Use Windows Media Center for the Ultimate DVR

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The CineMagix Grand Theater Media Center PC from Velocity Micro

Add extenders like Xbox 360 to enhance your entertainment


Dec. 19, 2011 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Digital video recorders (DVRs) are becoming the device of choice for accessing television programming. A December, 2010 Nielsen report said that four of every 10 households used a DVR for some amount of time-shifted viewing. The majority of those DVRs, around 97% of them, reside in set top boxes rented or purchased from cable companies or satellite services.

What many don’t know is that millions of people have the ability to run their own HD DVR without expensive rental fees.

Windows Media Center is available in nearly every version of Windows 7 (it’s only missing in the Starter edition), and more than 40% of desktop computers around the world have installed Windows 7. That brings the power of recorded TV to the desktops of households everywhere.

And while the average person might say they have no need for a DVR on their desktop or a PC in their living room, when paired with one of the more than 50 million Xbox 360s around the world, Windows Media Center can come right to your main TV.

To take advantage of the most basic DVR functionalities, all you need is a Windows 7 PC running Media Center and a TV tuner, either internal or external. It’s worth noting that Media Center first appeared in Windows XP, but the version in Windows 7 is by far the most powerful.

THE PC
Nearly any modern PC should have the horsepower to play and record HD video in Media Center (refer to the official Windows 7 system requirements if you’d like to be safe). I have a several years old dual-core system with 4GB of RAM in my setup and serve content to multiple Xbox 360s throughout my home.

A 512MB video card should be more than enough to handle HD video on a variety of desktop screen sizes, and that includes many of the newer motherboards with onboard video. If you intend to hook your PC up to your TV directly, be sure to purchase a video card that has HDMI output and enough power to run a large display.

When it comes to storage, it’s really a question of how much content you intend to record. Start with at least 500GB, but if you plan to record a lot of HD shows, your best bet is at least 1TB. Look for HDDs that operate at 7200 RPM or higher for optimal performance.

Advanced users might want to use Media Center at the center of a whole-home distribution system via multiple extenders like the Xbox 360. In the case of large-scale use like that, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to outfit your PC with a gigabit Ethernet card and switch to give your network infrastructure plenty of breathing room.

THE TV TUNER
A simple USB tuner, available from a variety of brands, can be had for under $50 and will allow you to watch and record HD channels. You can even forgo a subscription-based TV service by getting an HD antenna, allowing you to tune in all the over-the-air stations available where you live (check out AntennaWeb.org for help choosing an antenna). If you’re hooking up to a cable signal, the amount of channels you’ll get with a basic tuner depends on how your provider delivers its signal. Be sure your turner works with both OTA and QAM signals.

To truly unleash the power of Media Center, however, pair it with a Multi-stream CableCARD tuner. Manufacturers like Ceton Corp. and Silicon Dust offer internal and external devices, starting at around $200, that accept cards available from your cable company or Verizon’s FIOS service and will allow you to have all your subscription channels available through Media Center. Card rental costs depend on your provider, but range from free to no more than a couple bucks a month. 

THE EXTRAS
If you already have a networked Xbox 360 in your home, once you hook up your Media Center PC to the network, pairing the two is simple and can be done in Media Center’s “Settings” menus by selecting “Add Extender”. A wired connection to your extender offers the best experience for HD watching.

One of the big advantages of Media Center is the ability to have control of your recorded TV files. Going on vacation and want to catch up on DVR shows? Copy the files from your main PC to your laptop and watch recorded TV on the go.

Media Center can also be outfitted with add-ons developed by the small but loyal Media Center community that will allow you to organize digital movie collections (file format depending), eliminate commercials from recordings, or access recordings and guide data remotely. Plus, all your pictures and music can be streamed via Media Center, too.

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Customization options in Media Center are far too numerous to cover in this article, but it’s safe to say it’s the most tinkerer-friendly DVR software available.

Windows Media Center might not be for everyone, and there are up-front costs that you might not have to deal with if you simply rent the equipment from your TV provider. But with so many households already possessing the basics of a Media Center setup, namely the PC and Xbox 360, in most cases that upfront cost will be limited to the purchase of a TV tuner. And with typical DVR rental around $10 a month, the cost of a tuner could be recouped in no time.

Add in the customization and flexibility of Media Center, and it’s the best DVR that you’ve never used.



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