My Home Theater PC Story – The software – Windows Media Center

I promised to blog about my HTPC software configuration, so here it is:

As we all know, nothing works anymore without software, as buggy and inefficient some of it it.  But I am here now, to talk a little bit about that software used specifically for entertainment. I was always a fan of Windows Media Center, starting with its earliest incarnations inside Windows XP, but we have come a long way since then…not necessarily in terms of what is offered out of the box (although Netflix and Internet TV integration are something to write home about), but especially in terms of plug-ins.

Talking about plug-ins, as a personal opinion, we would see way more if Microsoft would move their corporate might and create a Marketplace for Media Center, but it may be that WMC did not penetrate in terms of usage as much as an iPhone would do, and probably never will. It is just us, the technology aficionados…

OK, enough ranting. I will start by saying that I don’t use WMC for watching TV, so no TV tuners are involved. For TV, I have a VIP 722 Dish Network DVR that serves me well. And, when VIP 922 will come, I will get that as well. My current software configuration is oriented around consuming the media I already have (my legal purchased DVDs stored on a server for convenience), my music, family movies and pictures and access to any media available online (HULU, YouTube and Netflix mostly). Lately, I found WMC plug-ins to access Facebook pictures as well, so life is pretty good.

Here is a brief description:

Operating System – Windows 7 Home Premium, 32bit. The reason for choosing 32bit instead of 64bit is due to compatibility issues many of the plug-ins still have with 32bit. Because I don’t have that much time to tinker around, I choose the safe path.

Windows 7 Codecs – Windows 7 codec pack offered by Shark007. Nothing else! Shark007 covers everything I need in terms of codecs, from DIVX to MKV containers with H264 and DTS, including the dreaded MOV format from some of the current digital cameras. I never found any format that this plug-in pack won’t play. Alternative hardware accelerated (DXVA) H264 codecs are also provided to be used by all players.

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Media aggregatormediabrowser is by far the best (in my opinion) plugin for WMC. It takes your recorded, digital or ripped media and presents it in several absolutely stunning interfaces. It has become a long way since it was launched and now it supports multiple themes and plugins. I will soon write an article to describe mediabrowser in detail. For more information, check it right here.

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Music Player – I have all my music collection stored neatly in  a folder structure. As a result, I hate the way the native music view in WMC works. I looked around for some plug-ins that present the music by folders and I found Music Browser. It is free and the latest version works well with Windows 7. Very important! mediabrowser now includes a new plug-in to present your music collection in a folder structure that is similar with Music Browser but with way more functionality and is also very often updated.

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Hulu – I watch Hulu content in two different ways: by using a PlayOn front-end in WMC called PlayIT. It does a good job at displaying the content that PlayOn provides. Sometimes I hate the never ending menu structure though…The other method is by using a plug-in called TunerFree MCE with has a much nicer interface, but some weird navigation system. For some reason I can never get it to enter in menus with just one remote control click…It might be related to the fact that I am not using the Microsoft remote control adapter but one integrated in my HTPC case.

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Weather Heatwave – very elegant and simple, and best of all, WORKS!

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Youtube, MSN VideoMacrotube – very new plug-in so it lacks some desired functionality, but the presentation is superb and if the author keeps working on it, it will have a great future.

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Facebook PhotosPhotato is another fairly new plug-in with a very stylish interface, it shows your own pictures as well as your friends uploaded pictures. It runs really well with a remote control and the presentation style is amazing, including browsing and slide-show modes. Highly recommended. Too bad Facebook doesn’t allow high resolution photos yet.

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I hope all the links provided will still work when you will read this article. More information can be found at the plug-in’s author’s page.

I will soon post a complete review for the mediabrowser plug-in.

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