC directly to my home theater system, I’m going to use it for several months to convert my video collection, so I’ll want to use “Windows Media Center Extender Technology” and my home network to display my Media Center console on my home theater projector remotely.

Microsoft sells an extender device designed explicitly for this purpose, however, I already have an XBox 360 that I got for my family for Christmas last year, and the 360 has built-in WMC extender functionality. You activate it through the 360 console’s Media page. Look for the option to connect to a Windows Media Center PC.

When you select this “connect” option, the 360 displays an 8 digit random number on the screen, and tells you to use this number at the appropriate location when setting up the extender on your HTPC. In the Media Center setup menu of your HTPC, you’ll find an option for setting up an extender. During this setup wizard, an entry dialog will be displayed, where you’ll be asked to enter this 2-part, 8-digit value. Once you’ve entered this value, the rest is trivial, and your 360 will display your Windows Media Center console.

You can use your game controller to move about the WMC menus and select various options. There’s a cheat-sheet provided by Microsoft that will help you understand how the controller buttons map to Media Center functionality.

Watching Digital Television

TV cards–even digital TV cards–are so inexpensive these days, it would be a shame if you chose to forego that expense. I dare say a TV card costs less than the memory in your HTPC. With that TV card, you get the ability to watch digital TV in full definition.

Of course, if you’d rather spend 400 dollars on a stand-alone digital broadcast tuner, feel free. I much prefer the 80 dollar Hauppaugh WinTV solution. In fact, it’s so cheap, It’s worth considering purchasing two such tuners. Windows Media Center will recognize and consume both units. You can then use one of them to record from one channel, while you’re watching another channel on the other. You can even enjoy picture-in-picture features using both tuners–want to watch a movie while not missing the big game (or vice-versa)? Hmmmm. 400 dollars for a single stand-alone tuner, or 160 dollars for a couple of tuner cards? Not a tough choice.

In fact, the Hauppaugh WinTV 1800 card is actually two tuners in one; an analog tuner and a digital tuner. So even one card will let you do some of the fancy stuff–like recording a digital program while watching an analog program, each on different channels. But if you’re hooked on the realistic quality of digital TV, then you’ll probably almost forget that you have an analog tuner in your TV card. I didn’t even bother connecting the analog tuner to the antenna wire.

This does bring up an interesting side issue for me. The TV card has four antenna inputs on the back: TV, DTV, FM, and QUAM. Okay, I can understanding separate inputs for FM radio and Satellite or Cable input, but was it really necessary to separate the inputs for Analog and Digital TV? I can get a really nice analog picture by connecting my digital antenna to my Analog antenna input. I suppose it’s conceivable that your area has digital and analog broadcast towers set up in different locations, which would preclude aiming TV and DTV antennas in different directions… What I’d really like to see is some sort of software switch or hardware jumper that bridges the DTV input to the TV input, so I don’t have to use an input cable splitter to connect my DTV antenna wire to both inputs.

Time-Shifting and the Media Center Programming Guide

One of the nicest features of Windows Media center is the ability to easily record a program for later viewing. I can sit down on Saturday afternoon, and check out the schedule for the coming week. In a few minutes, and with just a few clicks, I can schedule the recording of broadcast movies or shows I want to watch. If you always schedule tuner B to record, then you know you can always watch tuner A without worrying about bumping in to a recording session.

Remember when you had to get out the manual for your VCR whenever you wanted to record a program on TV. It was a fairly complex and time-consuming process to configure your VCR to record a program at a later time. If you just wanted to record something now, it wasn’t too bad. You could almost figure it out without the manual (just press the red record button and the play button at the same time–often this combination was highlighted on the remote for this purpose). But if you wanted to record a program that was scheduled to start when you were not home, now that was a different matter. How’d I do that last time? Dang! Where’s that VCR manual?!

Windows Media Center comes with an online programming guide for the United States. If you live in the US, you simply supply your zip code when you configure your tuner card (and, of course, agree to the online content use license), and Media Center will configure your TV viewing experience with an online programming guide. Recording any program is as simple as finding the upcoming program in the guide, and pressing the record button at the bottom of the screen. This isn’t perfect–it never has been. Last minute programming changes will always be sources of heartburn, but the media providers understand this, and try more then ever to ensure that the content is accurate.

You even have the option of recording an entire season of a program with one button. Do you like a particular television program, but you forget to record it half the time, so there are gaps in your understanding of the program plot? No problem. Let Media Center do the remembering for you. Just tell it to record the entire season, and then forget it. If you become busy with life and stuff (who doesn’t?), and are unable to watch your program for a few weeks, don’t worry–when the load lightens up again, the missed episodes will be there for you to watch.

