Media Center – Part III: Future?

This is the final part of a three part series about the past, present and future of Windows Media Center.

Over the last couple of years three things have challenged the dominance of Media Center in our living room…

1. Apple

I switched to using an Apple Mac laptop in 2007 and haven’t looked back.

But, one area which has never “just worked” well is getting iTunes and iPhoto to play nicely with the photos and music we store on the NAS. Unlike their Windows equivalents, which are happy to just scan the file system, both want to maintain their own custom database, which makes it difficult to have content like this shared across multiple computers. I’ve tried various hacks to get this to work, but in the end we have reverted to simply exporting new photos and music to the NAS manually. I have setup a Firefly Media Server on the NAS, which gives us an easy way to play the music on the NAS through iTunes, but this is a read-only connection so we can’t add, modify or delete tracks this way and annoyingly cover art and track ratings don’t translate to iTunes.

Solving this seems like such an obvious area for Apple to address. It’s not hard to imagine a modified version of the Time Machine product they already sell acting as a home media server. But this is something that others have been anticipating longer than me, and we’re yet to see any sign of this, so I don’t hold my breath.

And, despite speculation they have a lot of work to do to even match the functionality of our current setup. For example, the AppleTV does not currently include a TV tuner card, let alone an EPG, and the current generation of Time Machines contain a single disk, which would be a step backwards from the RAID storage in our current NAS.

Even Front Row, which is the Apple equivalent to the Media Center interface, is some way behind Media Center in my opinion.  Recently there have been a few third-party solutions which appear to be worth keeping an eye on – such as Plex and Boxee, but these are all still beta products.

The net result of all of this is a feeling that our integrated solution doesn’t work quite so well as it did before we introduced OS X into the mix.

2. Freeview

I was blown away by Freeview during the Olympics.

High definition was great.  But, even more than that, this was the first time since we started using Media Center we watched a TV signal directly off the decoder.  And the difference was more than I realised.

Even at standard definition the picture quality was so much better when connected directly to the TV than when the same signal was run through the Media Center. The Freeview decoder includes an HDMI output, as does the graphic card in the Media Center, but in between the two is a Hauppage TV tuner card which only supports at best an S-Video input.

So, for a while it became a trade-off between good picture quality on Freeview and time shifting on the Media Center.

Until…

3. MySkyHD

MySky solves that problem plus it also includes a program guide that is generally always accurate and up-to-date.

But at what cost? There is also lots not to like about it, in my opinion…

It’s a closed system. It is oblivious to external content – either on the NAS or on the internet – so we’re back to flicking back and forth between different systems to access different content.  Plus, there is no way to access the programs you have recorded which are stored on the hard drive inside the decoder. You can’t increase the storage space and we’ve found that between The Wot Wots, Bob The Builder, and Blues Clues ours quickly fills up – and look out when the program you recorded accidentally deletes those without warning!

I find the interface quite clunky and boxy compared to Media Center. For example, in Media Center the program guide is displayed on top of whatever you are currently watching or listening to (which fades slightly into the background to make the program listings easier to read), where as in MySky you are forced through multiple screens just to get to the listings (on the first screen you have to select from different channel categories, which just adds an unnecessary step to the process in most cases), and the program you are watching is stopped while you browse. Rather than scrolling through channels and listings you need to use the coloured buttons on the remote to page back and forth. MySky seems to consist of lots of top-to-bottom lists which run to multiple pages, where as Media Center takes advantage of the width of a widescreen TV to display more options at once left-to-right. MySky is completely lacking the nice graphical touches and animations which make the Media Center interface look great. And, compared to the back button on the Media Center remote which always takes you back to where ever you came from, the back button on MySky is like a lucky dip option.

It’s also missing the killer feature of digital video recorders (DVRs): the 30-second skip. MySky instead has four different fast-forward or rewind speeds (x2, x6, x12, x30) which require multiple clicks as you go up and down through the gears. With this crazy system, rather than pressing one button once to instantly skip a commercial (or, conveniently, the approximate time it takes for a line out to form) you are instead forced to watch the ads in high speed and then scramble to press the play button in time when the program you want to watch starts again.

