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2/16/07 Need advice on how to integrate PC into your home theater

by Lee Koo (ADMIN) CNET staff/forum admin / February 14, 2007 8:00 PM PST
Question:

I am looking to find out as much as possible on the subject of home multimedia. I want to set up my own media system to play videos, view photos, and listen to music from my computer to a TV and a projector, either through wireless and/or the new wired network using your home electrical wiring. Please let me know what my options are and how I can go about achieving this. Thank you!

Submitted by: Mike R.

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Answer:


Mike, The best option is almost certainly either Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE) or one of the two versions of Vista that have the same features (this would be Vista Home Premium or Vista Ultimate).

These versions of Windows were designed for exactly what you want to do ... not only video (TV) but also music and photographs ... and for the most part they do it extremely well, better than any other product I am aware of (although still not perfectly).

What we are talking about here is a PC that can be dedicated to media. You have two choices: you can buy a Media Center PC from Dell, Gateway, HP, or Sony; or you can build a system yourself and buy the software as an OEM copy XP MCE or an OEM or retail copy of Vista Premium or Ultimate. (Vista Home and Business do not have these features).

If you build, be very careful of the components that you use, as the requirements for this to work properly are very narrow, and for the most part you want to stick to items that are on Microsoft?s Hardware Compatibility List (HCL) for XP Media Center Edition (MCE). Components that will work with Windows XP will not automatically work with MCE, the requirements for MCE are far more narrow, especially for the video card, tuner card(s) and remote control, so it really is important to stick to products on the HCL or you may find that your system doesn?t work.

XP MCE is a modified version of XP Professional, and all of the XP Pro features are present except for domain networking, which most home users don?t need (if you do need it, there are some ways around it?s absence, but they are a lot of work and involve making some compromises that cost you a few of the less frequently used MCE features). MCE has both the full, standard Windows XP desktop user interface and the Media Center interface, and you can switch between them with a couple of mouse clicks, as well as select either to be the startup default. All normal Windows XP programs will work just fine. Really, it?s XP Professional unless you start the Media Center interface (which appears as an icon in the Start Menu), and you need have no real fear that you have lost anything by using MCE, with the exception of domain networking. [Some users who get systems with MCE preinstalled and Media Center as the default startup interface panic and remove MCE entirely, not realizing both that the standard XP Pro desktop is still present and that it can be made the startup default. There is no reason to remove MCE for XP Pro unless you need domain networking, and even then a domain workaround for MCE may be a better option than changing the OS.]

Of course, you now have the option to use Vista Premium or Ultimate as well, but since I have not yet used Vista for this purpose, I can?t give you much guidance in that regard except to say that Vista Premium and Ultimate have MCE?s media center features as well.

A media center PC is basically the same as a normal PC with the addition of one to 4 TV tuner cards and a remote control. All components must be MCE compatible (very narrow hardware choices here), but the real issues boil down to the choice of video card, TV tuner(s) and remote control, where selection of MCE compatible hardware is absolutely critical. Also, note that in many cases you need special different drivers to use these components under XP MCE than under XP Home or Pro (and, also, of course you would need Vista drivers if you were using Vista). Expect to spend about $100 more for a Media Center PC with a single tuner than you would spend for an equivalent non-Media Center system (more, of course, if you want a fancy, high-end case). Another consideration with a media center system is that you want really, really large hard drives, as video files are just huge and eat disk space, not to mention that many MCE users will have thousands of MP3 and JPEG files on their system, and these also can be several megabytes each (but video files can be tens of megabytes and even over 100 megabytes each in some cases).

When you choose the video card, keep in mind the type of displays that you will be using. You need to consider carefully the output types (analog VGA and digital DVI and/or HDMI), and it?s clear that in the future, there will be a need for HDCP in the video card, which is currently a very rare feature of PC video cards, so much so that it may be best to plan on getting a card without it now and doing a future upgrade. You do not need an extremely high end video card, unless you have other requirements (gaming); there are plenty of $50-to-$100 range video cards that work fine, starting at about the ATI Radeon 9600 and NVidia FX5200 levels, but, again, be SURE that the card that you select is MCE compatible and that it has the necessary MCE XP and/or Vista drivers.

When you choose the tuner card, again, stick to the MCE HCL, and be sure that the card has hardware MPEG encoding on the card (there are a few cards that [claim to] support MCE with software MPEG encoding ... if you are smart, you will scratch these off your shopping list immediately). You must have at least one NTSC tuner card, you can have two NTSC cards, and optionally you can have one or two ATSC (HDTV) tuner cards. Direct cable tuning without a set-top-box is problematic because I?m not aware of any approved tuner cards that have both ATSC and QAM (or, even better, NTSC / ATSC / QAM in a single tuner). Satellite receiver interfacing is also more challenging, both set-top-box and satellite interfacing are normally done by having the MCE system control the set-top-box (be it cable or satellite) through an infra-red ?emitter dongle?. It works, but it?s awkward and takes a bit of effort to setup. There are also some dual tuner cards available, such as the Hauppauge DVR-MCE-500 (two independent tuners on the same PCI card), which lets you record two different channels at once or watch one channel while recording another), and there are some external USB 2 tuners as well. But, again, be sure that what you plan to get is MCE compatible ... as an example, Hauppauge makes some external USB 2 tuners that are not MCE compatible, and other models that are MCE compatible. While I don?t mean to be pushing a particular brand, the Hauppauge WinTV PVR 150 MCE is a popular tuner because it?s both cheap and works very, very well. But note that there is both a Hauppauge WinTV PVR 150 and a different WinTV PVR 150 MCE, which are different products. Only the MCE versions are fully supported under MCE (the non-MCE versions are intended for XP desktop use only). Although I use Hauppauge as an example here, you will run into subtle situations like this when selecting both the tuner and the remote control, so, again, if you are building a system, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to be absolutely sure that you are getting MCE compatible and supported components. [This is one reason why XP Media Center was originally not available as software only, and why even today it?s only available as an OEM product and not a retail product. It is very, very easy to build a system intended as a media center only to find out that one or more of your components are not, in fact, media center compatible. And I believe that these cautions apply to a Vista based Media Center system as well: The hardware requirements for Media Center are very tight, and the choice of products that work (well or at all) is very narrow).

