Media Center – Part III: Future?

June 14, 2009

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.

  1. 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…

  1. 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.