It doesn’t even have all of the channels. Because of an on-going dispute between TVNZ and Sky, TV One and Two have only just switched to HD, despite being available in HD on Freeview since last year, and TVNZ 6 and TVNZ 7 are not available at all.

And, last but by no means least, it’s expensive, with a hefty installation fee and monthly subscription. Even if you don’t want the DVR and EPG functions in MySky you are forced to pay for them anyway in order to get the HD decoder.

Because Sky has complete control over this platform, it seems like wishful thinking to hope for any of these things to improve materially in the short term.  As long as they can limit access to their EPG data, which makes it difficult for other options to compete, they don’t really have any real incentive to innovate.

So, where to next?

None of the options I’ve experimented with have been able to tick every box.

I still think Media Center is a little bit magic, but increasingly prefer the picture quality and program guide reliability of MySky and Freeview.

MySky does okay, but just doesn’t excite me for lots of small reasons. Having to go elsewhere to access our photos and music and other online content, especially, feels like a backwards step.

Our Apple Macs, meanwhile, remain frustratingly orphaned.

Maybe there is a new option on the horizon which will shift the balance again? Windows Seven, or Tivo, or something open source, or something from Apple.

Or perhaps there is an alternative that I haven’t seen.  If anybody has experimented with other options I’d be interested to hear about your experience.

But, in the meantime, a little boy waits.

It all seemed so promising in Amsterdam.

I would have expected the future to be here by now.

19 thoughts on “Media Center – Part III: Future?”

  1. Sky sent me a survey recently about our MySky HDi asking what featured I would like to see in future. The list of possibilities included being able to watch Internet content like YouTube, being able to access external storage of photoes etc, being able to add additional storage (Via the USB or eSata port), being able to share content between multiple boxes or even PC’s.

    There have also been solutions posted on Geekzone to get Sky working natively on a Media PC, with a bit effort and a DVB-S card. I understand this was written for SD Sky, but I am told the principal should also apply to an HD solution with the right gear.

    Some of the new TVNZ channels currently only available on Freeview are also coming to sky at the end of this month.

    1. Geekzone is great, but any solution which needs to be hacked together is just never going to make it into mainstream living rooms. Why is this stuff so hard? And why doesn’t it seem to get any easier? I’ve been relying on The Green Button and other similar forums for nearly 5 years now.

      I also got the survey from Sky. Perhaps they will surprise me with upgrades to the MySkyHD product, but at the moment I’m not holding my breath for them to deliver any of those things any time soon.

  2. I think you might want to rething your “future” and maybe upgrade your hardware – if Freeview|HD is in the horizon for you.

    I run Windows 7 on my Mac Mini in the lounge (Bootcamp) because the Mac Mini is just… smal.

    No hacking needed to get Freeview|HD. Windows 7 gives everything you need, providing your hardware supports DVB-T.

    In my case I’ve just added a DVB-T USB adapter to my Mac Mini and that’s all I neeeded to get Freeview|HD.

    You can currently get video cards with dual tuners and easily watch one channel on HD while recording another one – and I don’t use a NAS, but a Windows Home Server with about 4TB currently.

    Another option is to add a HDHomeRun (http://www.geekzone.co.nz/content.asp?contentid=8184) to your home network. It just broadcasts Freeview|HD across your LAN – and it works with Windows 7, Linux and… Mac OS X.

    Note that neither option requires more “hacking” than what you had already done putting an HTPC together with Windows Vista – that required hacking…

    1. “No hacking needed to get Freeview|HD. Windows 7 gives everything you need, providing your hardware supports DVB-T.”

      Does that include the full 7 day EPG? I’ve been battling with Windows 7 for the last few months and while it is an immense improvement, it’s stil not stable enough to rely on as a media center PC. And I’ve tried two motherboards and graphics cards based on both AMD and Nvidia solutions and neither is stable. You just need to have a quick browse through Geekzone to confirm that.

      (And no, the full 7 day EPG is not available on Windows 7 – requires hacking to get it working.)

    2. Hey Mauricio –

      The “future” in the title of the post was with a question mark rather than an exclamation mark. I was hoping that it would solicit some suggestions, so thanks for yours.

      I’m not scared of a little bit of hacking, but I think it’s important for those of us in that position to realise that any solution like that probably won’t translate to a larger audience.

