I was impressed with Windows Media Center from the very first time I tried it. However when we got our first Media Center PC a number of years ago, it was quite a trying experience getting it all set up. Getting the PC to talk to the cable set top box through the “IR Blaster”, getting a decent quality picture from the US-bought PC into the Australian-bought TV via a PAL SCART connector, arguing with the zoom settings to get a 16:9 picture with no letterboxing, getting the sound card to output Dolby Digital over the SPDIF optical connector – all of these problems were ultimately solved, but all were painful enough that it wasn’t at all surprising that the only people I knew with Media Centers were geeks.
Still when it worked, it worked very well – the interface was beautifully simple to use, it had the right set of features, and the ongoing subscription cost of zero was pretty hard to beat. So we stuck with it, upgrading the original box to Vista, successfully getting it working in Australia (despite the TV networks trying their hardest to prevent the availability of an Electronic Program Guide), and eventually replacing it with a newer snazzier box. Over time the experience has gotten steadily better, and lately it’s required very little tender loving care to keep it running. It’s still not perfect, but one telling fact is that my parents now have one up running. Granted my parents are geekier than most, but their tolerance for misbehaving technology is much lower than mine.
We recently moved to a new house with two living areas. The Media Center PC is set up in the lounge room, but we’ve been spending most of our time in the family room (mainly to keep our new kittens away from the new leather couches in the lounge room!). The problem with this arrangement is that in the family room we had to watch shows at the time they were actually scheduled – and after 4 years of not knowing when anything was scheduled this was pretty hard to take. So last week we decided to try out a Media Center Extender – we went with the Linksys DMA2100. If you’re unfamiliar with Media Center Extenders, these are essentially small set top boxes that communicate with an existing Media Center PC over a wired or wireless network, giving you access to the same interface and content from a TV in another room. I’d read good things about the Linksys device, but many people warned that you really need a wired network or 802.11n to get decent quality video streaming. We’re running 802.11g, but I was prepared to undertake a cabling job if necessary.
But here’s the amazing part of the story – pretty well everything about the entire experience was flawless. I would have got everything up and running in about 10 minutes, except unfortunately it required that I upgrade the PC to Vista SP1. That said, it told me exactly what was wrong and what I had to do, and once the upgrade was done the boxes introduced each other and got along fine. The video streaming over 802.11g was a little choppy at first, but some slight rearranging of the router sorted that out. So now we have a Media Center in each room, thanks to a ~$240 box that so far has done everything it promised with practically no fuss. At this rate, we can only hope that Windows Media Center could be an option for people without even the slightest geekiest tendencies before too long.