Windows Media Center is bundled with most versions of Windows, included for the first time in Windows XP Media Center Edition back in 2004. Although many different media centres excel in different areas, Microsoft’s latest Windows 7 media centre software offering delivers a knockout blow to every other contender in the market by offering live TV viewing and recording functionality out of the box.
If you have a TV tuner installed in your HTPC — and I’m betting that most of you do — then Media Center is the best choice for watching live TV. You have access to TV guides, so you know what’s on and on what channel.
As far as live TV goes, though, the killer feature of Windows Media Center is, without a doubt, Sky Player. If you’re one of many Sky subscribers in the UK, you can take advantage of Sky’s on-demand service for free, based on your subscription package. If you subscribe to Sky Movies, you can watch the entire library online. If sport’s more your thing, you’ll have full access to all Sky Sports channels.
Media Center uses Microsoft Silverlight to playback content on Sky Player, so you’ll have to make sure you have that downloaded, and have an account over at Sky for your Internet TV to work, but this is a huge bonus for UK users that other media centres simply don’t have access too — not yet anyway!
Video Playback and Compatibility
Compatibility of Windows Media Center is, naturally, limited only to the amount of codecs you choose to install on your PC. As I rip all of my Blu-Ray movies in Matroska (mkv) format, I needed to make sure I had the correct codec pack installed. I chose to install the Combined Community Codec Pack (CCCP).
Unfortunately, playback of high definition video content is significantly worse under Windows Media Center than it is on other options such as Boxee. Admittidely, this depends on your hardware and the codecs you have installed, but all of my tests were run on the same home media centre PC machine.
720p content formatted in mkv was blocky at times, but mostly watchable, but 1080p content in the same format refused to play smoothly for over 1 second at a time before crumbling in to an unrecognisable accumulation of blocky pixels.
Content formatted in AVI and WMV played flawlessly, as would be expected, but the mkv playback resulted in great dissapointment — even Chuck’s praying for the playback to be a little smoother!
Ending on a more positive note, the layout of the controls are extremely subtle and easy on the eye, allowing you to control your media unobtrusively whilst still watching your content. This is a vast improvement over previous versions of Media Center, which obstructed video playback to a point where you had to pause, use the controls and wait for them to fade before continuing playback.
If you own a Zune HD, or other non-Apple MP3 player, there’s a strong chance that you use Windows Media Player and Center to organise and listen to your music. When viewing the collection of music on my hard drive, the user interface was extremely remote-friendly, and allowed me to quickly flick through my library without any hassle.
When music is being played, a collection of all your album artwork is shown in grids in the background. Alternatively, you can choose to view visualisations in the background.
Athough Windows Media Center certainly excels where other applications fail, such as with Live and Internet TV options, video playback was a major let down, with MKV files in particular proving to be a challenge.
The user interface isn’t as polished as some other contenders’ in the market, such as Front Row or Boxee, but it’s certainly remote-friendly, and if you’re looking for a Media Center compatible with TV tuners that’s easy to set up, then it’s certainly a good option.