Here's how it all started: like many people (and I would guess a majority of DHT readers), building my home theatre started slowly. First it was the big screen TV from Costco. That was pretty cool as we hoisted it up on the wall, but then we needed better sound, so it was off to the audio shop for a 5.1 receiver/amplifier and so on and so on -- bit by bit getting pieces of equipment and jury-rigging them together as they are added. Eventually, it got to the point where I was the only one in the house who knew how to get everything working (which is quite the accomplishment, given that I have two pretty techno-saavy teenaged sons!!).
The problem with slowing building up your home theatre this way is that you end up with a huge tangle of cables, multiple remotes, and special processes for getting things working -- as well as the inevitable compromises of trying to get everything to work together, multiple inputs to various pieces of equipment, and various settings to remember, etc., etc. I even bought a Harmony 688 Remote hoping it would solve the 'multiple device configuration' problem, but it was only able to get everything turned on at the same time and not much else, and then not all of the time.
Figure 1: Here's what the media centre setup looked like at the beginning of this project. Lots of different pieces of equipment providing specific functionality. None of them were integrated, and some weren't even working all that well. Not to mention the rat's nest of wires and cables running to the amplifier/reciever and several handfuls of remotes!
We were clearly not 'keeping up with the Joneses' as well. There was no Blu-ray capability in any of this, and by accident, I found out that the Pioneer DVR wasn't even driving the screen to its full potential. Even though the DVR is published as 1080i-capable, it was only driving the screen to 720i sometimes, and 480i most times. Apparently the 1080i upverting was only available from the HDMI port on the back -- not through the component video cables I was using. Imagine my surprise at the difference on the screen when I brought the HP Pavilion computer up from the office and plugged it into the HDMI port on the TV -- now I could see what they meant by HD!!!
As well, over the last few years of seeing the evolution of PocketPCs to WindowsPC devices, I've been slowly convinced of the convenience of converged devices. It really is more convenient to have everything in one integrated package. The real tipping point for me was during the completion of the Cyberlink PowerDVD10 review. As I was working with the package, I was looking all the capabilities it could cover and began wondering how I could get this all integrated into a single interface on the big screen in the living room. I was convinced that all this could be found in a single PC with the right software package.
Then I was also reminded (I think it was by Jason) that Microsoft had just released a new version of its Windows Media Center application with Windows 7. I have to admit, I was pretty impressed by what I saw. If I could get this working with a remote on the big screen, my family would be mightily impressed (and thankful!).
What was I getting myself into?
I first heard about MediaPCs and Windows Media Center back in the 2004/2005 timeframe when Microsoft was selling this as the next greatest thing. There seemed to be articles everywhere and the major vendors were touting MediaPCs with remotes, etc. Even the local box stores (Future Shop, Compuserve) were selling combo packages. Now when I look around, the whole concept seems to have fallen into the great abyss. I started asking questions at the usual places, but no one in town seemed to know anything about it. I even checked with companies that were supposedly 'home theatre experts'. Sure, they'd sell you the latest flat screen and a cable box to watch HD TV, but you could just see their eyes glaze over when you started talking about integrating video and audio libraries, Internet radio, etc. into the concept. As usual, the bright sparks at Future Shop and Best Buy were no help at all. They only perked up when I hit one of the 'keywords' they were trained in (like 'HDMI') and even then, all they could tell me was whether a particular unit had an HDMI port or not, and in some cases, they were wrong. So, essentially, I found I was on pretty much on my own for most of this.
Most of the websites I found talked about building MediaPCs but they were few and far between, and mostly four to five years old. Even Microsoft's site for WMC seemed to be mostly focused on the TV aspect of things, at least in the latest incarnation. There was little or no mention of Internet radio, music libraries, video libraries, etc.
Clearly, I wasn't going to find a pre-built, ready to go solution, so it was time to roll up the sleeves and get myself back into 'techie' mode to put together a package.
Finding a PC...
I'm basically a 'list' person, so I started with describing all the things the media PC needed to have:
- Large HDD (preferably 1Tb) for storing video, movies, music, etc.;
- BluRay drive (at least read, write as a nice-to-have);
- Digital audio in and out (optical or RCA) since this is what the Pioneer receiver supported;
- HDMI video output to drive the Akai monitor;
- 802.11 n capability to connect to the house wireless network;
- Wireless mouse and keyboard; and
- Windows Media Center compatible remote (preferably something that could run some of the other gadgets as well.
After searching a number of sources (HP, Future Shop, Best Buy, local computer shops, etc.) I finally decided on a Dell Inspiron XPS8100. It came with the hardware ports I needed, a sufficiently large hard drive to handle most of what I wanted to do and was reasonably priced. As well, Dell allowed me to configure it with a 'media center package' with a Hauppauge 1250 TV card and WMC remote, as well as a wireless N card and mouse/keyboard combination. Including 8GB of RAM, the whole thing cost me about $800CAD, plus taxes. Not bad at all I thought, and my wife liked the way the base unit was packaged, so that made things much easier!
