Ed Bott on Windows Vista Media Center

This looks cool:

In June, I recounted my out-of-the-box experience with a new Dell PC running Windows Vista, starting with a failed BIOS upgrade, undergoing a successful repair, and establishing that the basic hardware and software setup was rock-solid.

Vista Media Center from 10 feet

The reason I bought this PC in the first place was to use it as the hub of a home theater system, integrated with a 5.1 surround sound setup and a 50-inch Sony HDTV with Vista Media Center as the front end. So, at the beginning of July, I took the plunge and moved this system out of the office and into the living room. It took about two weeks to assemble all the pieces I needed and get everything working together correctly, but today I am thoroughly pleased with everything about this system. If you’ve considered doing the same thing, I have some advice in this post, and I’ve documented the whole thing with an image gallery so you can see what it looks like.


The bottom line: It works. Spectacularly well, in fact. I originally approached this as a proof-of-concept experiment, and I was half expecting to run into at least one roadblock that would cause me to give up and go back to my old setup. Surprisingly, the only obstacles were minor ones.

I must confess to a bit of envy...I've long wanted to add a Windows Media Center PC to my living room setup. But since I've already got the Vista Media Center running on my home-office PC, it would be tough to justify buying a whole new PC dedicated to the entertainment center.

That said, even my current setup is pretty cool. As noted, I've got Vista Ultimate (which, like Vista Home Premium, includes the Media Center bits) running on my desktop PC, which is a several year-old Dell PowerEdge 400SC, with a hyperthreaded P4 proc, 2GB RAM, and a 256MB Radeon X1300 video card, giving me a respectable 4.0 Windows Experience Index. And I use my XBOX 360 as a Media Center Extender, which gives me most of the Media Center experience.

The upside of my setup is low-cost. I added a hand-me-down TV tuner to my desktop machine, and that allows me to record standard-def TV channels (I have a Verizon HD DVR for HD) on my PC, thus saving precious DVR storage space for the high-def stuff only), and it's pretty easy to convert DVR-MS content to WMV for viewing on my Zune when I travel (and if I'm looking for a larger screen, I can just sync my Zune as a guest on my laptop, and watch the video there, as I did last week with the "so bad it's good" Jet Li movie Black Mask.

All that said, I think Bott has it right when he says:

Bringing the PC into the living room simplifies the equipment lineup, reduces the cost, and potentially offers better performance because it’s not bound by network speeds.

True, the cost bit is lower for me because I'm not buying a separate Media Center PC, but I still may have to consider making the leap to a dedicated Media Center PC in the living room, as that would open up some cool side benefits, like being able to manage the family calendar without running into the office, and be able to easily sync that with what's going on with work (we currently keep the family calendar on paper on the fridge, which means I'm often fielding questions about what's going on at work, upcoming travel and/or events, etc., and having to run into the office, look stuff up, write it down on the paper calendar...not very efficient). There would also be the benefit of being able to run full-blown apps in the living room, which is not really possible on the 360 acting as an extender.

The cool thing is that while not dirt cheap, Bott's setup also wasn't outrageously expensive either, coming in at just under $700.

Last, but not least, I can heartily agree with Bott's enthusiasm for Logitech's Harmony series of remotes. I have the Harmony 880, and it's really excellent. You install the Harmony software on your PC, then hook up your remote via mini-usb, go to their website, select your components and the activities you use them for, and the web-based wizard sets the remote up for one-button operation of the activities you specify. So when I want to play a game on my XBOX 360, I press the button labeled "Play XBOX 360," and the remote turns on the TV, receiver, and console, and switches the TV and receiver to the appropriate inputs. You can also customize to add steps such as turning the volume up or down when you start or power down from a given activity.

Overall, my take on Vista Media Center mirrors Bott's:

This will drive the Vista-haters crazy, but it has to be said anyway: When people see this system in operation, they actually say “Wow.”

My wife and mother-in-law both really love being able to see pictures of the kids on the large screen of the living room TV, rather than all having to crowd around a PC in the office. And having all our digital music available at the touch of a button has likewise been a boon.

» Vista Media Center takes over the living room | Ed Bott’s Microsoft Report | ZDNet.com