Home Networking with Media Center Edition, Part 1

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Introduction: Home networking, once considered the fanciful dream of futurists and science fiction authors, is on the verge of becoming a way of life for consumers. The concept of interconnected electronics and appliances in a unified “digital home” system is with us now, if not yet perfected and broadly practicable. That will change, though, as new IT solutions—such as Microsoft Vista operating system—bring this functionality to the marketplace.

For the next three months, CertMag.com contributor Chris Lehr will discuss key phases in the home networking process with Windows Media Center Edition. Below is the first installment of this series.

 

Most of us have electronic music collections. It’s convenient to be able to listen to any music you want without having to hunt down a CD. Unfortunately for most of us, we only listen to it on our computers or portable MP3 players. I wanted to be able to listen to them on my home stereo. I also wanted the ability to watch movie files on the home theatre, and the ability to still listen or watch media files from any PC in the house. I had been reading about Windows Media Center Edition in several trade magazines and was considering upgrading my cable box to a unit with a Digital Video Recorder (DVR) built in, I decided to try out Microsoft’s Windows Media Center 2005 edition built on a shuttle PC sized enclosure. I had many expectations and hopes as to what the box would do. I hoped it could become the “heart” of my home theater system as well as acting as a server for all of my media files. My entire music collection would be housed there, and would be shared with other machines in my workgroup. So at any given point, I could be watching a movie and recording a TV show, and at the same time, other people in the house could listen to my music collection, hosted on this PC.

Media Center is essentially Windows XP Professional with an added application that allows you to control media playback with only a remote control rather than with a keyboard or mouse. With the addition of only a TV tuner, you can watch, pause and record live TV or movies as well.

In the initial build-up and configuration, my intent was to run “headless” with the exception of the TV being used for display purposes. I wanted to only use the remote control to control all CD and DVD playback, TV tuning, DVR playback, and music and media-file playback. Anything that needs to be done that is more involved could be done via Remote Desktop from another PC on the LAN. Another hope was to reduce the collection of remote controls on my coffee table. By having everything go through one device, it would mean less of a need for other remotes.

The first decision I had to make was whether or not to build the PC or to buy one from HP, Dell or other manufacturer marketing Media Center PCs. I opted to build my own so that changing parts later would be less difficult and the non-OEM cases that are available look really slick.

The second major decision was how to go about hooking everything up. Depending on your home theatre setup, you might need different parts! The two basic things are Video and Audio. Consider your input sources and output availability for each. Some cable boxes have Coax out, some S video, some component and some RCA (aka Composite). The same goes for Audio out. Single outputs per channel, Left and Right RCA plugs, or even optical out from your cable box might be an option. On higher-end systems, you may be able to HDMI and DVI for all video and optical SPDIF inputs and outputs. Be sure you choose parts that will work with your setup. For my setup, I used the S-Video out of the cable box, and the right and left RCA Audio out of the cable box.

I ended up building a very nice machine based on ASUS’s xCube EZ 482, their only AMD socket 939 offering at the time I purchased it. I outfitted the shuttle case with the AMD 3700+ CPU, a 400GB SATA drive, 2GB of RAM and a DVD/CD drive. Also added were a wireless USB key and a PCI TV Tuner by Happauge. (See Image 1.)

With all the parts assembled, installation of Windows began. I performed installation using a normal VGA monitor, as the television screen is not so easy on the eyes when in low-resolution modes. The low resolution can be very difficult to read. When installing Windows and prompted for partition sizes, I recommend making your system drive about 20-30 gigabytes and leaving the remainder to be a “media” drive, and name it as such. The main reason for this is if you reinstall Windows Media Center, you can safely format the drive with all of your saved media on it.

The Media Center installation is based off a two-CD set; exactly like an XP Professional installation, aside from being prompted for additional CD’s. Using the CDs that came with the TV tuner, the Wireless card, and the motherboard, I was up and running with all device drivers found. The next order of business was running Windows Updates, which I did at least two times. Keep in mind that Media Center Updates only show up under the “Custom,” not the “Express” update.

Once fully patched, it was time to start plugging it into the home theatre. The first order of business is to get the video out to work. My shuttle PC had an onboard X300XL ATi card that offered component out. I plugged it into the back of my TV, rebooted the PC, and I had video! That was easy enough. Moving along to audio, I really like surround sound when watching DVD’s so I opted for optical (SPDIF) output. Of course, with my setup, I am using only RCA for TV input I will only get Left and Right channels on TV, even if surround sound is available. I hope to upgrade this at a later date, but more on that later. Audio worked as soon as I plugged it in. (See Image 2.)

One of the first drawbacks I found in Media Center Edition is even though it is based on Windows XP Professional, it cannot be added to a domain. Hopefully, Windows Vista Media Center Edition will have this functionality.

Once the OS and all drivers were installed, it was time to move it to the home theatre. The first thing I tried was TV. I hit the big green button on the Media Center remote, and Media Center (the application) launched. I went to my TV and got a decoder error. I jumped too soon, and went into Media Center setup. Media Center was able to automatically detect that I had a set top box, and that along with the zip code I provided when prompted, it pulled up choices on which cable providers it could be. I selected mine, and then it went about downloading the guide for my provider. From here on out, this happens automatically, or anytime you want you can manually trigger a download. This can all be done via dial-up and scripting, but a high-speed internet connection would definitely be recommended. Once that was done, Media Center prompted me through setting up the Media Center remote to control my cable box via the IR transmitter that came with the TV Tuner card, then I hit Live TV, and boom, there it was, with the guide working and everything. With a little tweaking and tuning, I was able to adjust the size of the TV viewing area to take up as much of the TV screen as possible. (See Image 3.)

The next thing to try was playing DVD’s. The first DVD I put in was a boxed copy of Forrest Gump. I was immediately stopped in my tracks by a DVD decoder error. In my early research, I had not found that in order to play DVDs, you must purchase a DVD decoder. I opted for the power pack from Cyberlink, as listed on Microsoft’s site here: http://www.microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia/mp10/getmore/plugins.aspx.

Once this was installed, I was able to play my DVD’s, and

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