I know others have had horror experiences with Dell, but for me, they did their usual very smooth transaction, with the XPS8100 arriving about 10 days after the order went in. Putting it together was a breeze, and everything worked perfectly the first time I turned it on.
Figure 2: The Start menu of Windows Media Center with Windows 7, as it shows up on my AKAI screen. Big, bright, beautiful, and very easy to navigate with the remote. The Media PC is driving the screen at its full 1080i resolution through an HDMI cable.
So, now it was time to 'configure' all the bits and pieces of Windows Media Center.
I got hooked on Internet Radio when I did the review of the Myine IRA radio. It was just so cool being able to listen to jazz from Russia or Classic Rock from Australia. I saw the Sanyo version at Costco and was intrigued by its added capability of being able to access and play audio files on my network. When I got it home and tried it though, the wireless radio was pretty weak. It was having considerable difficulty retaining a connection with my router one floor down, and the interface was pretty '80s -- a few lines of text of about 15 characters each and using buttons on the front panel to move up and down to select features, etc. Inserting the network passcode required scrolling through the entire alphabet -- lower, then uppercase, then numbers and symbols -- to select the needed characters. It also reset itself frequently and took a long time to connect to my home network. Pretty yucky. I was looking forward to something more modern and stable in WMC7 which could be run from a remote.
Unfortunately, the Windows 7 version of WMC seems to have completely left this out. I couldn't find any way to search for, attach, or listen to streaming audio. There was some vague reference on the Microsoft site to 'region specific subscription services' but on the North American version of Windows7 WMC I installed, the 'Radio' option kept looking for an analog tuner to be installed. Then, under Extras, I found something called 365Live, but the selection of stations was pretty limited and they all have lots of commercials. I wonder why this wasn't included in the Radio option under Music?
Fortunately, after some searching of the Internet (and specifically a site called The Green Button) I was able to find a plug in called mcShoutCast which provides this functionality. It's very easy to download and install and interfaces seemlessly with WMC. The number of stations is a bit limited on the main listing, but there seem to be frequent updates, and there is a facility on the same site (once you set up an account) to add your own stations to a database called LauraFM.
Figure 3: One of the interface screens for mcShoutCast. This is the Random station listing, where you can pick up anything from any genre from anywhere in the world. There are, of course, sorted versions of this list as well. Easy to use, fully remote compatible.
Figure 4: Here's a shot from the LauraFM portion of the plugin. For a small, one-time fee, you can register your ShoutCast plugin and get a user-account to the website. This provides you with access to the LauraFM database, where users input their own streaming audio feeds. Just a note, it can be tricky finding the 'right' URL link for the feed. Some stations just point you to a page URL where the audio is played. What you want is the original stream feed, so sometimes you have to do some digging.
As I mentioned above, the Dell I ordered came with a Hauppauge 1250 digital/analog TV tuner, so getting the TV side of things set up was pretty easy. Basically all I had to do was attach the cable from my wall socket to the card CABLE-IN socket and away I went. Set up of the TV signal under WMC went pretty smoothly. Once I told WMC where I was located and who my service provider was, WMC automatically downloaded a complete guide of shows for all the available channels. It was pretty cool being able to browse through the guide to select what I wanted to watch without having to 'channel scan', like in the old days. I can even add or delete channels from the guide, so it shows just what I have available to me (or I want people to be able to find :-)).
Now, forgive my ignorance if this is 'old school', but I have to say that recording a TV program is just a breeze with WMC. Instead of having to go into a special 'record' mode interface where I specify the start time, the channel, the duration, what format, where I want it stored, etc. etc., on WMC you just find the show you want in the guide and press the Record button on the remote! What could be easier! And if you 'right click' on the entry, you get a menu of options of which one is 'Record as a Series' which means it will schedule recordings of this show at this time every week. You can even tell it to ignore repeats and just get the new episodes as they are aired! Pretty cool.
The only problem was that the Hauppauge card will only recieve analog signals or unencrypted 'clear QAM' digital signals, so I was only getting about half of the channels I had subscribed to through my cable provider. As well, none of the HD channels were viewable. I knew the HD ones were going to be a problem, since Jason had warned me about this, but I wasn't expecting as many of the digital channels to be encoded. Hmmmm, how to get around this???
