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February 29, 2012

Adventures in Windows Media Center

by Darren W Baker

I love gadgets. I love to dig into devices and make things work. A couple weeks ago I attended a meeting at the Microsoft Executive Briefing Center where Mark Hill, VP Microsoft Enterprise Partners delivered the keynote to an event that Sogeti held for our customers visiting from the Netherlands.

During Mark’s talk, he mentioned that his family uses Windows Media Center to watch recorded and live tv and didn’t even have a cable box. This caught my attention because we have 2 HD cable boxes, a Slingbox (which I also love), and 2 standard cable boxes. Our cable bill is expensive with just HD and extended channels, even though we don’t subscribe to additional premium channels.

I haven’t looked at Windows Media Center in a while, since Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, and my original XBOX. Back then, I needed them to be on a wired network, and I didn’t have access to live tv. I didn’t have digital copies of my DVD library, so the ability to watch DVDs playing in a different room wasn’t that appealing. I thought it was time to give Windows Media Center another look.

Since I have my own PC lab, I have plenty of systems from which to choose for the Media Center PC, I won’t need to purchase any additional hardware. For keeping track of costs, however, I will monitor what I need to get the job done, to see if the investment is worth it and how long it will take to pay me back, should I get rid of the cable boxes.

 

Live TV

This time I wanted to make sure I did Live TV, to justify replacing the cable boxes. We have to be able to watch live tv. Interestingly enough, the two most watched channels in our house are CNN and  nick jr. NickJR isn’t in HD, but Comcast requires the Digital Perferred to obtain. Brighthouse had it with Digital Basic back in Indiana. The wife and kids must be happy for this project to be a success. Important to remember your audience. I need a Digital Tuner for this.

 

Digital Tuner

After reviewing several Digital Tuners, I chose the external SiliconDust HDHomeRun PRIME with 3 tuners. It had the best reviews and I liked the idea of the cable tuner being an external box that I could see, instead of an internal PC card, in case it something was wrong. The PC I choose to be the Media Center might be doing different things, and I would hate to interrupt a download or printjob should the Digital Tuner need “reset”. The internal cards were getting bad reviews because the dedicated signal in cable was small on some cards. It seems like the external box, with its own dedicated cable and Gigabit Ethernet connection was just what I wanted.

Purchase

Price

SiliconDust HDHomeRun Prime

$199.99

CableCARD

The Digital Tuners don’t work their magic by themselves. You also need a CableCARD, which is a digital decoder that can receive the encrypted digital channels for your cable provider’s signal and decrypt them for the Digital Tuner. Most cable providers will provide you one free of charge if you ask for one. The FCC requires cable providers to make them available at a discounted rate to give you the ability to use your own set top box instead of paying for the one the they want to rent you. You can even “opt” for a self install, so you don’t need to pay a technician to come to your house. The horror stories in the forums are full of people that had their service provider dispatch a technician to their house that didn’t know anything about them, and charged them anyway.

I elected for a self install, requiring only one call to Comcast to activate it. Surprisingly, the phone was answered within 2 minutes by a technician who knew what to do, and we were up and running in less then 10 minutes.  I guess the trick here is when you call, you need to say ACTIVATE CABLECARD right away so they route your call to someone who can help you quickly. It wasn’t as painful as I was expecting when I was researching this online.

Purchase

Price

Comcast   CableCARD

Free

 

Video Processing Power Matters, a lot.

In the forums I read about people using little Intel ATOM powered PCs connected to their HD tvs to run the Media Center. My goal was to use a small Asus Eee PC I won at a conference, but it just didn’t have the horsepower to deliver video, let alone HD video to the Panasonic 65” Plasma my wife gave me for fathers day last year. (I think I have mentioned before my wife gives really good tech gifts). I ended up choosing one of the Dell Optiplex 755’s that I upgraded to an Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550 processor last year. The video test application that came with the HDHomeRunPrime worked great, and I was ready to set up Windows Media Center. Or so I thought.

It turns out there is a minimum video performance requirement for Windows Media Center, and the built in Intel Video didn’t cut it. The specifications page just says DirectX9 graphics device, it doesn’t tell you the performance required. If you try to run Windows Media Center with a video device that is incapable of decoding the video, you just get an error. My recommendation is to get a modern video card with an HDMI video out and you should be ok. This will also ensure HDCP certification should you want to add a BluRay player to your media center.  Luckily there is a BestBuy close to my house and they had a sale on the type of card I needed.

