How I’d Fix…Windows Media Center

Hidden back in the corner of your copy of Windows 7 (or Vista) is a copy of a powerful application called Windows Media Center. It turns your computer into a great DVR, jukebox, movie library, photo gallery, etc. It doesn’t take much to get it working, except as a DVR. To do that, you need a TV tuner card and, as in my case, if you’re on digital cable you’ll need an expensive cablecard tuner.

About 1 year ago I built a dedicated home theater PC on Windows Media Center. I love it. We’ll talk about the software in a minute, but just having a computer dedicated to my media is great by itself. I love that I have all of my music, pictures and movies on one device:

  • That doesn’t move around the house like a laptop
  • That has ample storage
  • That is always hard wired to my network and the internet
  • That isn’t being used for work or homework or anything besides entertainment
This allows me to use it as a server for all of my media. I can watch movies, recorded TV, stream music and view pictures from any other computer on the network.I’m in the process now of turning the machine into a Squeezebox server. That will make it work as a whole house music system too.

Windows Media Center isn’t the only software out there that does HTPC stuff. There are several open source options out there as well. From what I can tell, there are pluses and minuses of each.

But what about WMC?

What I Like

  • It was easy to set up. Install Windows 7 (the easiest Windows install I’ve ever done). Open WMC and that’s it. I guess creating the PC itself wasn’t a slam dunk, but the software is easy to get running.
  • The interface is warm and easy enough to use.
  • The guide feature, which let’s you see what is coming up, is free and accurate. I don’t pay anything monthly for my DVR service (as opposed to Tivo or even the Comcast DVR).
  • Everything works (mostly) as it should. We have had better results by far than the Motorola/Comcast DVR we used to have, but not as reliable as our old Tivo.
  • They did a great job of giving you a simple remote that lets you do everything. Microsoft has a standard for media center remotes that centers around the “green button” which works great. A $20 USB infrared receiver/remote combo make the whole thing work great with a remote.
  • I can add another drive, a different tuner card or anything else to it whenever I want. It really is an all-in-one machine. I swapped the DVD drive for a blue-ray drive recently so now I’m rockin’ blu-ray too [side note: I don’t really see much difference]

What I’d Change

  • A few quirky behaviors. This is still a Windows machine, so it still needs to be rebooted every week for best results. It still has a security update every week. It still has drivers and conflicts and whatnot. For us, the main issue is that when Windows detects that the display is gone (as in, the TV has turned off) it changes the resolution automatically, but then has trouble changing back when the TV turns on. That leaves us with a 24″ window being shown on my 50″ TV. A quick minimize/maximize and it is fixed, but that’s a silly step.
  • I understand why M$ had to put DRM on the recorded TV, but let’s face it, who is this stopping. I should be able to move that file to any device I have and watch it there. Or better yet…
  • Sharing is where it’s at these days. I should be able to get at my recorded TV, movies or music anywhere. That should be part of the software. There are a number of people who have build stuff on top of WMC, but none of it has the right polish or is as robust as I’d like.
  • Simple mode – One big issue with having your TV, movies, music, pictures, sport scores, weather and everything else available via your remote is that it makes it a little daunting for the uninitiated. So whenever a babysitter or my folks come over they can’t figure out the TV (not to mention the resolution issue above). There should be a way to switch to just the simple TV mode where there’s the guide and channel changing.
  • Easier APIs – I’ve looked into the WMC APIs and what they can and can’t do. If the Apple App Store or Android Market have taught us anything, it is that apps can sell a system. There are so many things I wish I could do with my WMC. I wish it was tightly integrated with Spotify or iTunes. Who knows what a great developer would do if he could easily look at the WMC database and make things available to me.
Sadly, the real problem here is that I don’t believe Microsoft has much in mind for WMC. I suspect that it isn’t something they are invested in. They haven’t really marketed it. I wouldn’t be surprised if they even gave up support of it in Windows 8. That would be a disappointment as they really do have a great application here that people don’t even know about.

One Last Thought

What should Microsoft really do? They should compete with AppleTV with software they already have. They should work with the Xbox team and build a Xbox Media Center hardware that a consumer can pick up at Walmart for $300. Would you buy a DVR for $300…if it could network with your Xbox and other Windows based PCs out of the box…and get to your recorded TV from anywhere on any device including a web browser…and it was super easy to setup and expand? I think lots of people would.

So, what do you think ?