Microsoft's powerful home theatre centrepiece, Windows Media Center, is easily one of the best applications that ships for free with Windows. But you can still make it better — and take it into new realms — with these plug-ins, helper apps and tweaks.
Photo by ryaninc.
We've previously covered a couple of these as part of our feature of top 10 apps that boost your media centre, but we thought that Windows Media Center (WMC from here on) deserved its own special loving list. It also fills out the capabilities and powers of WMC, as many commenters felt our media centre comparison chart didn't give the big picture when it came to their Windows boxes. Fair enough — here's an extended list of powers that the little blue-green app can pull off.
Note: Unless otherwise stated, most of these apps and plug-ins are intended for use with Windows 7's Media Center. Many keep older versions, compatible with Vista's WMC and the "Media Center Edition" XP systems, available at their srighites, but some may not. Similarly, one or two apps may only work with an older WMC edition, and that's been noted in the text as well.
Start WMC in live TV mode
It's a small little hack, but this tip for starting Windows Media Center in live TV mode is really helpful for those who see their WMC setup as more of a DVR box first, picture/movie/music player second. By starting up in live TV mode, you can instantly start recording something you were watching and wanted to capture, or just instantly start your channel surfing with the ability to pause. (Original post)
Play more video formats on your Xbox 360 Media Center Extender
The Xbox 360 makes for a pretty killer Windows Media Center extender, allowing televisions not directly hooked to a computer to still deliver the media centre experience. While the Xbox by itself can play XviD and DivX files, an Xbox working as an extender can't work that magic — unless you're up and running with an app like Transcode 360, which runs from your computer and converts movies to an Xbox-extender-friendly format as they stream to the Xbox. It's not an app that sees frequent, regular updates, so if you're having trouble working Transcode 360 from Windows 7, try this guide to getting it running.
Kill commercials, inside or outside WMC
If you wanted commercials, you'd watch live TV. If you want them gone from your media centre experience, and you don't mind the subtle karmic shift in doing so, there's apps to tackle that, both inside and outside WMC. Lifextender does a great job of automating commercial stripping, but hasn't been updated to run all that well in Windows 7 yet — or so our commenters have noted (it should work fine for Vista and earlier Windows editions). On the other hand, DVRMSToolbox is a stand-alone program, so those with Windows Media Center setups where getting outside the main media window isn't hard can bulk-strip their commercials. (Original posts: Lifextender, DVRMSToolbox).
Convert recordings for iPods
We're really glad DVRMSToolbox has gotten updates and attention, because that means it can feed our other favourite non-plug-in WMC tool: iPodifier. Used together, they can strip WMC's video files of their copy protection, kill commercials, and, most helpfully, convert those files to a format friendly to iPods and iPhones and patch them right into iTunes for syncing.
Customise menus and rip DVDs
If all you're looking for is a way to see metadata and fancy graphics around your movies, Media Browser does the job beautifully, and it's oh-so-free. (See more details below.) My Movies 3 also organises and info-tises your downloaded and ripped files, but offers a host of other unlock-able features to those who donate a bit of cash. Rip DVDs or Blu-Ray discs directly from inside WMC, skip those ultra-annoying mandatory previews and advertisements at a disc's beginning, customise your menus and backdrops, and do a whole lot more as your rack up points. (Original post)
Control WMC from anywhere with WebGuide
Windows Media Center is built for the at-home experience, but why shouldn't you be able to tell it what to record, watch what it's already recorded, and otherwise manage your media from anywhere? WebGuide does that, providing you with the ability to decide at work that you want to record something you're going to miss at home. Want to watch live, streaming TV? WebGuide can push it to you through your browser. It's a must-have add-on for any Windows Media Center setup hooked up to a TV signal. (Original post)
Get the best view of downloaded and ripped files
As Lisa put it, this is pretty much a required add-on. Media Browser somewhat evens the playing field between Windows Media Center and its open-source XBMC/Boxee competition by providing movies, TV shows, video podcasts, and other ripped or downloaded files with a rich look, web-provided data, and a general sense of shine and polish. For the winning bonus, this plug-in itself is also open-source, so expect further updates and improvements as more people take up the cause. (Original post)
What'd we miss in the way of Windows Media Center add-ons, plug-ins and tweaks? What other apps make your own WMC setup the kind of thing you brag to friends (and random internet commenters) about? Tell us in the comments.