One of the major shortcomings of MCE which I?d hoped would be fixed in Vista (but it wasn?t) is that there can be only a single channel guide for all of the tuners installed. Therefore, all tuners have to tune the same set of channels, you can?t have, for example, one tuner tuning ?off the air? and a second tuner tuning your cable system. Maybe this will be resolved in the next version of Vista; it?s been high on the ?wish list? for some time.

[One workaround for this may be to use the non-Media Center tuner applications that come with many tuner cards directly from the Windows desktop (outside of Media Center), but you won?t have Media Center compatible files if you go that route.]

The remote control should be the genuine Microsoft remote control. Most non-Microsoft remote controls won?t work with MCE (with a few exceptions), and experimenting can get expensive. The real MS remote control is relatively inexpensive (should be $30 to $45 depending on where you get it .... try E-Bay, but be sure you get the IR set-top-box control ?dongles?), so it?s the way to go. But there have been several versions of the MS remote, so be sure that you understand which model you are getting up front.

A working MCE system is truly a wonderful addition to a high-end media system. If you need help in setting it up, look to the Usenet group Microsoft.public.windows.mediacenter, and also to a web site located at http://www.thegreenbutton.com (on the Microsoft remote control, the button that starts Media Center from the Windows Desktop is green). These sites are dedicated to media center systems, issues, questions and downloads. If your local newsgroup server doesn?t have Microsoft.public.windows.mediacenter, you can subscribe directly to the free msnews.microsoft.com newsgroup server maintained by Microsoft, which hosts all of Microsoft?s ?semi-official? newsgroups.

Media Center has a feature called ?media center extenders? for sending content over a network connection (wired or wireless) to additional rooms, but this is such a complex subject that it would require another entire column probably longer than this one. Both Linksys and D-Link make media center extenders, and a few other firms (including Logitech) make products as well for sending audio and/or video wired or wirelessly to other destinations but, again, to combine that discussion with this one would be prohibitively lengthy. If you take a look at the newsgroup site and the Greenbutton site that I referenced above, you will lots of additional resources to help you in rounding out other aspects of your system.

I hope that this helps, and best of luck in setting up your media center.

Submitted by: Barry W. of North Canton, Ohio
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Other recommendations from our members
by Lee Koo (ADMIN) CNET staff/forum admin / February 14, 2007 8:00 PM PST
Answer:

I'd recommend going the wireless route, as the ones that use the electrical outlets to send signals are notoriously unreliable. I prefer to go with my Linksys WRT45g. Paired with a wi-fi range extender like the RadioLabs 500 mWatt Amplifier, and you've got one monster of a wireless network. The amplifier doesn't need any configuring or fiddling, just attach it and plug it in, because all it does is boost your existing hardware's signal output. Those outlet signal senders work in addition to your current network, sending and receiving to your hardware. That's where the problem is, because if there are any problems with the outlet, or brownout, or some other interference from a neighboring device, the product may not work as intended. There are uses for the outlet devices, don't get me wrong. But for the average use who just wants a better signal, I feel that the amplifier is a better, cheaper buy. Remember that if you choose to add to the network afterwards, you may have to buy more outlet signal boosters, which will add to its costs. The amplifier doesn't have that limitation.

Submitted by: Victor M.

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Answer:


Mike- I use a Windows based PC with wireless networking using a XBOX360 with wireless network. Since my Toshiba Satellite is on the same network as my notebook I can stream music and videos along with photo slide shows right to my HP 50" plasma. Plus my Xbox 360 has the HD player so I watch HD DVD. The system is very easy to stream everything from your pc to your XBox360. Just recently I had a New Years Eve party going on and I took some photos and streamed to my Xbox360 to watch on the Plasma TV all of this was done within minutes of taking the pictures-so everyone could take a look at themselves while the party was still going on.

Submitted by: Roger S.

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Answer:


Hi,

Several years ago the market started becoming a lot more viable. Despite what marketers may convince you of, the quality of this configuration is outstanding. Home audio oems never, ever provide you real statistics on the quality of their products, relying on brand loyalty induced from peer groups and glossy ads. Requests for these specifics like frequency response graphs go unanswered and it is a pirate's market. Unless you have a lot of wide open spaces you need to fill with high quality sound, near field offerings suit perfectly for most homes. If you do have a huge house/rooms then you can afford the highest quality which weighs in extremely top heavy (e.g. coincident speakers http://www.coincidentspeaker.com/total_reference.html [active crossovers accompanied by technical cabinet enclosures is the only way to go]). If you talk to an audio dealer they are extremely fierce in protecting their livelihoods, understandably, but until you can compare both together in your home environment they may easily talk you into something you don?t need or that is inferior at considerable costs. I have spent a fair amount of time comparing this set up to the highest end bose speakers and onkyo receiver/amp and velodyne 12" sub costing about $4k just for the audio.

