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Written by Hasan Niyazi - Edited by Olin Coles   
Monday, 05 October 2009
Table of Contents: Page Index
Enhancing The Windows Media Center Experience
Aesthetic Enhancmenents
Encode, Decode, and Analyse!
Radio and Streaming Services
Media Center Conclusion

Enhancing The Windows Media Center Experience

The proliferation of multimedia audio and video formats, including Blu-Ray, and an increasing array of TV and web based services have made the home theatre personal computer (HTPC) a powerful convergence device. With the imminent release of Microsoft's Windows 7 Operating System, Benchmark Reviews explores the evolution of the Windows HTPC Platform. We will also examine the efforts of a global community of users and premium developers, who have used Microsoft's product to showcase their skills and highlight their passion to make the PC a core component of the home entertainment setup.

Windows Media Center – History and Evolution

The Microsoft Windows HTPC platform, Windows Media Center (WMC), was first released as a restricted OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) edition of Windows XP in 2002. It introduced a TV friendly ’10-foot’ interface which allowed consumers to utilise their pc as a Personal Video Recorder(PVR) and digital media player, using a custom infrared remote control. The original 2002 platform has since undergone a slow but steady evolution.

In 2005, still within the framework of the Windows XP operating system, Windows Media Center 2005 was released, notably adding digital tv (DVB-T) support as well as the ability to use the Xbox platform as a ‘Media Center Extender’ (MCX). This allowed Xbox owners to access their HTPC via their console device, essentially allowing it to be ‘extended’ into another room. This functionality continued between Vista/Windows7 and the Xbox 360. Earlier in 2009 MCX Partners Linksys and Hewlett Packard (HP) confirmed discontinuation of their MCX products, raising speculation about the future of these devices. At present, there has been no indication from Microsoft about the future of MCX hardware.


The baby/azure blue WMC 2005 Interface

WMC 2005 attracted a large user base, and was taken on board by many mainstream OEMs such as HP, Dell, Acer, Asus, Sony et al, with each of these releasing ‘dedicated’ media center pcs, complete with TV tuner and remote. This 2005 edition also saw the advent of DIY htpcs, as this edition was made available to public system builders. Since this, a large Media Center community has grown globally, attracting casual system tweakers and premium software developers alike.


The Hewlett Packard z500 Digital Entertainment Center

WMC 2005 has reached the end of its support cycle, though does retain a proportion of dedicated users. In late 2006, Windows Vista was released to manufacturing following a development cycle lasting over 7 years (Project Longhorn). There was no longer a dedicated ‘Media Center Edition’ and instead the ‘Home Premium’ and ‘Ultimate’ Editions of Vista shipped with WMC as a built in feature. Vista’s Media Center (VMC) maintained the core functionalities of its 2005 predecessor, but also included native MPEG-2 support, primarily used for digital TV and DVD Playback. Another key step forward was the new scope development of quality plugins using the Windows Media Center Software Development Kit (SDK). This allowed programmers to create applications that integrated seamlessly within the VMC interface. Some of the most notable plugin applications will be outlined later in this article.


Vista Media Center Opted for a more naval shade of blue

In 2008, Microsoft sought to expand VMCs capabilities, and began the beta phase of ‘Project Fiji’. This moniker was dropped after the Fijian Government expressed discontent at the use of this title, and eventually was released as Media Center TV Pack 2008. This update to VMC was to include DVBS (Satellite TV), Inband Guide functionality (EIT), heterogenous tuner support as well as the inclusion of MHEG-5 digital interactivity options - allowing closed captioning within digital TV.


Following the infamous “Mojave Experiment” , Microsoft’s decision to rapidly advance towards Windows 7 resulted in the fact that TV Pack never became a fully fledged update for VMC. TV Pack was eventually released to restricted OEMs, and soon after became a hot item on p2p sites as curious VMC users eagerly tried the update the vast majority of them were denied. Responding quickly to the ire this generated in the community, It was soon announced that all of TV Pack 2008 features would be included in Windows 7.

In July 2009, Windows 7 was released to manufacturing. Microsoft’s “new” operating system is based on a point revision of the Vista NT 6.0 Kernel, and hence shares many similarities with its predecessor. This extends to its Media Center component, which is included in the Premium, Professional and Ultimate versions. Windows 7 Media Center (7MC) delivers all of the features provided with the elusive TV Pack Update for Vista, and adds MPEG-4 support, enabling default playback of many popular MPEG-4 file types without the need to install additional codecs. 7MC is now being used as the HTPC operating system of choice by many users formerly on Vista or WMC 2005. Due to the underlying similarities between Vista and Windows 7, driver support for many tuners has been positive – with the vista drivers being applicable in many cases.


The Windows 7 Media Center interface... also blue

Having delved into the history of the platform, let us now examine key components of WMC itself. Popular enhancements and plugins for specific contexts will be described as we go along.


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