      A couple of questions about your setup: Do you have the Freeview EPG working in Media Center via DVB-T? And, how do you find the Mac Mini fan noise?

  3. Nice series of posts, and mirrors the same highs and lows I’ve had over the last few years with home media. As for that one single, perfect device (The Panacea) it doesn’t yet exist, and I’m not sure it will for a few years at least…

    I’ve come to the realisation that if you want to subscribe to Sky – you are definitely going to need two devices, no way around that. Whether it’s MySkyHD, or the (future) Telstra PVR platform (which will be awesome by the way, and may help towards The Panacea) you’re going to need a separate box.

    Then you need another device which will play all of your content from your NAS, and any other devices you want to connect to your network. Apple TV is no good because you’re locked into the iTunes trap. Windows Media Center is brilliant but very expensive to build a decent, quiet box, and you need to be prepared for the occasional error message to pop up while browsing your photos, or wondering why the hard drive lights are flashing furiously while the device should be sleeping, or trying to figure out why WMC doesn’t want to play a video file that played fine the day before… There are also numerous streaming devices from Linksys, Netgear, D-Link, etc – but the interfaces are always ugly and non-intuitive, and always result in a low wife acceptance factor.

    My current solution is a PS3 which accesses media stored on our NAS (which is a Windows Home Server.) I’m anxiously waiting for the PlayTV to finally be released in NZ (before end of year apparently) which will provide a fully-integrated Freeview PVR into the PS3 interface. Early reports say that it works really well, but they are still trying to get it to work with the codecs and EPG that we use in NZ.

    The PS3 with PlayTV will provide Blu-Ray, games console, media streaming, and a Freeview PVR, along with online content that will be added to over time. If you don’t need Sky, then I’m thinking that this will be as close to The Panacea as we’re going to get for now…

  4. Stuart… No, there’s no support for MHEG5 in Windows 7, hence no long term EPG support. This is the only missing bit in the puzzle.

    MHEG5 is a scripting environment and support for it is very small even in the rest of the industry.

    I have been using Windows 7 since its first private beta on my Mac Mini and it’s been working well as a Media Center. No driver problems, great performance improvement, faster responses. And I am using the standard drivers supplied by Windows Update since Apple hasn’t released Bootcamp drivers for Windows 7 yet.

    Remember, the majority of Windows issues comes from graphics drivers, and the bigger part from NVIDIA.

    Rowan, I don’t hear a noise from the Mac Mini. It just sits there, quiet.

    The only missing thing really is video downloads. I have an iTunes U.S. account and in general a full length movie can be download in about 20 – 30 minutes.

    Zune Marketplace is coming to Xbox 360 in New Zealand in the next couple of months – dumb dumb dumb from Microsoft because those younger people don’t pay for movies. This kind of offering should have been included in the Media Center instead.

  5. Thanks for this series of articles, Rowan. I’m interested in getting something set up for myself, but haven’t had the fund available and have been waiting for the technologies to mature and stabilise too.

    I doubt very much if Sky would be likely to implement the 30 second skip feature into their MySky device, as it be a conflict of interest for them given that they sell advertising.

    For the EPG data on an HTPC, I thought most people would be using Internet sourced data (e.g. xmltvnz) rather than trying to get it from the broadcast signal (e.g. MHEG5)?

  6. @ Mauricio

    I know that you’re right that many of the issues are caused by graphics drivers etc. But, that’s a bit like saying that most faults with your fridge are caused by cooling units (or whatever) – from the perspective of the user either the fridge keeps your food cooled, or it doesn’t. :-)

    @ Jason

    Thanks for your comment.

    I agree that a 30 second skip feature seems like a conflict of interest for Sky. But, keep in mind that as well as selling advertising they also sell (or at least) lease the hardware to thousands of customers. And, what’s more, the only reason they have an audience to sell advertising to is because those thousands of people are prepared to pay to subscribe (and it’s not cheap for a MySky: the premium over and above a normal Sky subscription is either $99 up-front and $15 p/week forever, or $599 up-front)

    According to the most recent financial results on their website (Annual Report 2008) they made $562m dollars in subscription revenue and just $66m in advertising revenue.

    I think they should get their priorities sorted!