BenQ projector xga PB8230, 2500 lumens - anything lower is too faint for good daytime viewing. This is connected via vga cable (not component video or composite video) to give the highest quality projection. With a good agp/pci-e video card you can bring video in from a number of sources like dvd/vhs/tv/pc/consoles and use the projector for that. - $1500 (Canadian funds)

ATI x850xt pe ( I am running crossfire so have an 850 crossfire card from ati in there too for gaming, so I can sit in a vibrating office chair and play war games on the big screen too (loving driving the tanks and walkers), although I have been playing on a 32" tv/monitor more lately set up where the pc is - (Ati has the highest quality of video, still as diligent research proves.) Video card should be capable of vga out, although the newest ones have the dvi to the projector and input (component and composite, etc). 2 cards were $400 (with a crossfire 3200 mother board) $200 = $600 (Cnd)

X-fi Elite Pro sound card from Creative labs is the best hands down for all applications (audio system, home theater, midi, and game play). To get the very best please ensure you use the graphic equalizer (most reviewers don?t even know it exists and don?t use the default setup on the equalizer) to tune a preset for what ever you happen to be using it for. Midi latency is non-existent so midi capable instruments can be used as well. It is also capable of playing audio dvd's, ripping mp3's, DTS-ES discrete - matrix + DolbyDigital-EX, etc., so I have it set up for 7.4 ( 4 x logitech z5500), so the surround sound is astounding. - $325 (Cnd) (upgraded from the audigy 2zs platinum pro).

Logitech z5500 x 4 speakers are the best, especially for the price. As mentioned before these are more than comparable to any thing under the $4k price point and one set would do sufficiently, but I love the sound and balance from corner pointing the sub woofers (incidentally bass sound is only semi-virtually, omni-directional and it does make a beautiful difference). - $1000 (Cnd)

The cabling is something there is a lot of BS about in the market as well. For 4 - 8 ohm speaker systems cabled at under 100' lengths, good quality copper electrical cable (14 guage is more than enough). Stay away from the gold tipped, nitrogen loaded, hi differentially shielded marketers and margines lovers delights - the specialty cables unless you really need to pretend it will make a difference, (buy one set if you must and do comparisons in your home to see this). Wireless may seem campy but really not worth the effort as far as quality and capacity goes. Digital audio projectors are no big deal either having also given the bose thorough test runs. The only thing to consider is the cabling and running flat cable under the carpet or under the base boards/quarter round. - $35 (Cnd)

Da-lite 10' projector screen. Another thing worth considering is the wide screen format, mine is a standard 4:3 but plays admirable wide screen about 5 -6 '. I would have spent the extra $400 or so to get a 15' screen as the projector can easily maintain the quality and detail being rated for a 20' diagonal, had I though about it a little more. - $125 (Cnd)

This set up allows for input from a wide variety of sources such as: midi instruments also around the viewing area can be brought in and played with visual effects or jamming with a music videos; as an audio system; home theater; PC gaming system; and as well wii, ps3 gaming consoles can also be hooked directly in; etc, for a wide variety of applications. Movies you may have seen many times before suddenly become a new experience being better than going to the theater.

Submitted by: Drgn

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Answer:


It?s the same problem I had. I went with a HP d4650y, added a TV and more memory. It cost around $1,600 and it does it all. I am not saying buy this, but I am saying look into it.

Submitted by: Jay C.
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Media Center
by grauch004 / February 15, 2007 7:42 PM PST

I have tried Windows MCE and recently upgraded to Vista Ultimate, both are viable if want to spend a lot on building out a high end PC. If you are looking for a simple appliance based approach, I would recommend the Pinnacle ShowCenter. This small appliance sits on top of my DVD player and leverages my existing surround sound system and allows access to all pc based media along with several internet radio subscriptions. I got mine on sale for $199.

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trouble connecting my laptop to my home theater system! Help
by lmathews / February 15, 2007 9:17 PM PST
In reply to: Media Center

Is it not possible to hook up my laptop (Dell XPS M1210) with a simple serial connection to my 32" hitachi plasma TV with has a dedicated PC(serial)input and watch DVDs, browse the net, play audio etc just like that? well I tried it and there was simply no image on the TV!! Could some one help me out? I have xp home OS and connect to the net with a Belkin wireless modem and router. Thanks.

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trouble connecting my laptop to my home theater system! Hel
by Watzman / February 15, 2007 10:25 PM PST

Re: "Is it not possible to hook up my laptop (Dell XPS M1210) with a simple serial connection to my 32" hitachi plasma TV with has a dedicated PC(serial)input and watch DVDs, browse the net, play audio etc just like that?"

The serial port connection is not for the signal (video and audio), it's for control, and on some sets it's only for service use. You may be able to use the serial port to change channels, select inputs and control the volume (the exact same types of things you do with a remote control). However, there is no way to feed a picture or sound through a serial port. The picture has to come through one type or another of video ports (RF, composite, S-Video, RGB (15-pin analog VGA), component video, DVI or HDMI), and the sound will come via either regular audio lines or as part of an HDMI connection. And, in fact, the serial port may be only for use by service personnel for making service adjustments to the TV, perhaps requiring proprietary software from the TV set manufacturer.

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connecting your laptop to your TV
by dso4r / February 15, 2007 10:32 PM PST

You should be able to connect your laptop to your TV from your laptop's VGA port with a standard monitor cable to the VGA (PC) port on your TV.

You will need to toggle your TV's display input to "PC" or "VGA". You may also need to toggle the video output display on your laptop. I believe the Function Key-F8 does this on most Dells. You may need to change the display properties and settings. Right click on the desktop and click properties, then go to the settings tab. The standard VGA resolution is 640x480. Under the advanced menu there are tabs for Display types and Monitor. It may be necessary to play with those as well.

Note, this will simply allow you to use your TV as a monitor for your laptop.

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Suggestion on tuner cards
by pwachleman / February 15, 2007 8:18 PM PST

There isnt alot of info out there and I am usually very meticulous in my research of something new but I took a flyer on a tv tuner card that has turned out for the most part to be awesome! Its the Hauppauge WinTV HVR-1600. This card is dual tuner, I can record over the air stuff while watching channels on my Directv receiver. This works great with Media Center, allowing for capture of not only my satellite stations but also over the air HDTV local channels. This has been really tremendous for me, I havent had any issues at all with it. I am not usually so vocal on things but I looked high and low for a card like this, so I am trumpeting it everywhere I can! Give it a shot!

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Of Media Center Extenders & Apple TV
by CouchGuy / February 15, 2007 9:01 PM PST

Though I have been a Media Center PC owner for some time now, and find the software itself to be well-designed and useful,I'm still not convinced that's the way to go for someone starting out today.