Purchase

Price

GeForce   CT 520 with HDMI

$59.99

 

Media Center Operational, and I am not sharing…

I put one of the 24” ASUS LCD monitors I had on the Optiplex Media Center and realized that I wanted this to stay in my office. I have to tell you, the picture is absolutely amazing especially when watching the HD channels. It rivals watching Bluray on my plasma tv in the family room.  I have been wanting a TV to watch the news in my home office, but never got around to purchasing one. Partly because to get HD channels, I would need another cablebox, and that wasn’t worth the monthly charge for something I didn’t use that often. With the media center actually in my office, I can watch TV and use the media center for downloading files from the internet, and as an FTP server for sharing files with my family and Sogeti colleagues.

I haven’t gotten an infrared receiver and remote yet, but it is something on my list to do to be able to use it to its fullest.

Purchase

Price

Windows   Media Center Remote

$24.99

 

XBOX 360 Media Center Extender

Ok, by keeping the Media Center PC in my office, I still haven’t solved the problem of the cable box and fees in the family room and master bedroom. I decided that since there was a XBOX 360 & Kinect on the Plasma in the family room, I could just use the XBOX Media Center connection instead of having a Media Center PC here. Here is where I think I really went awry. The XBOX, with it’s build in WiFi “N” connection worked great with Netflix (before I canceled them for confusing us) and the Zune Video Marketplace, but not so well with the Windows Media Center video. I played video at 480i just fine, but trying to do anything 1080iHD, not so much. After some investigating, I realized that my wireless router was older than I though, a pre-spec “n” version and I wasn’t getting nearly the minimum 54 Mbit/s that N is supposed to have. I decided to update my router.  I went all out and bought the NetGear WNDR4500. Now, I was connecting the XBOX 360 at true N speed. I was killing in Halo Reach I finally made Lt. Colonel and unlocked the Spartan MJOLNIR Mark V Helmet. (Probably a year after everyone else, but you have to have goals).

Sorry, I got distracted. 1080iHD Video still didn’t look anything like the cablebox or the media center. It stopped, was pixelated and very, very frustrating to my kids who were trying to watch TRANSFORMERS in HD. Live TV wasn’t much better. After spending hours troubleshooting wireless settings, I ran a cable down the hall from the router in my office to the family room and connected it to the XBOX.

The issues all went away. The video at all resolutions was as clear as the Media Center itself.  I guess that happens when you are connecting everything to a Gigabit Ethernet connection. There is no way I can run a permanent cable to the family room, and having a cable running down the hall is a disaster waiting to happen with little kids (not to mention getting me in hot water with the wife). I had to come up with another solution.

Purchase

Price

NetGear WNDR4500 Router

$179.99

 

PowerLine Compromise

I have heard of Powerline network extenders for years, but never took them seriously because they didn’t offer the bandwidth I had become accustomed to using when compared to Wireless and Gigabit networking. I decided to give it another look. I have already invested, too late to back out now. Netgear had just released a new adapter called the PowerLine AV+ 500 which boasts 500Mbps. A couple calls, and the nearest FRYS electronics (my favorite store) had them in stock. It’s not Gigabit, but fast enough.  It was easy to set up, and the results were acceptable. I can tell the video quality is not as good as when I had the cable running down the hall, but it is much better than when I was connecting via wireless. Will anyone else notice? Probably not. My wife and kids don’t pay attention to that level of detail like I do, as long as it works. Once it is set up, it acts like a wired connection and all they have to do is turn on the TV and the XBOX and it just works.

Purchase

Price

NetGear Powerline AV+ 500 Adapter

$119.99

 

Summary from the experience.

So now we have a media center pc in my office, 2 XBOX 360 media center extenders, and a Jadoo TV (an internet streaming media player) on the network that can stream live tv, recorded tv, downloaded tv and movies to any television in the house. We actually eliminated the additional digital cable boxes and one of the HD cable boxes for a savings of about $50 per month. In about a year it will have paid for itself, unless of course you count the Media Center PC too, then we are looking at 2 years to recover the investment. We can record TV and play it in any room in the house. We can stream downloaded video, or live TV to any room or tablet. I’m actually quite happy with the result.

You might notice I didn’t say we eliminated all the cable boxes. We didn’t. You see, the cable box is an “instant on” type of device. My wife and kids aren’t patient enough to wait for the XBOX to start up, log in, and media center . On the secondary tv’s, it’s tolerated. In the family room it isn’t.

Right now my wife is happy is happy I cut the cable bill by $50 a month.

It’s a small victory. I’ll take it.

 

Purchase

Price

SiliconDust HDHomeRun Prime

$199.99

Comcast CableCARD

Free

GeForce CT 520 with HDMI

$59.99

Windows Media Center Remote

$24.99

NetGear WNDR4500 Wireless Router

$179.99

NetGear Powerline AV+ 500 Adapter

$119.99

 Total New Purchases

$584.95

Windows 7 Ultimate (upgrade)

$185.48

Optiplex 755

$600

 Total including Media Center PC

$1,370.43

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