Tuesday, June 9, 2009

DIY DVR, it's about time... (part 2)

So, as promised, here's my quick review of the good, the bad, and the ugly about my Vista Home Premium Media Center setup:

The Good:
  • It just works! Media Center already knew about my TV tuner card, it had a nice wizard for configuring my monitor/TV for optimal output, it has reasonable defaults, and it was already on my HP when it booted up. I started it up prior to stating my planned install of GB-PVR just to see what MS had done, and never got around to leaving Media Center.

  • Media Center has a nice plug-in architecture, which means I can add functionality to Media Center via simple downloads. In fact, Media Center even prompted me about a Netflix plugin. Apparently, you can get an unlimited download subscription to Netflix for $8.99 a month, and access your Netflix account via Media Center. There's a two-week free trial going on now, so once we're ready for out first movie night, I'll sign up and try it out and report back. LifeExtender is another nice plugin!

  • It's not just for TV. You can view pics, listen to music, burn shows to DVD, and check out sports scores and stats right from the remote. Nice. I can even do a few simple computer tasks like reboot without touching the machine.

  • The guide:
    1. The guide allows you to filter out channels by category, so if you only want to see what movies are on, you can do that. Kids shows... whatever. I've not figured out how to customize these yet, but that's a nice feature.
    2. If you choose a show in the guide, you can record it, or you can also choose to 'record series' to record all instances of that show on that channel. It also warns you of recording conflicts and offers to help you resolve them.
    3. When you view info about a movie, it'll give you all sorts of extra info including the art on the DVD cover, the cast, the rating, and a description of the programming. Other than the DVD art, all the same info is available on TV shows as well.

  • No problems with skipping or choppiness, even when I'm doing tons of garbage. I can pause live TV and I can do other things while I'm recording and not have to worry that I'm screwing up my recording.

  • There are all sorts of convenience features like setting MC to always be on top of other windows to prevent anything from taking over the machine's attention.

  • When I turned on my Vista Home Premium laptop, it told me that it detected a Media Center PC on my network and asked if I wanted to share content! Heck yeah! Now, even though I only have 1 TV, I realize that I can watch recorded TV on my laptop anywhere in the house. Nice feature!

  • The mute button will automatically do closed captioning, even on recorded TV which is a nice touch. Yes, many TVs do that, but our doesn't, so the software is a marked improvement.
The Bad:
  • The guide doesn't show TV station logos, and is a bit monochromatic. Some visual cues would be nice rather than just gobs of text.

  • The live TV recording (which it's doing all the time) doesn't seem to like it when I change channels. It won't let me rewind to the previous channel's content. Probably for space concerns.

  • I have one channel that is nothing but static when I turn to it. I think it's one of the movie channels like Starz or HBO that's only available if I pay for it. MC gets really S...L...O...W... on this channel and won't let me change it for 5 seconds, which is an even bigger pain the butt because the volume is over-the-top and no one wants to listen to TV snow at excessive decibels while MC thinks about responding to mute or change channel commands from the remote.

  • The pictures it chooses for the thumbnails are not always the best. Especially if you record a few minutes prior to the official start of the show, you can get a poor thumbnail choice which is really annoying.

  • Sometimes we forget that we're on live TV and try to FF the commercials. That's a user error :-)
I'm trying to think of others because I want to be fair about my review, but mostly I'm a happy camper. However, there are some uglies.

The Ugly:
  • My single biggest complaint with my DVR isn't with Media Center. It's with Vista. Mostly I like Vista, but the blasted fools at Microsoft neglected to enable RDP (remote desktop, formerly terminal services) in Home Premium. So, I find a hacked up solution online, but it only works with pre-SP1 vista, and the info on 64-bit is a bit lacking. So, I have to use UltraVNC to connect. What a pain. I'm going to have to figure out a solution to this, because I want to log into the machine under a different account to do things rather than steal the desktop from the person watching TV. MS dropped the ball on this one.

  • There's DRM (digital rights management) in here somewhere, but I haven't figured out how or where yet. The ugly here is that I don't know if/when it will bite me, but the fact that I even have to be concerned about it on my personal PCs is annoying. I'm not sharing content over the internet - I just want to use this DVR inside the bounds of fair-use policy in my own home.
Overall, this is an A- solution, with a solid A+ from Media Center, and a B- from Vista dragging the grade down a bit.


truist said...

Wow, great review. I'm especially jealous of the sharing of video around the network :)

Of course, now that I think about it, that's probably one of the places where DRM may bite you - if you try that sharing with a non-MS machine, or program.

But my real comment was meant to be: I don't think RDP will do what you want, even if you had Vista Professional. Vista only allows one user to be logged in at a time, even over RDP, unless you are connecting to a Windows Server machine.

P.S. - for some reason I can't seem to use arrow keys when entering comments, to move around the text - any chance you can fix that? I also can't double-space after each sentence. I'm guessing it's something google has done, but it's evil :)

mattmc3 said...


Concerning RDP, this post suggests that it may be possible.

As for the arrow keys... sorry. If you comment as a google user, you don't have that issue. I'm looking into it, but for now I think that there's some iframe+javascript weirdness with blogger that I need to get under control.