Don’t Overlook Media Center Capabilities

Sometime before Vista went RTM, I took advantage of a sale at a local retailer and picked up an ATI DV Wonder HDTV Tuner Card. It was supposedly one of the last tuner cards that didn’t support the “broadcast flag”. It’s been a while and I don’t remember the details, plus, it was a bit of a whim purchase back then – I just wanted a cheap way to start receiving HDTV content, so I was hardly an informed consumer.

I slapped the card into my XP Pro workstation with a sub-2Ghz processor, integrated graphics, and in need of more room on the HD. The performance wasn’t impressive. DTV video worked ok, but any HDTV broadcasts showed up as a black screen. I was able to pause and resume programming, but it wasn’t very smooth. The video would jerk to catch up sometimes.

In June of 2007 I graduated from college and received a Soyo HDTV as a graduation present. I cannibalized the cheapo HD antenna that came with the DV Wonder, and used it to pull in free Over The Air (OTA) HDTV and DTV broadcasts. Since I live near busy railroad tracks and the antenna was only about 7ft off the ground, reception was a nightmare.  Any time a train passed we’d have interference and the signal would cut-out, and depending on the station we’d have to re-orient the antenna for decent signal. I spent a lot of time playing Xbox 360 and watching DVD’s since the picture quality wouldn’t be interrupted.

This spring I got approval from my landlord to replace the old TV antenna on the chimney with a new one optimized for HDTV.  This solved most of the issues with our OTA signal – the trains were no longer a factor, but PBS reception was terrible since it is broadcast from a tower in the opposite direction from the majority of the broadcasters.

The line marked 38 represents WOSU signal, most are at heading 195°

I’d been dabbling with Windows Media Center Extender on my Xbox 360 lately, watching coverage of the Olympics made available by a TVTonic Media Center plug-in – and messing around with the year-old Internet TV beta.

After a discussion with my brother about Ubuntu v. Vista, I remembered my idle DV Wonder card. Before the Vista launch there was talk that Microsoft wouldn’t support old HDTV tuner cards that didn’t support content management controls in Vista. I paid too much attention to the naysayers and assumed I’d need a new Vista-compatible tuner card in order to use my Vista box as a DVR and share content across devices on my home network.

This weekend I figured I had nothing to lose – I wasn’t using the tuner in my old box, so I might as well throw it in the Vista box and see what happened. It took me about 30 minutes to disconnect the cables, find some screwdrivers, and slap the card into my Vista box.

I powered it on and my copy of Vista Ultimate discovered the card, searched Windows Update for the correct drivers, and installed them. Less than five-minutes after rebooting I was greeted with the message “Your hardware is ready to use”.

I fired up Windows Media Center, selected my stations, and downloaded the schedule. I could immediately and effortlessly watch Live TV – as well as pause it when needed. Best of all, it was trivial to scroll through the schedule to set programs for recording. One-click records that episode – two record clicks record the entire series. If there’s a conflict you can easily set priority between two shows so it records your favorite.

Next I headed downstairs to my Xbox 360 setup in the living room and fired up Windows Media Extender there. Microsoft doesn’t recommend it, but I had decent performance over an 802.11g wireless connection. I plan to have antenna and network hard-wired connections dropped through the wall soon and that should drastically improve the bandwidth available for watching content on the Extender.

One gripe I have is that the Windows Media Center Guide doesn’t seem to pull down the proper schedule info for digital sub-channels. In my market, sub-channels 4.2, 6.2, 34.2, and 34.3 simply echoed the schedule info for the main channel.  That’s pretty annoying, so I hope to figure out a fix soon.

Considering the first tuner card was fairly cheap, I might consider a second tuner so I can look into recording two shows at once. Also, with all of this recording going on, it makes sense to add some more storage space with a terabyte or two of extra HD.

The moral of the story is that if you have a version of Vista with Media Center installed, you don’t need a tuner to start messing with it thanks to the Internet TV beta. If you have an Xbox 360 on your home network you should start using it as an extender for your Media Center. If you, like me, had an HDTV tuner card laying around, throw it in the box and start using it.

Anyone with a Vista machine with Media Center and Xbox 360 that isn’t using this awesome home theatre technology is really missing out.

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