The Quest for Digital and HD TV
My first thought was that since I had a Shaw Cable set top box, maybe I could use it to decode the digital and HD signals and 'feed' them to the PC. The Shaw box is about 3 or 4 years old, so it doesn't have any HDMI outputs, but it does have S-Video, Component Video and Digital Audio (optical and RCA coax). The Hauppauge card only has two video inputs -- composite and S-Video. So, my first attempt was an S-Video connection to the card and a digital (RCA coax) connection to the input on the PC. Lo and behold, I could now 'see' all the channels I subscribed to (albeit in 480i, the maximum resolution of S-Video), but the sound was out of sync. I figured this was probably due to processing delays in the Hauppauge card, so I downgraded the audio to straight stereo coax via a 3.5mm phone jack on the Hauppauge card. Now the audio and video are synced and, after hooking up an IR blaster to change channels on the Shaw box, everything is integrated with the WMC TV guide. I know we're not using the full capability of the screen or the signal, but at least we can see everything without reconfiguring anything. (Yep, I know... I could take the component video from the Shaw box to a separate input on the AKAI screen, and push the digital audio to another input on the Yamaha amplifier, but that would defeat the purpose of integrating everything through WMC, and wouldn't allow me to record programs...).
Figure 6: Here's what a normal Analog (480i) station looks like on the monitor now. Almost half of the screen landscape is not being used. But at least it's not being stretched to fit, like some set top boxes do.
Figure 7: Here's what an HD channel looks like on the display. Even more of the display remains unused.
In an attempt to solve the HD display problem, I acquired the AVerTV HD DVR card from AVerMedia. It's a PCIe card which takes component video input via a HDMI dongle. I was hoping I could replace the Hauppauge card with this, and it would fit right in to WMC. Well, the card works exactly as described -- taking the component video from the Shaw box and pushing it directly through the PC to the monitor -- except only through AVerMedia's software, not WMC. When the AVerTV HD DVR card is installed in the PC, WMC thinks there's no TV tuner installed and won't let me configure it to accept video from the Set top box. Apparently, WMC wants to see an analog TV tuner of some kind in the box before it will configure, and the HD DVR is digital only. When I contacted AVerMedia support, they said there were no plans to support WMC with the HD DVR, so I returned it. Too bad.
My next attempt was a HAVA Platinum HD box. This box has way more functionality than I need, but the price is right ($130USD after discounts). It accepts component video input, and has a TV Tuner software plug-in to make it fully compatible with WMC. According to some other members of The Green Button forums, the output is not full HD, but a 'nicely formatted' 16:9 picture. Unfortunately, after it arrived, I found out that it assumes that you have your wireless router within cable distance of your video source. It requires a direct connection to be visible to the network and the MediaPC. According to the specs, the output over the network is only SDTV, so that doesn't get me any further than what I have now. I returned it without even opening the box.
The Wireless Network
Originally, I had a DLink DIR-655 Gigabit N router for the home wireless network, but I was finding the signal was a bit weak and we'd be losing connection frequently when using the Internet Radio or my phone. The problem is metal. We have forced air heating in our home, with a significant amount of ductwork in the walls and in the space between the basement and main floor. Unfortunately, the best place for the cable modem is in the basement in the office where the main home computers and the cable connection are co-located and everything else is one floor up. The 655 just didn't seem to have enough 'ooomf' to keep things connected, especially when the receiver was on the smaller, less sensitive side (like the Sanyo radio and my phone). Even some of our laptops were having difficulty at the other end of the house.
I tried various other routers from DLink and Linksys as they became available, but I didn't really see any improvement in signal strength. Then, I saw deal at the local Future Shop for a Netgear WNDR-3700 (a dual-band Gigabit N router) and decided to give it a try. Wow, what a difference it made in my house. I now get full-bar connections pretty well throughout the house on all my laptops and desktops on the 5Ghz band and coverage out to my back yard on my phone using the 2.4Ghz band.
Throughput is very good, as I am no longer getting complaints from the boys about their XBox Live connection 'stuttering' when I'm trying to download an update from Microsoft.
Creating a Media Library
Creating a media library from scratch can be a daunting task. Depending upon your age and 'audio collecting proclivities', it's possible to amass a huge array of different media in a variety of formats of widely varying quality -- everything from scratched up 78s from your grandmother's attic to an MP3 player chockablock full of audio and video snippets. In our own case, we had managed to amass a huge collection of records, CDs, video tapes, family video (edited down from miniDV tapes to DVD) and commercial DVDs.
Fortunately, we were already ahead of the game when it came to the CDs. Wanting to create a music library of everything we had, I already had all our 400+ CDs ripped to MP3s with the help of Nero's suite of applications, and then loaded them onto a 64G iPod.
About the same time (years ago), I transferred all our video tapes to DVD because I wanted to be sure to preserve them beyond the normal life of the tapes. The quality isn't the greatest, but what can you do from what was originally developed for normal, composite video resolution? Now the challenge is to change those into another digital format -- preferably mp4 or DivX or something like that, which could be accessed and directly played by PowerDVD or Windows Media Player or whatever. Fortunately, I found a DVD ripper which does the trick called WinX DVD Ripper. I'm now in the process of coverting all the 'family memory' DVDs and the old VHS tape conversions to DivX format. Fortunately, it works just fine on the DVDs since the copy protection was removed when they were originally created. I'm not going to rip copies of the commercial DVDs since I can just stick those in the drive on the MediaPC.
