Windows Media Center Edition – Part 2
If you haven’t yet, please check out the first part of this article so you do not miss any aspects of the project being discussed. (Available at http://www.certmag.com/articles/templates/CM_COMM_Net_article.asp?articleid=1879&zoneid=264) My Windows Media Center Edition PC has been in place for a month since I wrote the first piece. I moved to a new apartment that made changing from wireless to a wired connection much easier. Now that I am wired and on a 100MB connection, I can safely say I will never go back to wireless. I will always recommend wired. If you are spending $1000 or more on your Media Center PC, what’s another $100 to have a professional wire it cleanly? Any do-it-yourselfer can figure out how to do it as well. It did not prove to be very difficult. Other than that, nothing has changed yet on my Media Center. I still have it scheduled to record and rip shows. I can drag and drop music from other machines on my network. I can sync to a MP3 player, and it has been perfect for accommodating my lifestyle. If I work until 2 a.m., I can come home and watch everything I missed, or I can wait until the weekend and have a Conan O’Brien mini-marathon. I did not take note of disk space usage at the end of the first article, but I currently have 143 GB free on my 350GB partition, and 13.7GB free on my C drive.
One of the main reasons I have this free space and can still keep a week at a time of multiple programs is a piece of software I only hinted at in my last article, Arksoft’s Crunchie. Crunchie is a free application that is available at the Australian Media Center Community at http://www.xpmediacentre.com.au/community/arkay/2937-arksofts-crunchie-release-v1-1-a.html. Crunchie is a simple freeware application that after about 15 minutes of configuring, can be scheduled to run nightly and compress your 3GB per hour DVR-MS files to an XVid compressed avi file. This usually compresses the file to 1/5 of the original size (600MB as opposed to 3GB per hour). Crunchie can also be configured to auto-delete the source file, or ignore source files until a number of days have passed so you only compress videos you intend on keeping. Another thing I like about Crunchie is how it can save shows in indexed folders with dates in their names, so it is easier to maneuver with the remote control.
I have the best luck scheduling Crunchie to run via Windows Scheduler from Monday to Friday at 9 a.m., a time I am least likely to use the Media Center for anything else. Crunchie can run manually as well. For example, if you want to keep the high-quality videos until you run out of disk space, you can manually run Crunchie to compress shows you do not want to delete.
I also found that with certain copied DVDs and backup videos, I had trouble with the DVD decoder. So I purchased a product called DVDIdle Pro. It was more money at $50 than I was expecting, but it did the trick during the demo period. I definitely recommend this if you have any DVD playback issues, especially while watching international films with regional restrictions. DVDIdle Pro can be programmed to start with windows and sit well-hidden in the system tray. When a regional DVD is inserted, it allows playback, running quietly in the background, which is perfect for Media Center PCs. With Media Center, being able to do everything with just the remote is a big advantage.
A better solution for DVD backups of family videos, CDs or DVDs you use often and get abused and scratched is to make a copy to an ISO file using any DVD burning software. Then you can use software such as Daemon Tools to mount the DVD or CD and play it off the disk drive. Daemon Tools is available free at http://www.daemon-tools.cc. Be forewarned: This technology is seen as a threat due to piracy acts and laws, and I do not condone using this software for illegal reproductions or other illegal activities. As a matter of fact, the DVD I owned that gave me problems was a U.S. copy of the movie “Dumb and Dumber” that I purchased years ago. I later found out that a firmware update on my CD/DVD drive fixed this issue as well. A helpful forum to visit to find firmware updates is http://forum.rpc1.org. This is a forum-based site, but if you have trouble finding your manufacturer’s firmware downloads, this is a great resource.
Another problem I encountered is while using remote desktop protocol to access the machine, it forced the Media Center application to stop playing music or stop recording a program and then close. The remote desktop protocol does not seem to support the Media Center application well, so instead I opted to install RealVNC for remote desktop control and the Media Center application seemed to run fine through this. I could then perform updates and check on the machine while music was on or TV was recording, without interruption.
Finally, the most impressive and free add-on is WebGuide3. WebGuide3 is a Web-based application that runs on Media Center editions and allows Web-based control of recording of shows. WebGuide3 has about 50,000 followers according to Doug Berrett, creator and developer. WebGuide3 relies on IIS being installed on your Media Center, but you can restrict IIS to only allow local IPs or use WebGuide3’s built-in password. Once configured, I am able to work late at a client’s, use a Web browser to access WebGuide3 and set a show to record. It is also extremely handy even when I am home and do not feel like powering on the TV just to record something. WebGuide3 is available for free at http://asciiexpress.com/webguide. Doug is also planning on a more expansive version of his WebGuide to work with Windows Vista.
Using the Media Center as my server is working well since I switched from a wireless to a wired network. With wireless, I found that the Media Center would “drop off” the network from time to time and I would need to either reboot or “repair” the wireless network connection to re-enable the network. That was a frustration I was glad to alleviate by moving to a wired Ethernet connection. Additionally, my transfer times in moving data between the Media Center PC and other computers on the network are much faster.
Since the first article in this series, I have spent a lot of time investigating major manufacturers, their Media Center offerings and how they stacked up against the competition. Almost all major PC manufacturers are offering PCs with Media Center pre-installed, but few are stepping up to bridge the gap between PC and home theatre. The only major name brand I found running Windows Media Center Edition and focused at being part of a home theatre at the time of this writing is the HP z55x series of Digital Entertainment Centers. They are built like home theatre equipment, and they include a lot of hardware all in one package, pre-configured and well engineered. I went to a local electronics store and took one through the paces and was quite impressed. Their z558 model has a dual input tuner for NTSC, plus an ATSC HDTV tuner (for over-the-air transmissions available in most major cities), a media card reader and two 300gb drives – one removable and one built in. For computer specifications, it has a 3.2Ghz Intel Pentium 4 640 HT, 1GB ram, expandable to 4GB, a CD-RW/DVD-R and an Nvidia 6600 series graphics card, as well as an onboard 7.1 High Definition audio card. I found that, at best, the video input for a cable box environment was still limited to S Video for inputs with this model, which retails at $2,199 and can be found at www.hp.com
In the not-too-distant future, I expect to start seeing more partnerships