Experiences and thoughts on Vista’s Media Center on an HTPC

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to slap together a Vista PC and give Microsoft’s latest Media Center a try. An HTPC is something I’ve actually thought about for awhile, and for me, something that seemed to make sense.

The nicest thing about Media Center is the all-in-one aspect of things. You can use it to watch TV, play DVD’s, watch videos from the hard drive, listen to music, and more. The down side is the cost. First of all, you’ve got to either buy or build a computer that will run Vista. Add the cost of Vista Home Premium or Vista Ultimate. Then add the cost of a TV Tuner as well as a Video card capable of outputting video to your TV. If you’re outputting the sound to a receiver via an optical cable, plan on buying a sound card as well (unless you’re fortunate enough to have a motherboard that includes one and has drivers for it). Finally, add a little more for the Media Center remote (unless you plan on using a keyboard/mouse to navigate instead). Hook it all up, and hope it runs.

In my case, the first glitch I came across was that our regular old-style CRT TV didn’t really show Vista well. Everything was extremely blurry, navigating the start menu was painful, and I couldn’t really read anything on the screen. Either the S-video-to-RCA cable was in rough shape, or the video card just didn’t like outputting the signal, because I also had lines scrolling across the screen. Media Center will only work properly on the primary display, and I had a heck of a time trying to get both the TV and a separate monitor (which I would need anytime I had to configure something *outside* of media center) to run nicely at the same time. Since I figured an extra monitor sitting somewhere in the living room would be unsightly *anyway*, I went for an LCD TV which I hooked up via a DVI-HDMI cable from the video card, which resulted in beautiful crisp quality.

Glitch #2 happened to be the new TV. The edges of the screen were “cut off”. Basically half the taskbar was missing, along with all the other edges of the screen. It was usable, but not quite right. As it turns out, this is due to something called “overscan” which is done purposely by most TV’s. It’s perfectly fine for watching TV – cut off edges when hooked up to a computer is an unfortunate side effect though. Changing the resolution helped the desktop (both ATI and nVidia have options for this in their control panels), but it turned out to be unnecessary for Media Center as you’ll see in a bit.

It was now time to start up Media Center and go through the set up process. The set up wizards were extremely nice. For the video, it asks what resolution you want, how it’s hooked up to the TV, and in my case, it adjusted the screen size to compensate for the overscan. I was actually pretty pleased with this, and a little surprised actually. I had initially assumed that because windows didn’t have a quick/easy desktop adjustment for the overscan that Media Center wouldn’t either, but Microsoft did a pretty good job of making sure the display would adjust to look great in Media Center. There were then sections to adjust brightness, contrast, etc which were really thought out. The audio set-up was a no-brainer, and the TV setup was lengthy, but well designed. In the end I had channel listings for *almost* all our available channels, available through the built-in TV Guide.

Incidently, there were 2 video cards I tested during the video set-up – a GeForce 6600GT, and a Radeon 9600 Pro. Both were hooked up via the DVI-HDMI cable. The GeForce had an issue with bright whites. Basically there was no contrast between bright whites, so in any scenes with intense brights, I was left with a solid white color wherever the brights happened to be. This was also apparant in the Media Center setup in the Contrast section. The contrast sections shows a man in a white shirt, and you’re supposed to be able to see both the white buttons on his shirt as well as the wrinkles. I adjusted every single setting on the TV that I could, but with the 6600GT, I quite simply couldn’t see any wrinkles, and could barely see only 1 button on the shirt. The 9600 Pro on the other hand displayed everything perfectly, and was the card I stayed with. Before anyone asks, I did try the newest nVidia drivers, and even tried a complete format/reinstall, but to no avail – the 6600GT I had quite simply wasn’t a viable option.

Finally, I set up “watched” folders so that I could watch videos we had stored/shared on another computer. Media Center picked them up just fine and I was able to browse through and play them.

All-in-all, things turned out quite well. There are a few annoyances though, which I think Microsoft can and should improve upon:

  • Cluttered, uncustomizable menu – The main menu has 6 categories, each with options beneath them. The problem is, you can’t *remove* any of these categories, nor can you add your own (although you can install addons/plugins which will add their own menu). So if you don’t want/need a dedicated “Sports” section,  “Online Media”, or don’t need “Music” or “Pictures + Video”, well… too bad. You also can’t choose where a section defaults to, so if you wanted “TV + Movies” to default to the “Play DVD” option, well… you can’t do that either. Oh, and if you have your own collection of DVD movies and series that you’ve ripped to disk and placed in your “watched folders”, they won’t show up in “TV + Movies”, they’ll be in “Pictures + Video”.  And there’s nothing you can do about it.
  • DVD’s picking up where they left off – When you insert a DVD, it’ll automatically resume from where you were the last time you watched it. I’ve always liked software DVD players that *can* resume from the last position, but assuming that I want to every time is just annoying. Nothing like having some friends over to watch a movie they haven’t seen before, and having it jump right into a section that spoils the plot line. At least give a default option when it’s inserted to resume or start from the beginning….
  • Watched Folders – These could use some work. Add them, and inevitably, you’ll have some picture or music folders showing up when you choose to watch videos and vice-versa. They have a clunky feel to them, and could simply use a lot of refinement, and the ability for customization. At the very least, having watched *video* folders, and watched *music* folders and so on would help. Tossing the current system and implementing a new one would probably be for the best.

A few random things before I finish:

  • If you’re looking for a TV tuner for analog (over-the-air aka antenna) TV, I would not recommend the ATI Theater 550 Pro series. It has slightly worse reception than any of the TV’s I’ve owned, and minor anomolies in the signal become very apparant with this card as well.
  • If you have your videos stored on another computer, expect some delays while accessing/viewing them over the network. You’ll also get some delays as Media Center accesses them to grab thumbnails for them while you’re browsing. Your best bet is really to store them all in the Media Center PC if you can help it.
  • There are other alternatives to Media Center out there, some of which are quite outstanding and even free! Media Portal is an open source Windows-based Media Center which adds a lot in the customization area but lacks a lot of the refinement. There are also quite a few really good plugins for it. Unfortunately, in my use it wasn’t as stable and also isn’t as easy to set up. MythTV is another open source alternative but is built on the Linux platform. I haven’t used it myself, but it’s quite popular.
  • A great Media Center plugin is called “MyMovies 2”, free and fantastic for organizing and viewing your own video collection. It’s not as seemless with Media Center as I’d like, but I’d venture a guess that it’s due more to Media Center being plug-in unfriendly than it is a fault of MyMovies. Still a great plugin and worth a try if you’ve ripped your own DVD movie or series collections.
  • The Media Center remote (make sure you get version 2) is actually quite easy to use, and since your Media Center is presumably your all-in-one device, the remote essentially controls everything. All you need is a USB port. The remote also works in Media Portal if you ever give it a try. The TV and volume buttons can also be configured to power your TV and adjust the volume on your TV or reciever.

All in all, Vista’s Media Center is nice, sleek, and easy to set up. The default main menu setup and the fact that the menus aren’t customizable are probably the biggest downfalls.