The Best PVR: Windows Media Center!

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pvr softwareDespite 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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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