Windows Media Center

My favorite technology of the week is our Windows Media Center PC. At home we resisted a TiVo or any DVR for years because we hardly watch any television, but as the kids got older and more numerous we found ourselves putting them in front of the TV more often to have a few moments to ourselves. Random cartoons are just awful, so we finally had a good reason to get a DVR: to limit the kids to just the TV that’s worth watching.

As it happened, my wife needed a new PC. We realized that by picking one with Media Center 2005 pre-installed we could get a DVR essentially for free (or, to be precise, $150 extra to add a dual-tuner TV card and a remote control to the configuration). You can now find Media Center PCs for less than $700. Anti-DRM zealots who think we should have home-brewed our own open-source DVR instead are invited to make this case to my wife.

The cool thing about the latest (2005) version of Windows Media Center is that it can run in the background of a regular PC. So as far as my wife is concerned, it’s just her standard workhorse PC, sitting in the study. But while she’s doing email and such, it’s recording TV on a 400 gig hard drive or streaming it to TVs around the house. Since we already had the cable TV line coming to the study for the cable modem, installing the PC was simply a matter of a Radio Shack adapter that split the coax into three–one to the cable modem and one to each of the PC’s twin tuners.

The other cool thing about Media Center 2005 is the way it works with “extenders”, which are set-top boxes that you place next to each TV you want connected to the DVR. This allows the Media Center to act as a central media server for the whole house, giving any TV simultaneous access to the same recorded content. We already had an Xbox on one TV, so turning that into an extender just required inserting a disk. We bought a wireless Linksys extender for the other TV.

For us, Media Centers have five big advantages over traditional DVRs, including TiVo.
* No monthly fees.
* Centralized storage means that all TVs around the house have instant access to the same content.
* Unlimited storage capacity.
* Can stream all the other media on your PC to any TV, including music and home videos.
* By DVR standards, it’s a relatively open platform (certainly compared to the DVRs offered by your cable company), and there are an increasing number of plug-ins that expand its features.

Don’t forget that the Media Center PC route also effectively gives you a free TV (the PC itself). All told, our total investment was about $440, which gave us the equivalent of three DVRs and one LCD TV, with all the advantages of centralized media serving. You really can’t beat that with dedicated devices.

There are, to be fair, a few disadvantages, too. It’s a Windows PC, so you have to restart it once in a while. If you do that while the kids are watching television upstairs, they’re going to yelp. And because it’s a PC that’s running all sorts of other software, there is the risk you’ll install something funky that messes things up. I put in a new sound card and the DVR stopped recording TV sound until I undid most of the changes. Finally, the Linksys extender, which is the only hardware extender available and feels a bit V1.0, freezes every now and then and has to be restarted.

At its core, the Media Center is a platform for unlimited-choice TV. It connects the Internet to the TV screens around your house via a simple, TiVo-like interface. Right now, most of the video content comes over the broadcast network. But that content can just as easily come from the web, and independent video marketplaces such as Brightcove and Akimbo are planning to release their services as Media Center plug-ins to deliver just that. It feels like a glimpse of the future.

– Chris Anderson

Gateway Windows Media Center
$700
Available from
Office Depot