I love messing with settings and geeky file-sharing programs. My spouse doesn’t, but digs Hulu and appreciates free. So I set up a media centre that satisfies my geek cravings but is actually easy-to-use for non-nerds. Here’s what I pieced together.
Photo by 96dpi.
The Goal (and Geeky History)
For more than a year now, I’ve been messing with computers connected to TVs, trying to make it just as easy to watch last night’s shows on Hulu as it would be with a DVR. I wanted my wife to be just as enthused about this kind of Living-in-the-Future project, but until recently, none of what I’d set up could be called actually “easy to use” — unless you happened to write about computers and software tweaks for a living.
So I set my sights on Windows Media Center, the software built into most versions of Windows Vista and 7, as my new starting point. Windows Media Center (which I’ll dub WMC occasionally here) is free, assuming you’ve got a copy of Windows, and offers a lot of features for both the geeky media nerd and casual viewer alike:
- Simple remote setup: Search for “Windows Media Center” or MCE at Newegg.com or any retail store, and you’ll likely find a remote you can use with a little USB dongle that just works once you plug it in. Plus, all the buttons they include on the thing actually work, which makes everybody less frustrated.
- Easy file trading: If all the PCs in your house are running Windows 7, the OS’s HomeGroup networking feature is a very, very nice and simple means of trading files in and out of your Home Theatre PC (HTPC). If you’re all using Windows but have some different flavours, it’s still pretty easy, and the Macs in the house can get by, too. In short, nobody has to run FTP software, or learn how to mount network drives from a command line.
- Geeky back doors: Using plug-ins, it’s easy for the nerdiest member of the house to still use media centres like Boxee or XBMC, or stream WMC content to a browser, while keeping the box an on/off machine for everyone else.
How did I make my WMC media centre the kind of box that my wife can use to turn on, watch Glee, transfer pictures to for showing friends, then turn off? What follows are my setup tweaks and plug-in recommendations.
Getting Your Files on WMC
Now we’re going to start actually tweaking your HTPC. You can do most of this with a mouse and keyboard, but I’d recommend also installing UltraVNC on your HTPC, and setting it to start automatically with Windows, and assign a password to it. That way, you can remotely configure and fix your from any computer in your house, without cluttering up your media centre with a keyboard and mouse.
Either way, head to the Start menu and type in enough of “Network and Sharing Center” to have it appear as an option, then click it.
On the left-hand side of the menu that pops up, you’ll see a link to “Change Advanced Sharing Settings”. Hit it. Under the “Home or Work” menu, you’ll basically want to turn on everything involving sharing, and likely turn off password-protected sharing. Normally, we’d never recommend opening up your box so wide on a network, but since this PC isn’t going to be in a coffee shop at any given time, and assuming your home wireless router is decently secure, this should be fine. For more fine-grain tips on setting up Windows 7 sharing so that it reaches XP users, view these tips and a video from Butterscotch.com.
From this point on, Windows Vista and 7 systems should have an easy time of finding your HTPC’s shared folders in their left-hand sidebars. If XP systems don’t quite see your shared stuff, you may have to access them manually by entering \htpc into a file explorer address bar, substituting the name of your HTPC for htpc. Still no luck? If that XP system has a username and password, you can set up the same user/pass on the HTPC, and from the right-click sharing options on a media library, choose “Share with->Specific People”.
Make Downloaded Files Easier to Read
Luckily, one of our commenters has walked us through automated TV renaming on a Windows system. That system uses TVRename to get the job done, but if you grab more films and music from the wild, wild web, MediaRenamer is its counterpart.
The Final Geek Touches: Media Browser, Remote Streaming and TV Recording
For all intents and purposes, your Windows Media Center now does a fine job of starting automatically, offering up file access and organising your media in a way that makes sense, along with offering instant television through Hulu. All your non-geek family and friends can likely use it when you’re not there with network diagnostics, and everybody’s pretty happy.
But why stop there, if you can add a little more awesome on the sly? We’ve previously loved these little add-ons for Windows Media Center, and they install without interfering with your standard operation:
- Remote Potato: Simply put, it streams your Windows Media Center content to a browser with Silverlight installed, and lets you schedule your TV recording from nearly anywhere in the world. It’s awesome.
- Media Browser: The standard view of your files is fine for getting them to play. To actually enjoy the grandiosity of your Ultimate Media Hub, Media Browser re-skins the experience and adds trailers, IMDB info and more.
That’s our idea of a spouse-friendly, quietly awesome Windows Media Center. If you have your own setup you’d like to share, or other add-ons or plug-ins that make yours much better, by all means — tell us about them in the comments.