    The issue of sourcing EPG data is not so simple. As I understand it MHEG5 (which is a new acronym to me) is what is broadcast by Freeview, but this only contains “Now + Next”, i.e. not the full week (hopefully somebody will correct me if that is wrong). While there are XMLTV sources available, the question is what is the primary source of that data? If it’s relying on screen scraping or some other method, then it’s likely to be unreliable to some extent.

    Again, the solution to this is for the companies who ultimately own that data to get their priorities right. Do they want people to watch their content or not?

  7. Rowan, my point is that Stuart is geeky enough to know that “battling with Windows 7” is not the right way of putting it.

    “Battling with NVIDIA and ATI drivers” would be more like it”.

    I am just hold Stuart to a higher level because I know him personally.

    1. Thanks for the compliment Mauricio… :)

      I’ve had to battle with both Windows 7 *and* ATI/Nvidia drivers. I won’t go in to all the gory details, but one of the fixes I had to implement was to copy across Vista USB drivers and overwrite the MS-supplied Win 7 drivers in safe mode.

      In fairness though, Windows 7 is still in pre-release phase, so it’s unfair to judge it when the code hasn’t even been finalised. I’ve been super impressed with Windows 7 and I love the version of Media Center included, especially the photos screen saver. But I still stand by my statement that it’s not stable enough to rely on as an always-on media PC.

      @Rowan – re the EPG. Freeview broadcasts a full, 7 day EPG, but it is based on the new MHEG5 which, as Mauricio pointed out, has little support from 3rd party vendors. Windows 7 and other PVR solutions can only read the now-and-next programming – not good if you want to schedule a recording for later in the week, or even later in the evening. I never liked the idea of scraping TV guides and hacking together xmltv guides – often a program will change times and dates, and it won’t get updated in the xmltv guides.

      1. I’m using Windows 7 RC1 as my primary box, which is always on, and it seems to work perfectly. In fact I haven’t even encountered a single bug, and it has never crashed. I’m currently streaming media from it from my PS3 without issue (other than codecs…)

        1. James, I have to smile at your “works perfectly” and “other than codecs”, which is a bit like saying your toaster works perfectly but only toasts white bread, isn’t it? :-)

      2. I have to admit that I have some sympathy for Microsoft in all of this.

        I’ve found Vista itself to be very stable when all it’s doing is running Media Center (as you would expect, I suppose). All of the issues I had in getting this setup and working reliably could be traced back to other parties – e.g. video cards causing driver problems, the tuner card causing the picture quality issues, Sky (and the other broadcasters) being dicks over providing EPG data, case suppliers causing noise issues with their fans, etc etc.

        My point is that from the perspective of a non-geek end user it’s all irrelevant. When your appliance doesn’t work you don’t stop to think about the particular third-party supplier that might have been responsible for the faulty part, you just treat it as a single package.

  8. I’m interested in the comments here about the xmltv not being that great, as the feedback I’ve heard from from other HTPC afficionados is that the xmlTVNZ thingy by Reven Interactive (http://www.reven.co.nz) does the trick. No personal experience myself, so I’m interested in any potential causes of hairloss for when I do finally get into this stuff.

  9. In response to James, I use DJKXML to get my listings (imported neatly through epgstream.net application)works like a charm, never let me down and free* (but the gut really deserves a donation).

    I would like to know the ease of streaming media to a PS3 or xbox 360 from WHS? Have multiple PVR’s, but don’t really want to add another if I can just (simply) stream to a PS3/XBox360. Have a Wii but don’t fancy Orb.

  10. Rowan your analysis is totally spot on from my own experience. Personally i’ve started to divide and conquer. For music, i’ve gone for the SONOS. The SONOS multi-room system is outstanding, i call it the iPod for the house. It’s damned expensive for what it is, but it just works….and it plays nicely with a NAS, PC, MAC etc. Simplicity, for me is measured by the fact that my kids (5 and 7) and better half can use it – without calls to the help desk i.e. me. It seems like it would be a very simple “leap” for them to add video to their base set up.

    I’m playing with AppleTV at the moment and i’ve hacked it with XBMC – which is a great product. This setup plays nicely with a NAS and overall it almost works. BUT still fails on the PVR front. AND it fails the kid test.

    Let me know when you’ve got it suzzed. I’m sure there’s a business in this.

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