Recently in Media Center PC Category

"What type of file format does Windows Media Center use to record television?"

Windows Media Center uses the DVR-MS file format, which is an ASF container with MPEG-2 video and AC-3 audio packaged in a slightly non-standard way. ASF is the same container format used for Microsoft's WMV video files, with the difference being that WMV typically uses WMV video and WMA audio. The files aren't recognized by many other media players and video conversion software frequently fails to convert the files to new formats because it's unrecognized.

For the most part PC video playback either works or it doesn't. Every once in awhile, software makers add a few features that make it worth upgrading to the latest version. PowerDVD 9 from Cyberlink is one of these occasions. If you've been having trouble playing back Blu-ray or AVCHD movies on your system, consider PowerDVD 9 Ultra and Deluxe a dramatic improvement. The software is getting better at rendering complex high definition video on less powerful hardware, providing a better experience for HD video. This doesn't mean your PC from 2001 will suddenly be able to play HD with ease, but PowerDVD seems less reliant on optimal hardware specs with this version. HD playback isn't the only reason you may want to think about an upgrade.

"What is the format used by Windows Media Center recorded TV? The program is saved in the all users TV recorded folder & plays back OK on the Dell computer. I'm having problems converting to a compatible format such as AVI or WMV using the AVS 6.0. Mainly a lot of pixilating when playing the DVD on our Nakamichi DVD-15 1995 vintage player. I convert using To DVD & Profile NTSC High Quality. I burn using ImgBurn or Roxio."

The format Windows Media Center uses for recording is DVR-MS, which is MPEG-2 video in a Microsoft proprietary file wrapper. If you have Media Center 2005 or newer, the easiest way to burn it to DVD (without all the extra conversion steps you cite), is to use the built-in DVD burning tool. For older versions of Windows Media Center, the best solution is MyDVD, which is bundled as part of most newer versions of Roxio Creator.

"I have read your guide on how to use an HDTV as a computer monitor and found it to be very informative. There is however one detail I am unsure of. This is Sound. If I were to plug my PC video card to my HDTV via a DVI/HDMI cable I would get pure digital visual but no audio correct? But if I were to plug it in via HDMI/HDMI from video card to HDTV would I get audio? Or do i have to buy a sound card with HDMI out to get surround sound?"

There are a several different ways to get audio passed from your PC to your HDTV. Depending on what hardware you have available, you may be limited to stereo audio, with a few cases where you can also get surround sound.

Stereo audio from PC

Stereo audio is going to be the most common scenario, because there still aren't many source video files you'll find online with multi-channel audio. Many HDTVs include one HDMI connection that also has stereo audio in via RCA connections, which would simply require a mini-plug out of your computer to the RCA connections on the TV, in addition to the cable for video.

Surround sound audio from PC to HDTV

If you have an HDMI video card that also includes audio support, you would get audio passed to the HD screen similar to what's available from any other video device. This is considerably more expensive than merely working with what's already in your system, but gives you something closer to a "real" home theater experience.

In most other cases, you'd need to pass audio from your PC to a home theater receiver with support for surround sound, while passing the video separately from the video card. You can find home theater receivers for under $200 that will give you acceptable surround sound specifically for this purpose, which is still cheaper than overhauling your computer to support audio over HDMI.

The home theater PC market has been rather dull for several years. Sure you can get a sound card with 7.1 surround sound, but they've generally been noisier than I'd want in my own home theater. You can purchase video cards that output to an HDTV and support HDCP, but the experience hasn't been on par with using home theater components. At Computex 2008, AMD is showing off a couple of new boards from MSI that change the game in important fundamental ways.

MSI AMD Live! Home Cinema Motherboard and Soundcard

First up AMD's 780 chipset supports Blu-ray and other HD video playback through integrated video on the motherboard. Nobody else can currently do this - Intel drops frames. Couple this with the MSI boards integrated component and HDMI out and you've got ease of use in getting the video portion of your PC signal easily to your television, without the nonsense of converting DVI to HDMI. You can of course still add a separate video card, but for normal home theater use it would not be necessary.

