The Best PVR: Windows Media Center!

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featured windows media center   The Best PVR: Windows Media Center! Despite the perceived image of Microsoft as a lumbering beast with bloated software that ships full of bugs, they have actually produced some fine software over the years. Today I’d like to highlight Windows Media Center, and specifically it’s functionality as a PVR software Personal Video Recorder (like a TiVo) and media player.

Is it free?

Windows Media Center is included with most Windows 7 installations (though sadly not servers). It’s an entirely different application to Windows Media Player though, so don’t get confused between the two. It’s designed to run with a full screen 10-foot interface, and it’s actually quite a pleasure to use.

Tv-Card:

To get the best from Media Center, you really need to pair it with a TV card of some sort and it’s this functionality I’ll be focusing on today. I use an Elgato EyeTV hybrid (£110, comes with a remote) for it’s Mac compatibility, but most large brand name cards are generally well supported nowadays. You can find a list of all compatible cards here, and the menu on the left lets you explore by maker.

Note: if you’re in the UK make sure you check the various compatibilities for Freeview. The card I have is able to view digital Freeview channels, but not HD. If I want to view HD, it needs to be from Freesat (which requires a dish to be installed on the side of your house). This isn’t true of all cards, but do check as the UK has some odd standards.

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It goes without saying that you also need a decent signal to get digital transmissions. If you card comes supplied with an aerial – don’t expect it to pick up much – you really do need to plug these things into something on your roof, from a satellite dish, or cable network.

I won’t run through the exact set up procedures here, but suffice to say if your card is connected with drivers installed you can open up Media Center from the start menu and head down to the TV > Live TV Setup. Installation should be painless but it takes a while to scan for channels.

Outstanding Feature – Movie Guide:

For me the most impressive feature so far is the movie guide. Set up from the regular TV guide interface, the movie guide is able to automatically extract all the movies that will shown on TV over the next 2 weeks, and presents them in an attractive wall of cover art, as well as allowing you to drill down by genre.

MOVIE OVERVIEW   The Best PVR: Windows Media Center!

The first time I used it, I actually had no idea where these movies were coming from (some kind of free movies from teh internetz perhaps?), but looking at the info for each one revealed both the channel and time they would be shown on TV.

MOVIE INFO   The Best PVR: Windows Media Center!

The beauty of this is that you no longer have to go trawling through a full TV guide view just to find the movies, or even venture into the dead TV time that is after-midnight. Of course, you can’t instantly watch them, but you can pre-set a recording in one-click right there. You switch over to the other menu items to see what you’ve recorded so far and are available to watch.

RECORDED TV   The Best PVR: Windows Media Center!

Compared to seeking out a movie in torrents and the rigmarole that comes with it, this is actually easier – and quite fun – to use. It’s also not illegal too, which is always a bonus.

TV Guide:

There isn’t much to innovate in the TV guide area, but the Media Center covers this basic functionality as simply as possible. While I find the native Elgato PVR software that came with my card to be rather too overpowering, the TV guide in media center is just intuitive. In no less than a minute, I’d already setup up regular recordings for the whole series of Family Guy and Gardener’s World – which pretty much covers everything I’d ever want to watch on TV!

The search function is also discreetly powerful, which I tested by pulling up all shows even remotely related to gardening. This certainly isn’t unique to Media Centre by any means, but it is as much functionality as I wish for without feeling bloated.

TV VIEW   The Best PVR: Windows Media Center!

There’s also a ton of free content from MSN-TV. Never heard of that? Me neither, but it seems to hold vast archives of popular series previously run on British TV (see the screenshot below for some ideas of content). It’s ad-supported, but a fantastic option when TV really does suck and you have nothing recorded.

MSN TV   The Best PVR: Windows Media Center!

Media Center Extenders:

Windows Media Center also has some unique remote access capabilities that set it apart from the crowd. Tested with an Xbox 360, this allows your actual Media Center to be situated anywhere in the house, while the interface and content can be entirely accessed remotely. The interface is identical in fact, so apart from the slow initial connection you wouldn’t realize the center was situated elsewhere.

Having said that, I’m little disappointed that I can’t actually run Media Center on my server machine – since it can be remotely accessed, it doesn’t need to be in the living room – and the server is on 24 hours anyway so recording at night would be no problem. Media Center is strictly for use on client machines, not Windows servers.

I’m really in two minds about media centers in general right now, as I still absolutely love the meta-data abilities of Plex – for which there’s a Windows server, but no client application available – but it doesn’t handle live TV and probably never will. The EyeTV tuner I have ships with some acceptable Mac PVR software, but nothing groundbreaking compared to Windows Media Center. For now then, I’m forced to stick with both a Mac and a PC in my living room, as well as my always on server.

If you’re in the same situation, I highly suggest you check out Matt Smith’s guide to building a perfect media centre, as well previous articles on Plex and XBMC.

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6 Comments -

jello

Not wanting to buy a pc tv tuner card I elected to buy a tv tuner I could simply plug into my usb port.  I bought the Avertv Hybrid Volar Max Tv Tuner kit for windows on Amazon for $50.  It works with Windows Media Center beautifully.

James Bruce

Thanks for the tip Jello, thats a good price for PVR functionality I reckon!

Agro

Last year I built a Win7 box as a PVR device.  Twin Hauppague dual tuner cards (so I can record 4 shows simultaneously) and using Win Media Center.  It works great!  I love that I can set it to record “all new episodes” of a show, which stays in force until I delete it. So I don’t have to remember to re-set a show when the new season starts.

I also use it to play DVDs, which works as well as any DVD player software.  The only thing I wish it did is play BluRay natively. I have to use different software for that, and all the ones I’ve tried suck in one way or another.  One of the tuner cards, I got the media center kit which came with a remote & infrared receiver. Also works great, much better than my old DVR’s remote ever did.

James Bruce

Wow. I’d be hard pressed to find 2 shows on at the same time that I wanna watch, never mind 4. You must have cable… That certainly sounds like a fantastic PVR, but do you use it to watch any downloaded material? I guess you don’t need to with that much recording capability…

Susan M.

I had a Hauppauge TV Tuner that worked perfectly before the signal changed to digital but since then I haven’t had any luck making it work. Do I need to upgrade my tuner? Sometimes when we are on vacation I would like to record some shows. What am I don’t wrong?

James Bruce

Hi Susan. I’m not sure where you’re located, but in many parts of the world analog signal has already been disabled. In the UK it’s due to be switched off April next year. Digital signals are totally incompatible with analog ones – so yes – if your tuner is somewhat old then it will need to be replaced. Do try to just re-tune it first though, as it may be fine. 
You also need to consider where you’re vacationing. UK, Europe, and America all have very different signals even though they’re all digital . It’s a very comlicated area to be honest, and your best option is find a specific company and look at their digital compatibility table, which wil show you which tuners will work in which parts of the world. 

Sorry I cant be of more help. If you let me know where you are, perhaps I can find the relevant links and recommend a card for your OS/computer. Or you could post in the http://www.makeuseof.com/answers where there will likely be people from your part of the globe ready to help out quicker than I can.