First of all, Media Center PCs are almost universally big, noisy boxes. A couple of new ones (see Sony's offerings from around the time of CES last month)aside, these systems are large, power-hungry, heat-emitting monsters. I don;t mind the one I have sitting under my desk in my office, but I'd be reluctant to put it in my family room to run my big-screen TV -- and my wife would NEVER allow something that ugly and noisy in that part of the house.

Second, Media Center PCs are fussy machines. Windows is always somewhat fussy, but Media Center PCs tend to need a lot of fiddling and maintenance to keep them running at peak. If you know Windows well, not a big problem. If what you mostly want to do is record TV shows and watch movies -- and the system is going to be operated daily by a less-than-computer-savvy spouse and kids -- it may not be a great choice.

Third, XP Media Center Edition is being supplanted by Vista, which as an operating system is even more hardware-hungry than XP. New development in this area will concentrate on Vista, but Vista isn't yet ready for prime time -- not unless you are already a Windows guru and willing to fork out for some fairly heavy hardware. Vista is pretty DRM-ridden, too -- at a time when the whole DRM picture may be starting to change. It may be six months to a year before I'd be comfortable recommending a Vista Media center setup for anyone but a dedicated techie.

Finally, Media Center Extenders are a joke, period. Unless you have a pristine network connection, run nothing but Media Center on the PC, and have great good luck, expect to have frequent problems. It is not unusual to be unable to make them work at all, for no apparent reason. (This is my personal tale of woe, despite years of professional networking experience.) The only extender platform on which anyone seems to have any reasonable chance of success is the XBox 360, and that's a pretty pricey piece of hardware to use as an extender. If you already own an XBox 360, this might be an option. Otherwise, skip it. If you do go this route, forget about wireless networking. Extenders now on the market use 802.11g wireless, and it just isn't fast enough for a good, reliable video experience if you are streaming. A clean Ethernet connection is a must.

Even so, I'm preparing to pull my Media Center PC content over to my new HDTV anyway, but not through a Media Center Extender. I'm awaiting the imminent release of Apple TV, a new product from the makers of the Mac which will wirelsssly stream content from Windows or Mac versions of their iTunes media software directly to a widescreen HDTV. This new product uses faster 802.11n networking, and my experience with Apple has always been that their equipment just works, first time, out of the box. Apple's stuff is designed for the user's convenience, and I can't remember the last time I had to crack a manual to make an Apple product function.

If I were starting from scratch on a Media Center, I would possibly go with an all-Apple solution, using a small, quiet Mac Mini next to the TV along with an elGato EyeTV tuner/Digital Video recorder solution. If I wanted to run it from a computer elsewhere in the house (or several), Apple TV will allow streaming from any Mac or Windows system running iTunes. Apple TV also has a built-in hard drive, so live streaming isn't necessary from your primary iTunes setup. Apple TV will automatically download your selected content from your iTunes-equipped computer and have it ready to go on the local hard drive with no streaming hesitations.

In my case, I use Roxio's MyTV ToGo software plugin for Windows XP Media Center to automatically transfer my Media Center recorded TV shows to iTunes running on the same PC. I've been enjoying my video using my iPod with Video this way for some time. But when my Apple TV system arrives, I'll be able to take all of that (plus my music, TV show and movie downloads from the iTunes Store) right over to my HDTV in the family room with one little Apple Remote. Now, THAT is Couch Potato Heaven.

One important caveat -- Apple TV only streams what you can move into iTunes. At present, there's no HDTV content there. But that is likely to change soon, since Apple TV is built especially for HDTV, and supports HDTV resolutions. This virtually guarantees iTunes is likely to be upgraded for HDTV support with the release of Apple TV.

I've been aggregating news and opinion about Apple TV at my blog at http://www.couchapple.tv in anticipation of the arrival of this product. I think anyone serious about a computer based Media center should wait a few weeks to see what the initial reviews of the Apple TV product look like, as it may be a real paradigm-changing product.

Guy McLimore
couchguy@couchapple.tv

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Do you want to play media or work on a PC?
by dmix000 / February 15, 2007 9:57 PM PST

I totally agree with the previous post by CouchGuy. If right out of the box you simply want to plug in the equipment and start playing your media on your TV or projector then order an AppleTV. Everything else you would need is already there if you have a home network and use iTunes (which is free). Total cost is around $299 plus tax.

However, if you like to spend hours or days configuring software and troubleshooting and love to ask yourself the question, "why doesn't this work?", then I highly recommend you buy a windows box (XP or Vista, doesn't matter). Total cost is at least $1,000 plus hours of fun (read frustration).

I know this seems to be a simple answer, but after using both Windows products and Macs over the years I know one is simple, elegant, and "just works" (apple), while the other leads to hours of troubleshooting and problem solving (windows). This is especially true of more consumer oriented products like the ipod, etc., which the new AppleTV will be like.

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I concur
by banksdp / February 15, 2007 10:18 PM PST

Maintaining an MCE machine - including windows updates, virus checker updates, virus signature updates, and software component updates as well as defragging your hard disks and various other tasks is not a small amount of work. You need to think hard about this before you dive in, especially if you try to build your own.

That said, if you do build or buy a MCE machine, you'll be able to do a lot of interesting things. Be aware of the HD issues before you start - including modest HD-DVD / Blu-Ray support, no QAM (digital cable) support, issues interfacing with plasma and LCD TVs (most do not support 1080p inputs, with the exception of a handful released at the end of 2006). Visit thegreenbutton, tomshardware, and avsforums for more info on these and other issues.

New pre-built (e.g. HP, Toshiba) computers are expected to come out soon that will contain HD optical drives (HD-DVD or Blu-Ray), video cards with HDCP support and HDMI connectors, and support for QAM TV signals so these will be able to capture and record / play high-def digitial cable TV, play high-def video disks, and send the output to most TVs without DRM-induced degradation of video.