D2Audio Chip on MSI home theater motherboard The second key thing MSI and AMD have done is create something that grows with your audio needs. 2.1 surround (pre-amp) is included on the sound card with either analog outputs or digital. You can grow that to either 5.1 or 7.1 using an add-on card that easily extends your audio channels (That's the board in the front of the picture). The board seated on the motherboard provides amplified 5.1 surround. Audio uses a D2Audio chip on the motherboard to prevent extraneous noise.

Silent cooling for MSI motherboard A final component of this system is an ultra-quiet cooling system (pictured below). You're more likely to hear noise from your Blu-ray drive than you are from the fans keeping this entire thing cool. Best of all, I have it on good authority from a source at MSI that all this will be on the market by June 15, 2008 and you should be able to build a system (minus Blu-ray player) for under $1000.

"I have Windows XP and don't want to buy a new operating system to get Media Center functionality. What are the best alternatives to Windows Media Center Edition that I can install on my existing operating system?"

Adding the ability to record television on your computer, browse photos and videos from the comfort of your couch, and quickly integrate your digital music library with your home theater is one of the more useful advances in computing over the last several years. I personally prefer Windows Media Center Edition for all my PC home theater integration, because it integrates with my Xbox 360 (which means I don't need a PC in my living room) and because it is the most elegant solution on the market. I can certainly understand not wanting to spend additional money on a new operating system just to add Media Center-like functionality to an existing computer. I continue to recommend two alternatives to Windows Media Center Edition as the best options for integrating with Windows.

Beyond TV

SnapStream Beyond TV was one of the first home theater PC products on the market and it remains one of the best solutions for people who don't have Windows Media Center Edition. One of the things I don't like about Beyond TV is all the extra stuff you have to buy to get feature parity with Windows Media Center Edition. For instance, if you want to manage photos and music, you need Beyond Media in addition to Beyond TV. Some of the core features include:
Commercial Skipping with 30-second fast forward of recorded shows and live television. This also comes in handy for skipping the open title sequence on shows or anything else you'd rather miss.
Scheduled recording of shows and entire seasons of programming.
Fast-forward and Rewind You can fast forward or rewind if you're interrupted by a phone call or the kids while watching your favorite show.
Burn Shows to DVD with an add-on that integrates DVD burning directly in Beyond TV.
Smarter Searching for shows you want to watch by title or keyword through all available guide data.
Record Over-the-air HD using an HDTV tuner card and antenna to get local HD content.
Take TV with you Anywere by copying files to your favorite portable device or by using the free Orb software to access recorded shows from any Windows device with an Internet connection. This feature combines Slingbox-style place shifting of video with the Tivo to go concept of taking recorded video files with you.
Multiple Tuner Support allows you to watch and record more than one show at a time. Windows Media Center only supports this functionality in the Vista version.
Schedule Recordings Remotely when you're not in front of your PVR computer. Beyond TV includes a Web interface for scheduling recordings from any Web browser, including Web-enabled cell phones.

SageTV

SageTV has a number of features that set it apart from Beyond TV. In addition to being a PVR, SageTV includes support for managing music and photos as part of its core package. SageTV also includes parental controls to govern playback of content. Some features of SageTV include:
Commercial Skipping to get back to watching shows quickly.
Fast forward and rewind for repeating content when you're interrupted or skipping ahead when you want to avoid boring parts.
Scheduled recordings of single shows or entire seasons, including a smart scheduling feature that suggests programs you may also like based on your recording habits.
Search customization for searching by favorite actor, category, or keyword.
Media management features including music management, local DVD playback, picture browsing and slideshows, integrated weather reports, and visualizations during music playback.
Over-the-air HD support provides high definition content with a high definition tuner and antenna.
SageTV Placeshifter supports live and recorded television playback from any Mac or PC for an additional $20.
Multiple tuner support for recording and viewing more than one show at a time.

