The hubbub surrounding Windows Media Center has all but died down since its heyday five years ago, but the product continues to make sense for cord cutters like me, thanks especially to some great peripherals including hardware and software.
The latest piece of hardware that improves my own Media Center experience is the new Clearstream 2 Complete antenna from Antennas Direct ($150 retail), which I discovered at the recent CEDIA Expo 2012. I just installed the product and now receive 45 UHF and VHF channels within a 50-mile range.
Granted about one-sixth of them are Spanish-language because I’m in Miami, but certainly all of the most important channels are represented.
“Our antennas liberate TV viewers by providing free, top notch programming from a slew of different channels,” Antennas Direct president Richard Schneider told me during CEDIA. “As far as we are concerned, let the cable companies continue to deny this grassroots movement. Antennas Direct will forge ahead, freeing Americans from the evil grasp of the cable companies.”
My Media Center Requirements
I’ve been using Windows Media Center since its inception. Although I am constantly looking for alternatives I keep finding that Media Center gives me so many options and a beautiful all-in-one interface.
There are some great alternatives such as the Linux based MythTV, Apple based Plex, Windows based MediaPortal, etc. My favorite alternative is XBox Media Center, or XBMC. This was originally installed only on hacked Xbox units, but has now been made to work on everything from Apple TVs to Linux to Windows machines. There is even a way to use it installed on a thumb drive or live CD.
However, while each of the alternatives offers something great to the end user, it’s hard to find something that works so well with all of the media I want to join together in one interface, or at least be able to access through one remote easily. The things I’m looking for in an all-in-one solution are:
1.] TV/PVR with electronic programming guide (EPG)
2.] Movie database and ripping
3.] Music interface
4.] Pictures interface
5.] Videos interface
6.] TV series database
7.] Hulu, Youtube and Boxee plugins
10.] Two-way feedback control
The only thing I’ve found to do all of these things well and fairly gracefully is Windows Media Center.
mceWeather from Jaast in Windows Media Center
To be fair, I think it’s tough for homeowners to use a Media Center PC as their whole go-to device for a few reasons. One issue is that it does run on Windows and therefore is something that needs to be tweaked now and again. (TIP: Once you get it all running properly DO NOT update it!)
Luckily I can keep it running well enough that it passes the spouse test but I think most would struggle as far as this is concerned.
There are some great companies out there in our space such as Vidabox that will build and support their products for you; however, since I am a PC and networking guy, I prefer to build my own.
Most of the features I mentioned above are native to Windows Media Center; some require a little something extra to make them work efficiently; and some are just plug-ins/add-ins. For instance, the My Music, My Pictures, My Videos and Netflix pieces are native and beautiful. Although I’d like some added functionality to each of these, by their own they do the job really well.
Movie Management with Windows Media Center
Although Windows includes a “My Movies” tab for movie playback, the software does not support natively the ripping of your legally purchased copy-protected discs. It has some additional shortcomings, as well, which is why savvy users will download and tweak some third-party software.
First, I install My Movies, written by Brian Binnerup, which is light years ahead of WMC’s native “My Movies” app. The My Movies software now includes TV Series management, which was a welcome addition to be able to archive correctly, and beautifully, any TV series I have purchased in full.
My Movies plug-in for Windows Media Center
For ripping, I use AnyDVD from Slysoft that allows you to make a backup copy of any of your legally purchased discs, whether Blu-ray or DVD. This product works seamlessly with the My Movies plug-in software from Binnerup.
Since Windows does not include the codec for watching Blu-rays you need to purchase a third-party decoder. For this I use Arcsoft Total Media Theatre which also works seamlessly with My Movies and WMC.
TV and Multiroom PVR
One of the most important parts of my setup, and the reason I can cut the cord, is watching and recording TV … for free.
Mind you I’m not a huge sports fan so many of you will not be able to deal with the limited amount of sports I can get. Basically, unless it’s on local HDTV I don’t get it except for the minor exception of pulling up ESPN3 to watch my college team play when they’re not on a local station.
There are also means to get “endpoints” created to pull up things like ESPN3 automatically through the menu via Media Center Studio, discussed below.
My TV setup consists of a few major components. The first is the native Windows MCE PVR and TV app/menu with electronic programming guide (EPG).
ClearStream 2 Complete antenna from Antennas Direct: Keep the satellite mount, lose the dish (and the monthly fees).
Second, to get a signal to the Media Center box, I use an off-air HD antenna. My antenna of choice has always been one from AntennasDirect.com, which makes products for just about every situation.
I’ve always been lucky enough to have all of the stations I’m trying to reach in one general location, which is one reason the new ClearStream 2 Complete from Antennas Direct works so well for me.