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An element of truth, but only an element
by Watzman / February 15, 2007 10:43 PM PST
In reply to: I concur

There is an element of truth to these posts describing the difficulties that can be encountered with Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE). But only an element.

Building an MCE system from scratch (buy a case, motherboard, video card and all of the other components and assemble it, then install MCE as the OS) is ***FAR*** more challenging than simply building a Windows XP (or Vista) system. Many people who could accomplish the latter start down this path and find that they are in over their heads and need a lot of help. This is precisely why MCE was never offered by Microsoft as a stand-alone "retail" software product (e.g. you can't go into ANY computer store and buy a boxed copy of MCE like you can XP or Vista). It is a very challenging build and configuration, and Microsoft won't provide support because it's an OEM product, and for all MS OEM products, the support must come from the OEM rather than Microsoft (and in this case, YOU are the OEM). But if you do get stuck, help is available .... over the web, from various online newsgroups and forums.

However, once a media center system is built and configured, it is very easy to use (especially if you select the media center interface as the default interface rather than the XP Pro desktop). There is no reason that a housewife or kids should have any problems using it once media center (rather than the XP Pro desktop) is running, and if you set media center as the startup default, that will always be the case.

As to physical issues (size, noise, power consumption, etc.), it is a PC, but you can pretty much cover the full spectrum of the PC landscape in building a system. The processor requirements are not particularly demanding (anything from about a 2.4GHz Celeron up is ok .... remember, MCE came out in about 2002), so you can design for "quiet" and low power if that's what you want (indeed, there are fanless video cards that will work just fine). Or you can go the other way, if you also want to use the system for gaming with 70-inch 1080p HDTV display. It's all very personal. At some level, the result and what you get out of it is very much a function of what you want it to be and what you put into it.

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I agree, difficult, but worth the trouble to me
by dso4r / February 16, 2007 3:33 AM PST

I've been using my custom built MCE PC for nearly two years now and I love it. It does everything the original poster desires and more. Most importantly, it pasted the wife acceptance test. We use it to display our home movies and pictures, which are actually stored on a another Windows PC on my wired network. It also has a front panel multicard/USB reader for memory cards. The MCE PC contains my entire music library, over 6,000 songs. The MyMusic interface is nice, but sometimes slow (1-2 second lag to navigate through the album, artist, song, playlist choices). Still much faster and nicer than putting in the actual CD. We watch over the air (OTA) HD through a tuner card. No cable or satellite. The HD cards don't work as well as the integrated tuners that come built in with an HDTVs, but if you have a good enough signal and antenna you should be fine. With the HD signal, you either receive it, or you don't. I have an integrated digital coax output that goes right to my surround sound system. I have a DVI to HDMI cable that plugs in directly to my DLP. With a slight tweak you can play back stored ripped DVDs from the MyDVD menu option. MCE also has some neat Online Spotlight features, but I don't use them that often. I recently added my XBOX360 as an extender (wired) and it works just fine. I can watch all my recorded HD TV shows or even live TV through the XBOX. The XBOX has a component video output, not as good as the digital DVI, but still good.

In terms of noise, the video card has a fanless heat sink. I also put a heat sink on the CPU with a variable speed fan. You can hardly hear it unless the room in completely quiet. It's in a sleek black HTPC case with a small VFD which displays whatever is currently being played. It sits right in our entertainment center like a DVD player...although a little bigger.

Yes, it did take a lot of research, time, effort and frustration to build it. And yes, it does require a lot of maintenance, care, feeding and technical expertise. And yes, it's not 100% stable. I have mine on 24/7 for the past two years. I probably experience a problem 2-3 per month which require me to shut it down and restart it. Overall I think I spent around $1,200 after the second HD tuner, and second 300 GB HDD. However, now I have free over the air HD with the ability to record it and play it back whenever I want, just like TiVo, without paying any subscription fees. I save at least $60 per month in not having to pay for HD cable and DVR service.

The last thing I will say, is even though I'm a fan of MCE, there are other Windows and Linux software out there which people swear buy. SageTV and BeyondTV are two Windows media software which come to mind. Linux users have mythTV and Freevo, which are both free. For those interested, I've listed my system specs below:

MB: Gigabyte GA-K8N Ultra-9 / CPU: AMD Athlon 64 3000 / TUNER: PVR-150MCE / HD Tuner: DVICO FusionHDTV5 Lite (2) / SuperTalent PC3200 1G (512MB x 2) / eVGA GeForce 6600 256MB / Ahanix MCE601 Case / HDD: Seagate SATA (200GB, 300GB) / MCE 2005 / SAMSUNG HL-R5667W 56- IN HDTV DLP TV

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MythTV is a good choice
by jtruman8511 / February 16, 2007 5:12 AM PST

I'm glad to see that somebody mentioned MythTV. Later this year, I plan on setting up a MythTV system. I'm just working on figuring out the architecture (back-end, multiple front-ends, etc.), but I'm also going to look into some of these other solutions that you mentioned.

Personally, I plan on staying away from Vista. Read about why in this article:

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/12/28/vista_drm_analysis/

Charles R. Whealton
Charles Whealton @ pleasedontspam.com

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XBOX 360, the simplest solution!
by AirJay78 / February 15, 2007 9:59 PM PST

As one person mentioned above, I also use my XBOX 360 to steam to and from PC to home theater. If you happen to be a gamer like I am, then this solution is the best. The 360 on a wireless network (or wired if you like to run long wires) can sink your PC to your 360 to playback video (movies), photos, and best of all, your entire music library which, if you have a nice receiver and good audio components, it can actually work parties and such. Link it all up wirelessly and no one will ever know its coming from a PC in another room. Its an amazing feature from a system I only expected to have a good gaming experience from. Turns out my 360 is a crutial part of my home theater as well as the link btwn be PC and home theater. Not to mention the great HD DVD add on... YEY!

