Set Up A Geeky Media Centre That Non-Geeks Can Use

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.

My first attempt, an Apple TV patched to run Boxee, had the advantages of a super-simple Apple remote, sleek-looking hardware and an always-on setup, but I soon came to see the poor, neglected Apple TV was underpowered for anything more than low-definition streaming, and was far from easy to move files into. I'm unabashed in my admiration for Boxee, the media centre software that plays all kinds of streaming web content, and built a cheap, powerful media centre around it. But even though the Boxee Beta is much improved, it's still, well, beta, and still very geeky to get around.

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.

The Basics

From the hardware standpoint, you're setting up a Home Theatre PC, or HTPC. I opted for a small little computer that can still pull off high-resolution, TV-sized graphics, and repurposed my ASRock ION 330 for the job. For a smaller, sleeker option, you could also try the Acer Aspire Revo that Adam used for his Linux/XBMC-based media centre, because both it and the ASRock were originally intended to run Windows. If you've got a decent laptop or PC that's sitting around as a spare, that can do, too, but you'll have to figure out the best cable hook-up from it. Even a big old desktop can do the trick, but it's likely going to be louder and bigger than you want.

You'll also need a USB mouse and keyboard, just for the setup, and a copy of Windows, one with Media Center included. There's an XP version dubbed Media Center Edition, but at this point, there's no reason not to upgrade to Vista or 7, both of which include Media Center in their Home Premium and Ultimate editions. If you're starting with a new system, connect your video-to-TV, load your Windows DVD into the drive, boot up, and follow the installation instructions. Connect your system to the internet, plug in the USB receiver for your remote, and after a minute or two, you'll be able to use the green Windows button in the centre to launch Media Center. I aimed to make it even more simple by heading to the start menu, finding the Windows Media Center link, and dragging it into the Startup folder. This way, if the box is turned off or has to restart, it loads again right into Windows Media Center.

You won't have much to look at in your brand-new HTPC, but you should get familiar with how Windows Media Center works from a remote. My remote has buttons that launch instantly to the Video, Pictures and Music sections, which are far more convenient than having to explain the navigation system to other users. When inside WMC, the green Windows button serves as a kind of Home button, dropping whatever you're doing and heading back to the main menu. Hitting the power button puts your HTPC to sleep by default, and that's a pretty low-power, quick-start solution for a box you keep connected to your TV. After about 10 minutes, Windows Media Center and its remote should make good sense. You can simply close down WMC and return to the Windows desktop by hitting the Tasks menu, selecting Shutdown, and choosing Close. Do that, because we've got just a bit of tweaking to do.

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.

Head to the Network and Sharing centre again from the Start menu, and click the Homegroup link in the lower-left. Follow the instructions to create a new homegroup, and look for the option to change the password, because it's likely to be unwieldy. After that's done, head to your Start menu and click the Computer link. In the window that pops up, click over on the "Libraries" folder in the left-hand sidebar. Right-click on the libraries you want people in your house to be able to drop files into, like Videos, hover over the "Share With" sub-menu, and choose "Homegroup (Read/Write)". Repeat as necessary with Music, Pictures and Documents.

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".

If you've got a Mac system on the network, we've (thankfully) already covered mounting a Windows shared folder on a Mac. Looking to add a printer? The How-To Geek's home away from Lifehacker has a step-by-step guide to sharing between 7 and XP.

Make Downloaded Files Easier to Read

If you're an avid user of BitTorrent, Usenet or other file trading services, you'll probably dig around and figure out how to set up an automated or remote-controlled system for piping hot, fresh television and movies into those shared media folders — the details are a bit too much to tackle here, but we've covered the setup before. With my spouse, at least, the way those files get named and unpacked into WMC's Videos folder isn't all that helpful — crabXviDa1 looks more like a crustacean horror flick than the first half of Crazy Heart (which, *ahem*, must have been ripped from my DVD).

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.


Comments

    While Media Centre in Windows 7 is a vast improvement over Vista it still has some basic functionality missing that had me searching for an alternative.

    Things like;
    - No support for more than 2 tuners (I generally need at least 3 tuners to record two simultaneous programs while I watch another. With post recording settings this happens more often than you would think.)
    - No Server/Client setup. (I can not believe that you can not stream TV or schedule recordings from your main Media Centre to another computer. With a few tweaks you can set up o share your recorded TV but this is not natively supported.)
    - No broadcast EPG retrieving (Vista Only) (If you want the EPG in Vista, you have to buy it from a service like IceTV. What a joke.)
    - No native commercial skipping. (Sure you can use DVRMSToolbox. But it's a bit complicated to get up an running)

    I've been happily using MediaPortal for about a year now. It has all the basic stuff missing from Media Centre, is easy to setup, and has a high Wife Acceptance Factor. The latest builds for their RC1 are extremely solid.

      Windows 7 supports up to 4 tuners of each type. So you could run four dvb-t tuners and a FM radio tuner, and another four satellite tuners.

      Robert,

      Your comments are comning from a person that is not informed! EPG is supported on Vista. It was not supported on Vista until the TV pack was released, which was a closed release, not public.

      As Damien stated Win7 supports 4 tuners. Infact you can hack it to support more.

      Finally with streaming, just add a Xbox and there you go. O.k. there is no streaming to a non xbox machine, but what else do you want?

    I use Media Portal but not for Recording TV, only viewing.

    For Recording I use DV Scheduler http://www.cs.usyd.edu.au/~efax/DV%20Scheduler.html

    For not it dose not have broadcast EPG retrieving, but it has automated recording based that can be cased on the TV show title, any time, any channel if you set it up that way. Plus it supports LAN TV Viewing in a web browser if you have VLC.
    Webpage Interface, so if you want you can schedule a recording when away from home.

    I use an addon called myTV for all of my downloaded TV shows. The housemates love it, it's really easy to use and constantly monitors the folders for new episodes.

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