I've started ripping/transcoding the 500+ vinyl records using Acoustica's Spin It Again application, which I reviewed a couple of years ago. It's a fairly long, involved process, since you need to record the album first, then go in and set up the track starts and ends, then generate the MP3. On many of the albums, the track information is long lost to the annals of musical history somewhere, since many of them are unknown artists (anyone remember Syrinx?) or very old pressings. My Mom and Dad recently bequeathed me their collection of '40s records and even earlier 78s, so it's going to take a while to digitize and clean those up.
Figure 8: Here's how Windows Media Center displays your music library. The interface for the video library is very similar.
I have to admit, it's pretty cool being able to to access all of our digital music + Internet radio from the living room without having to go rooting around finding various CDs or video tapes.
And as desired, we've eliminated a bunch of different (and older) pieces of technology to interconnect and maintain.
Where we are now...
So here's what the setup looks like now...
Figure 9: The revised schematic diagram of the 'After' transformation. Quite a bit simpler and with greater functionality than we had before.
Figure 10: Here's a photo of what it all looks like now. (Sorry, I didn't think to take a 'before' shot -- just imagine a whole bunch more stuff hanging off the sides of the cabinet.)
As you can see from the photo above, the new set up is pretty clean and straightforward. For those interested in specifics about the equipment, the screen is an AKAI 50 inch plasma monitor (PDP5073TM) I picked up at Costco about 4 years ago.
At #1 above, you can just see the Dell XPS8100 peeking out from behind the screen. #2 is the infrared receiver for the Windows Media Remote which came with the package. It plugs into an IR jack in the back of the Dell.
#3 is a pair of Paradigm Titan bookshelf speakers which act as my front drivers. #4 are EPI 100 bookshelf speakers I bought about 35 years ago, which are handling the rear sounds. Yes, I know they're in the wrong place, but I didn't want to have their cables stretched across the floor of the living room just yet. The plan is to get up into the attic and route the rear speaker wires that way, or wait until we replace the wall-to-wall carpet in the living room :-)
#5 is the HD box from Shaw Cable. It's also about 4 years old, so while it has component video and digital audio outputs, it doesn't have HDMI. I bought it outright from Shaw, so I'll have to contact them to see if I could trade for a newer model with an HDMI output port (just to cut down on the number of cables.)
#6 is the Yamaha HTR-5750 receiver. Also about 5 years old, without any HDMI inputs. I might look at replacing that as well, but I'm pretty happy with its performance and it only really has one input -- from the media PC, and it's a digital optical cable.
Oh yeah, the cabinet/stand is from IKEA.
As I'm writing this, the MediaPC is a single source for all the music, Internet radio, TV and video we have in the house. It also handles (quite nicely, thanks) DVDs and Blu-Ray movie playing. The only slight downsides are a) We're still not seeing HD TV in HD at the moment, (see the discussion above) and b) we still have to deal with multiple remotes. Unfortunately, the Harmony remote I have (the 688) won't handle much of the media PC functionality. So we have the Harmony to turn everything on and set 'modes', then the WMC remote to navigate. But it's not a biggie.
If Wishes Were Horses
So, how could my digital life be even better? Well, there's a few things that I would like to see integrated into the WMC solution.
a) I wish that Windows Media Centre had better integration with Internet radio, and I didn't have to depend on a third party plug in. mcShoutCast works fine, but there are a number of radio stations which I know stream to the Internet, that I'm not able to get to work on the plug-in. Yes, there is also the Live365 stations provided within WMC, but the interface looks a little dated, and not all the stations I want are there. (Plus, the stations have commercials -- Yukkk).
b) I wish that WMC was also integrated better with TV shows available via streaming on the Internet. Apparently, this is a 'Canadian' thing, since there is apparently an Internet TV option on the WMC menu systems, but I don't see any of this in my version. Maybe with the announcements of expansion of Hulu outside of the US there will be some better integration of services like these. I've also heard talk around of the next version (8) of WMC providing Internet-TV, but at the expense of the live TV capability...Why can't they keep both?
c) I'm looking forward to a ZUNE-like interface on the music portion of WMC. The current interface is OK as far as it goes, but a ZUNE or WP7 interface would be much better and provide better flexibility.
Don is a Solution Architect with Fujitsu Consulting, specializing in Security and Project Value Management. He's been working with PDAs and Smartphones since the early days of the Sharp Wizard, iPAQ and Jornadas. As the Enterprise Mobility lead for North America, he works with clients who want to take their applications that one step further into 'mobility' by putting them right on the corporate phones.
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