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Apple tv simple solution_
by talkwithmike / February 16, 2007 6:14 PM PST

Sorry if I am a simpleton about this ... but... my PC is a HP Pavilion but it has just the Home SP2 XP edition software. According to what I have read, that is all I need to use the Apple tv connection. I am an American living in Europe for now and trying to figure out everything .
My tv has just the RF and 2 EuroScart connectors. I would love to be able to download occasional movies such as Apple suggesting 99 cents per to view on my tv in the living room versus watching them on the computer screen. It sounds like a simple solution but ...

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Another idea
by i,Jimbot / February 15, 2007 9:46 PM PST

Mike,
If you are considering a new computer for this venture, consider buying a Mac this time. The Mac's multimedia capabilities are much better than that of Windows XP or Vista. The Front Row software is quite good and allows you access to all of your multimedia libraries. If you can wait a few days for the initial reviews of the Apple TV, you might want to add that to your arsenal. The new Macs ship with 802.11n, which is much faster than 802.11g, and so does the Apple TV.

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A Mac? Depends....
by twyrick / February 15, 2007 11:27 PM PST
In reply to: Another idea

I'm an avid Mac user myself, and agree that Front Row is pretty cool (and the Apple TV product makes the idea of a media center built around a Mac even more attractive than before).

There's even a project here: http://centerstageproject.com/

But that said, I ended up using a "Myth TV" box based on Linux for my own theater PC, and would never go back.

The biggest reason NOT to use Myth is the difficulty in getting one configured properly. But 70% of the pain has been taken out if you burn the free KnoppMyth ISO image to a CDR disc and boot/install from it. (http://www.mysettopbox.tv has everything you need)

Myth requires a lot of reading of the message forums and documentation people put together to learn what hardware works/doesn't work well with one, how its directory structure is laid out, etc. But to me, the effort is well worth it. You end up with a system that allows making video conference calls right from your couch, plays classic arcade coin-op games with the MAME emulator built in, can rip and store copies of your DVD movie collection on the drive to pull up, jukebox style, for later viewing, and much much more. It also has one of the best commercial remover features in the industry, for your recorded shows - and a web-based TV scheduler. (You can schedule recordings on your Myth TV from anywhere, or even watch them as streaming video over the Internet!)

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Easy if you have DSL
by ganeal / February 15, 2007 10:59 PM PST

I recently went back to ATT for my phone service and broad band as well as dumped my local cable company.
My ATT package include dish network

ATT has joined forces with "Dish Network". The combination of the two services has allowed them start a new service called "Home Zone"

Home Zone service is an extra $10 per month. This service includes a receiver that has a built in DVR. You receive a combination wireless modem/router ($79). When installed your "Home Zone" equipment will allow you to access all computer systems on your home network from two different televisions wirelessly. You can access movies, photos, music.
You also have a remote access that you can use from any computer anywhere in the world by login into your dsl account and select any show from your Dish Network package to record. You can be at the office or a friends and log in to record the history channel special coming on later today or next week. You can set it to record all episodes of a series, etc.
Along with your account you can also access and download movies (pay per view) directly to your hard drive and watch them later for a 24 hour period.
The equipment is theirs so if something happens to the Home Zone equipment they replace it. The modem/router is yours.

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What's your budget and experience?
by Brianstech / February 15, 2007 11:22 PM PST

Mike, since you say you want to find out as much as possible on the subject, I'd like to add my input.

I represent the cheap side. I avoided buying or learning computers until less than 5 years ago because I was waiting for them to become more multimedia-based. All three of my older brothers spent hours hunched over their little 15 inch monitors, I wanted no part of that. I felt my TV and sound system shouldn't be separate.

In June of 2002 a friend stopped by and sold me his HP. Within a month I had patched it to my 48 inch big screen and audio receiver. Through auction sites I had purchased all used hardware, and learned as I went. Surfing the internet from my couch, watching and recording TV to my hard drive, 30 foot RF keyboard w/mousepad, I was happy and proud. I was on my way!

Today I'm still working on it, but everyone who stops by is amazed at my setup. Especially the 10 foot diagonal high-res picture I'm shooting on a wall. This was all accomplished as cheaply as possible.

So on to my point. My 2 media and gaming machines are running XP Home and Pro, with NO media software. I'm just not crazy about spending extra money for something that's so picky and hardware specific. Then the DRM movement, yikes! Although I currently don't use remotes, I have 2 that run in Windows, something I'll utilize later. My cordless Gyration Optical Suite serves me well when I'm away from my desktop for now.

You haven't mentioned your budget, but the cheapest way to start is with a simple PC. If you have a large LCD or plasma, you can run it and a monitor with a dual-output video card. All of mine have a VGA and DVI output. Next is a TV tuner card or 2. I see nice analog cards on sale for less than $50, and an HDTV card can be less than $100. Digital sound (5.1 to 7.1) cards can be as low as $30 with optical or RCA digital outputs. Add a DVD-ROM with some codec packs, and you'll be enjoying Xvid movies in no time.

If you want a remote-controlled graphic user interface (media center software front end) for the wife and kids, there are many out there. Try Google. I have a few that came with various hardware purchases, but haven't tried them yet.

Another very popular alternative is an all Linux media center, called MythTV. If you are familiar with Linux, they say it's the only way to go. There are hundreds of help forums out there to assist anyone with configuration. The OS is a free download, and then you'll need a remote and dongle.

Just a little input from a cheap guy.

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Using a PC as home theater !
by blaisdr / February 15, 2007 11:37 PM PST

As most of us don't have a programer's degree !
It is best to leave the PC as a PC , the is nothing worst than getting involved in a Movie and have a System crashe !

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Expensive attitude!
by Brianstech / February 16, 2007 12:59 AM PST

Blaisdr, I mean you no harm. But your attitude is part of the reason developers haven't offered more PC multimedia opportunities.