Choosing A Media Center Solution

Beyond TV and SageTV match up very closely in features. While Beyond TV bundles support for playback on other devices (via Orb) as part of its core package, it requires an additional purchase of support for music and photo browsing capabilities. SageTV bundles photos and music and requires a purchase of its Placeshifter app for around the home sharing. Beyond TV does a better job of automating sharing of recorded files to portable devices. Beyond TV includes remote access for scheduling recordings from anywhere. Both apps support multiple television tuners. SageTV includes the Tivo-like feature of automatically recording shows it thinks you might like. SageTV offers a slightly more elegant enterface.

Bottom line here is that both Beyond TV and SageTV do an excellent job scheduling recordings and managing recorded television. Guide browsing in either option is superior to all the cable boxes, with the possible exception of Tivo-powered DirecTV. Beyond these core features, you need to look at both for which extras you think you might want bundled with your $70-80. If you feel like splurging, you can hit feature parity around $99.

One of the things I like most about the Xbox 360 HD-DVD drive is portability. I can connect it to my Xbox 360 or I can plug it in to a PC elsewhere in the house. The only tricky part is figuring out all the right pieces to making HD-DVD playback work on your PC. Windows XP doesn't currently support HD-DVD playback without finding a hacked driver for the Xbox 360 HD-DVD drive, so if you want HD-DVD playback, moving to Windows Vista is your best option.

The software part of the equation is easy. Cyberlink PowerDVD Ultra supports both HD-DVD and Blu-ray playback in the same download. It has the bonus of solving a number of problems related to using the new AVCHD camcorder format.

How to Play HD-DVDs with WIndows

Tony writes, "I have recorded loads of TV programes on Windows Media Center but when I try to burn them to DVD they don't work. Helpline advised Nero 7, do you have a better solution?"

Nero will burn virtually anything to DVD. They have a great depth of features for burning, but I really dislike their user interface for simple tasks because the application seemingly makes the simple complicated. My preference for burning Windows Media Center Recordings is Roxio MyDVD.

Download TVTonic

I'm constantly on the lookout for new ways to extend my Media Center. jkOnTheRun tipped me off to TVTonic over the weekend. It's by far the best looking interface for adding subscription audio and video content from RSS feeds to Media Center. The interface supports any audio or video format you can play in either Windows Media Player or QuickTime, which covers almost everything. A nice list of pre-populated channel selections is included for browsing, although you need to subscribe to get any of the actual videos. Add your own favorites to the list of channels, or make your own video channel and add it to the collection.

Download DVRMSToolbox

Many solutions attempt to make it easy to manage the video recording from Windows Media Center Edition, but all fall short in some small way. MyTV ToGo could score the best overall app rating if they'd create a watched folders option for outputting converted files automatically. In the meantime, the latest release of DVRMSToolbox gets my vote for best conversion tool, in spite of lacking an option to convert files for iPod or PSP playback. Other features make this forgivable. The key combination is support for converting files to either MPEG-2 or WMV while stripping commercials in the process. You end up with a smaller file and no commercials at the same time, which is a win for Media Center users. The other key feature is background processing and automation, which makes setting up overnight conversions a no-brainer for those of us who want our media ready to go while we are sleeping. Free also has a certain ring to it, although I'd gladly pay for the same feature set in a version of MyTV ToGo, because the interface is well worth the price. [Windows XP $0.00]

Linux Media Center
Designed for Media Center Edition
Media Center Networking
Location of Media Center Recorded TV Files
Change the location of MCE Recorded Files
Building a Media Center PC - Part 8 - DVD Backups
Build Your Own Media Center PC - Part 6 - PVR
Build Your Own Media Center PC - Part 4 - Sound Cards
Build Your Own Media Center PC - Part 3 - Video Cards
Build Your Own Media Center PC - Part 2

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