However, some households will have stations in more than one location such as to the north and south. Getting all of those off of one antenna can be very difficult if not impossible. That’s why Antennas Direct developed the DB8e, a prototype of which was shown at CEDIA. The unit features a range of 65+ miles with a beam width of 28 degrees.
This thing is essentially two of their DB4e models in one. The coolest thing about it is that you can aim the two sides independently so as to pick up at stations in different locations even as far as directly opposite each other.
As Antennas Direct notes in the spec sheet, “We’ve brought the tried and true Bowtie antenna design into the 21st Century with this patented design, which enables the DB8e to target the specific core DTV channels of today.”
Not only do they have a tight set of antennas for every scenario imaginable but they even have a “Learning Center” portion of the Website which will help you narrow down the antenna you need, the TV stations you can access and even where to point your antenna for optimal signal. This is really helpful if you’re not sure exactly how to get this thing set up.
To finish off my Media Center setup I wanted to have a way to enjoy my antenna from not only one Media Center but from any in the house. This is done by connecting the antenna directly to a network-based tuner card.
The one I use is the HDHomerun from Silicon Dust. Once the software is installed on each Media Center, all TVs can all use the same tuner — in my case a dual tuner — as if the antenna were physically connected to each machine.
HdHomerun Dual networked uner from Silicon Dust
With this setup I now have access to about 45 channels, including HD, for the whopping price of $0 per month … forever. As I rarely have time to watch TV I basically set the shows I like to record onto the DVR and when I want to sit and watch something I have tons of content to go through.
Weather, More Apps & Tweaks
For Weather I have always turned to the mceWeather app from Jaast which has been updated every time a new version of Windows comes out and always seems to work perfectly.
Hulu, Youtube and Boxee plugins are made possible by teknowebworks.com with some great instructions and plug-ins for getting the setup to work.
It basically minimizes your current Media Center view when invoking the apps. When you exit the apps, the WMC interface comes back to full screen, allowing you to do everything from your remote without having to pull out a keyboard and/or mouse. Although I wish there was tighter integration into the WMC interface, this is so far the best I’ve found and works quite well.
A lot of the things I mentioned above require some sort of menu tweaking so that you don’t have redundant menus in your setup. For instance, the native My Movies will sometimes include itself in the menu tree even if you told the plug-in “My Movies” to remove it.
I also like to move the Hulu and Boxee menus into my “TV” menu so as to clean up the clutter, and there are other menu items I hide or move depending on what I want to do. This is made possible with an app called “Media Center Studio.”
Media Center Studio
Unfortunately the maker of this app has since taken its site down but there are still people hosting the files and have thorough instructions of how to install and configure it.
Controlling Windows Media Center
The final touch for my setup has to be control. There are endless ways to control a Windows Media Center, some better than others. I’ve found many random apps online that I’ve tested through the years.
One of my favorites, especially for my Android devices, is Media Center Control. This gives me a great and very intuitive interface that plugs into everything from My Music to My Movies, all with full two-way feedback.
Media Center Control for Android
My favorite for iOS device has to be the Mirage controller from Autonomic Controls. These are the same people who debuted their newest Mirage Media Server (MMS-5AV) at CEDIA this year. You have to have a license and the server software installed on your Media Center, but it’s well worth the cost.
Their interface is beautiful and I can’t wait for them to come out with an Android app. Mirage also interfaces with the My Movies app but goes a step further by including local radio stations and Pandora, among other streaming radio services.
Autonomic MMS iPad interface for Windows Media Center
Other than that I also have a one-way MX-980 from URC to use as a handheld remote (via IR+RF) when watching TV. I can’t stand looking at a touchscreen to change channels or navigate the guide.
If you’re more of a touchscreen user, I suggest URC’s MX-5000 wand, which offers two-way functionality for the Media Center that would be something I’d be willing to fork out some cash for.
In closing, my setup is not for everyone. Some people don’t know how to deal with the intricacies of Windows and some don’t have the time to set it up properly. Some people can’t do without sports and some can’t do without HBO. For me, the setup works perfectly. When supplemented with Netflix and Bittorrent, I have more content than I could ever hope to enjoy.
At the very least, I would say it would be beneficial for everyone to pick up an off-air HD antenna from Antennas Direct so that when your paid service goes out due to weather or otherwise, you still have a beautiful HD signal to enjoy.
Man will always be in search of a way to free themselves from the chains of servitude … such as the monthly fees imposed by cable and satellite companies for the privilege of watching TV.
I for one have gone over five years without paying one of those mammoth slave-masters.
This article originally appeared on: CEPro.com