Go ahead and buy a computer, then your DVD player. Oops! It's not an upconverter, time for another one. Oops! It's not Divx capable! Buy another one that won't quite play ALL Divx and Xvids. What's next? Well, actually the latest Hi-Def DVD wars will lead thousands more people through forced obsolescence.

Then gaming. Hundreds after hundreds spent on the latest machines, and it's still a fact that PC offers more games than any other platform. The newest expensive gaming consoles ARE COMPUTERS for gosh sakes!

I use NO CD or DVD player, NO DVD burner, NO VCR, NO gaming console, NO TIVO, NOTHING outside of my computer! It does all of that a lot cheaper than those short-term devices. I'll buy a high-def DVD burner drive when the war is over and the price settles.

Anyone who chooses to ignore the future and purchase all those separate computer-based components are more than welcome. I just don't see the point.

And I suffer no system crashes, but my $350 DVD player used to crash a lot before I quit using it. Same with my $120 CD player. I don't miss that crap at all.

On the rare occasion of a program hang, I simply restart the PC.

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about microsoft remotes
by myshadeisblue / February 16, 2007 12:37 AM PST

Microsoft oem remotes for windows xp mce 2005 have an issue with once the batteries die and u put new ones in the remote is unresponsive and wont light up. For months I was returning them to my vendor and getting new ones but I finally figured out how to fix this. Take a paperclip and ground the posative and negative battery springs in the remote and your remote will fire up again as soon as you put the new batteries in. This was a huge pain in the a$$ for me so I hope it helps some of you. But if you have the means the logitech harmony remotes are great.

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Just a heads-up: PAL / SECAM
by sauna6 / February 16, 2007 2:02 AM PST

If you live in a NTSC country, the previous answer is good. But most countries us PAL for their TV signal protocol, so be careful with the purchase of the PC components. Even laptop vendors (HP in my case) may sell you an NTSC-only tuner, contrary to the whole the idea of laptops: anywhere/anytime.
One limitation with Windows Media Edition is that it accepts and plays media only from the Windows world. Consequently, I have no use for it.

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Remote Compatability
by lnorsted / February 16, 2007 2:41 AM PST

Just a note about remotes and Windows' Media Center Edition (MCE). I bought a Logitech remote, and with the software that came with it, which allows me to program it via cable and an internet connection on my computer, works quite well with MCE. I still have my Microsoft remote, but I also have a 'back-up' remote, with most every function of the original. I wasn't even looking for MCE compatability, it just so happened that after I bought my universal remote, I noticed that MCE was one of the options.

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Windows MCE has been "Nerfed" by Macrovision since 2005...
by edge_bit / February 16, 2007 2:45 AM PST

Windows MCE 2005 Edition is crippled and should not be used if you plan on being able to time-shift your favourite shows so you can view them when you get home, etc.

Windows MCE 2005 absolutely refuses to record shows marked as such by content distributors, even if all you want to do is time-shift it a few hours so you can view it when you can view it.

I would definitely use another product such as Snapstream BeyondTV for your time-shifted PVR needs.

Windows MCE 2005 has let me down in this respect so much that I've stopped it from starting on bootup and set up Snapstream BeyondTV instead.

Finally I can view my PVR PC the way it was meant to be viewed - and I'm not breaking any laws doing it.

Technically content providers are only allowed to require Macrovision licences to set their shows to "no-record" status if they are a Pay-Per-View type show. Many providers have been found to be using this technology illegaly to stop people from time-shifting and recording shows.

These content providers often counter with the claim that it is simply noise causing the problem.

This does not hold up as the same shows appear to have the exact same protection each and every time they're viewed.

This problem often happens with a 'naked' analog signal and not a set-top box which leaves many to believe in the analog noise theory. Consider this however... until recently many manufacturers hadn't yet jumped on the Macrovision protection bandwagon. So it's quite likely that those unaffected by this problem are simply having the problem inadvertantly filtered out of their setup.

All in all... I hate this DRM which treats consumers not just like criminals, but like cattle to be herded which ever way the content provider chooses.

To be fair, I understand that since the DRM protection on DVR-MS (Windows Media Center files) is easily crackable with a fast computer, the content providers feel threatened and are just lashing back.

I just want to use my content legally.

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MCE lotsa fun
by rsternb / February 16, 2007 8:38 AM PST

okay - couple hours ago I read this - great stuff and will print
it.
I started researching all this stuff - finally found where to
get MCE (newegg) but the reviews left there were not too terrific.
Went thru microsoft - now that was time well wasted hahaha
Tried to get a [[Microsoft?s Hardware Compatibility List (HCL) for XP Media Center Edition (MCE) ]]
*#* another large dissapointment - cant find that list anywhere.

sooo - somehow I will attempt to get some of this stuff figgured
our . lotsa decent help here at cnet
ted
Happy

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HTPC Options
by madd_flagger / February 16, 2007 9:10 AM PST
In reply to: MCE lotsa fun

A custom HTPC can be a good solution as long as it's carefully built. I got mine from Creature HTPC and they did a great job. Don't underestimate the amount of RAM (get 2 Gigs) and hard drive (I've got about 3/4 of a TB with one small drive set up for O/S.

Be careful about jumping too quickly to Vista for your HTPC. There is driver lag right now on a lot of audio, some video, and TV cards.

A good alternative for a front end is Beyond Media.

I would not buy one of the canned machines from HP and others. I tried one from HP and it was a disappointment.

Good luck.