You can also watch a program while it’s being recorded. Now, why would you want to do that?! Okay, you can perhaps understand that you might wish to save this program and watch it again later. But most people who record while watching do so for one reason: They want to skip commercials on the fly. Just start recording a program you want to watch, then go away for 15 minutes or so. When you come back, you’ll have enough recorded material so that when a commercial starts, you can fast forward over it to the show again. By the time you get to the next commercial, enough material has been recorded to allow you to skip this one as well. This is a common feature on 200 dollar Personal Video Recorder (PVR) devices. PVR functionality comes built-in to a Media Center PC with a tuner card.

DVD and Blu-ray Movies

My system includes a Blu-ray disc player, so I can watch my Blu-ray discs on my HTPC. At the time of this writing, Blu-ray players (not recorders) can be had for between 100 and 150 dollars, and they’re coming down in price fast. It won’t be long before, like internal DVD players, you can pick one up for about 20 bucks.

But Blu-ray players can also play DVD’s and CD’s, as well. This shouldn’t be too surprising, as DVD players can also play CD’s. Thus, for about 100 bucks, I have an HTPC-based replacement for my stand-alone Blu-ray/DVD player. Such a device would normally cost 350 dollars or more in today’s market. (It’s becoming easier and easier to justify the 1000 dollar cost of my HTPC!)

For complete instructions on how to create a playable archive of your purchased movie content, see my previous article, entitled, “Creating a Disk-Based Movie Archive”.

NetFlix Streaming Media

One of my favorite services (and a primary motivation for me to build an HTPC in the first place) is NetFlix streaming video. I’ve had a NetFlix subscription for a couple of years now. Last year when NetFlix came out with free streaming video for current subscribers, I thought Christmas had come early for me.

If you’ve got your Media Center PC connected directly to your television, then you have a several options. The most obvious option is to open a browser window from your HTPC desktop, and navigate to netflix.com. In this case, you’re accessing NetFlix streaming video just as you always have (if, that is, you’ve used NetFlix streaming video in the past), except that now you’re watching it on your television, instead of your computer monitor.

If you’re using an WMC extender, or if you simply want to configure WMC as your only desktop (by making it non-minimizable), then you have fewer options. Since you can’t access your browser application from the extender console, you’ll have to find a way to access NetFlix streaming video through WMC itself. There are two approaches you can take.

One of these is a free software project hosted by Google code, called VMCNetFlix. VMCNetFlix is basically a Windows Media Center application that makes the NetFlix Web API available through the Windows Media Center interface. To use VMCNetFlix, you must be using Windows Vista Media Center (thus, the ‘VMC’ portion of the name), which comes packaged with Windows Vista Home Premium, Business or Ultimate editions. Assuming you are, simply go to the VMCNetFlix project download page, and download the package appropriate for your hardware architecture (32- or 64-bit).

Install the package by double-clicking on it, and then bring up Windows Media Center. Navigate up or down to the “Online Media” menu, and select the “Program Library” option. If you’ve seen this screen before, then you should see a new item in the list with the familiar NetFlix motif. Select the NetFlix program, and the VMCNetFlix application will help you configure your Media Center to access your NetFlix account.

I like this option because it’s easy to use, fully functional, and best of all–free. In sharp contrast, the other option for accessing NetFlix streaming content through WMC is just plain stupid. I’m sorry, but I just don’t understand how normally intelligent people can conceive of what they deem to be viable business models that fly in the face of reality. If you’re using an XBox 360 as a Media Center extender, then you can also access NetFlix streaming content through your XBox Live! account, if you have one. This would be fine, except that you have to have a Gold account, which means you’ll be charged a monthly fee to use a service that you already pay a monthly fee to use. Now, of course, if you’re an avid gamer, and you already pay for an XBox Live! Gold account, then this requirement probably won’t bother you (much).

The sad part about the XBox Live! method is that it’s the only officially sanctioned way of accessing NetFlix streaming content from the Media Center console. To be sure, there’s nothing illegal about using VMCNetFlix. It’s just that it’s a bit of a hack, which means that anytime NetFlix decides to change their web API, VMCNetFlix will have to be updated to accommodate the modifications.

Additional Features

You can also play games and execute other pc-based software. You’re not limited to using your HTPC as a media center. Unless you’ve configured WMC to be non-minimizable, you can simply click the usually minimize button in the upper-left corner and you’re looking at the Windows Vista PC screen on your TV. This means that any software you have installed is available from your TV. There are a few Windows games that can be played through the “Online Media/Program Files” menu.

There is on-line content available through Windows Media Center. Most of this is subscription based, but you’ll have to decide whether it’s worth the price. And finally, you can do most of the usually things with Media Center that you can do with media on your PC, including playing music. If you have a really nice stereo, this could be a great way to use your PC-based music collection.

Since PC’s are naturally extensible, having a PC as a component in your home theater makes your home theater extensible. Whenever a new PC-based media experience becomes available, you’ll be ready to take full advantage of it.