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Win MCE Hardware list
by norrtalje19 / February 16, 2007 1:46 PM PST
In reply to: MCE lotsa fun

OK, you asked, I'll provide (comments in regards to media further down)

Did buy a Dell Dim 8400 (about two years ago with Win MCE 2005 loaded). Been working fine so here's the hardware:
3.40 gigahertz Intel Pentium 4
16 kilobyte primary memory cache
1024 kilobyte secondary memory cache
1 GB RAM (PC3200/400MHz if I recall right)
1x250 GB SATA harddrive (now 2x250GB) + 750 GB elsewhere
NEC DVD+/-RW (32x)
NEC DVD-ROM (48x)
ATI Radeon X300 w/128 MB (+ two monitors, Dell 21" and HP 17")
Creative SB Audigy 2ZS
400W power supply

That said, as you can see I do not have a tuner in this set-up. Apart from that, there's more horsepower (as long as system is properly maintained, many comments in respect to that already noted) here than you'll need for normal entertainment activities.

Now to what I'd be looking for:
I do not want a Vista or MCE system in my living room, but what I want is an "extender" (Apple TV or similar) that can access ALL my media stored on either a MCE like system or just on a storage array (or server) in the basement. House is networked (ethernet/cat5 as well as coax) and I have multiple drops to each room.
Still holding off in buying the (large) Plasma/LCD in order for the 1080p models to drop a bit more - and for more features to show up (like being able to get to all stored pictures by plugging ethernet straight into the TV...).

On of the better "extenders" out there today (though audio only) is SlimDevices' "SqueezeBOx". That little "thing" comes as close to true media player as one can + it has a great display so you do not have to run TV when listening to music or internet radio.
SlimDevices were acquired by Logitech in the fall and I am not sure that is a good thing since the major corporations many times have a tendency to kill great products (like they killed the wired version and now sells only the wired/wiresless one for $50 more...).

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Shut up about Windows already
by froasier / February 16, 2007 1:30 PM PST

Your (Barry's) post says way too much about Windows and is really a poor response in my opinion. I think the question was more about the network and hardware than the operating system. You don't absolutely need Media Center Edition or Vista for your home entertainment system. There are media-centered versions of GNU/Linux, or all needed functionality can simply be added to Windows XP using free or inexpensive software, which is often included with the hardware you're getting anyways.

Speaking of hardware, here is a quick list that may be more useful to the casual reader:
- Decent graphics card (most any new one from ATI or NVIDIA should do)
- TV tuner card(s) (if you want TV to be part of your system, more than one if you want to watch and/or record more than one channel at the same time)
- The above two can be included in one product, such as ATI's All-in-Wonder cards
- Multimedia Remote/Reciever - Get one that's compatible with your system, with great enough range to reach from where you'll be using it
- Connections to your output systems

Everything depends on what you're starting with. I'm going to assume you have a computer, and a network setup that works for you (setting up a home network is its own topic and not specific to a media system). Regardless of your operating system, the software required should be pretty self-explanatory, so you can figure it out. Connecting everything together is the part where most people need help.

If the TV or projector is in the same room as the computer, you can connect it directly to the computer. Make sure your video card and your TV/projector have compatible connections, and use the best one they both have (in order best to worst: DVI, VGA, Component, S-Video, Composite)
[[Note: you probably will not notice any difference between DVI and VGA connections. As for HDMI, your graphics card probably won't support it, and its image quality is equivalent to DVI, the difference being it supports copy-protected signals and has the audio built into the same cable. In many cases a VGA to VGA connection will give better results than a DVI to HDMI adapter will if your display does not have DVI input.]]
For sound, it again depends on what connections your sound card and your TV or sound system have in common. The best type is a digital signal, called S/PDIF, which supports Dolby Digital or DTS surround sound through one cable. This can be transmitted through a fiber-optic TOSLINK cable (best) or a coaxial RCA cable --which cable you use will depend on the connections your hardware has. The other type is your standard analog signal, which can be surround sound (two headphone-style cords for 4-channel, three for 5.1, and four for 7.1) or stereo (one headphone-style cord) or Dolby Pro Logic (encodes surround sound into a stereo signal, not as good as the above surround sound types). If you're using the headphone-style (1/8-inch/3.5-mm) jacks on your sound card, you will need a cable that has that type of plug on one end and on the other end the plug(s) for what your TV or sound system has, sometimes the same type but usually RCA (one headphone jack splits into two RCA plugs).
This way you use the TV or projector as your primary or secondary display, coupled with the mouse and keyboard or the remote.

If you have a TV or home theater system in another room, you can either run the same cables to it (inconvenient at best) and use a long-range remote, or buy a product that connects the system to your computer through your home network, so that your computer acts as a content server and this product takes care of the actual playback. There are various devices to do this, ranging from set-top boxes, to game systems like the Xbox 360, to a whole dedicated home theater computer (HTPC). This device can connect directly to an ethernet network or with an adapter to a wireless or electrical system network.

Overall, this task is as simple as each of the components. Once you figure out how to connect them together (which is usually just matching up types of plugs), the operation of each one should be pretty straightforward. Mike, I realize I did not address every aspect here, but I hope this was more useful and relevant to your situation. I guess my main point is not everyone's system needs the same degree of sophistication, and there are alternatives to Media Center Edition if you don't want to shell out the cash for the upgrade. I would stay away from Vista regardless of budget, but that's another post I've already made in various forms.

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TV Tuner Card?
by TheLatestDJ / February 16, 2007 11:05 PM PST

Hi,

I am new to this- TV tuner Card? Could you help me? I have Sony PC 3200 400MHZ DDR: 250 GHD SATA/7200rpm, 2GB Memmory, Pentium 4 processor 640 with Hyber-Threading Technology, Processor Speed 3.2 GHZ, 800 MHZ FSB, 2MB L2 Cache, Graphics Intel Media Accelerator 900, 128MB Max, DVD+R Double layer/DVD+-RW, Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, ATI Video Card-X1900XTX($550), Sony LCD KDL46-XBR3($2800).

I want to see TV show from Asia and Australia or perhaps all the show from different countries by using NETWORK-- if there is any from my PC to my new Sony XBR3 LCD. Could this be accomplish? Than you. I had tried to read more new from books store and few others webpages but I have not see such thing yet. CNet Viewer-TheLatestDj

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