Sean Alexander

Thoughts are actions in rehearsal

(These thoughts are my own and don’t reflect my employer)

Windows Media Center user interfaceThere are certain things that are hard to watch being built – meat products and software come to mind.  In the software realm, the ante goes up when you’re talking about consumer software that is critical to peace and harmony in the household.  Of course I’m talking about the DVR.

As the Group Product Manager for Windows Media Center 2004-2005, I had an enlightening opportunity to see the sheer volume of work required to create a stable DVR application that runs on a multitude of OEM PC configurations.  At the time, I really loved the product and technology. Then a few things happened.

First, I was given an opportunity/challenge to join the Vista team and had to leave my beloved MCE team behind.  I became a consumer again. Then, we moved to an area where I could no longer get an over-the-air HD signal and Media Center had to take a back seat as our HD DVR.

The Comcast Cable Box Nightmare
The Motorola box from Comcast was our only option at the time for watching HD, something that my wife and I both really enjoy.  But the Comcast box was (and continues to be) infuriatingly slow.  My wife regularly complained, rather her head spun like a merry-go-round whilst flames spew out of her mouth at the lack of performance.  The upholstery was starting to get charred from this weekly occurrence.

Switching to TiVo Series3
Finally, a solution that delivered adequate performance and HD DVR plus a few other features I loved.  After a year of my wife ranting about the Moto cable box, and realizing  it was going to be a while before Cablecard was ready for Media Center (and vice versa) I switched to the TiVo Series3.  It was a hard move, like the breakup of a long relationship. The extenders were put away, the Media Center removed from the living room.  I have raved here about my Series3 but recently have found myself disappointed in a few key areas:

  • Database performance. Dare I say the TiVo seems slower than the Comcast box when adding new recordings or pulling up guide data
  • UI sluggishness.  The TiVo engine seems like it hasn’t changed much in5 years and neither has the performance save for a modest increase in speed
  • UX Idiosyncracies.  Since adding new features such as Swivel Search and Amazon Unbox (both of which are welcome additions) the UI doesn’t appear to be able to handle these additions elegantly.  Add to this the fact that the guide displays in 4:3 instead of 16:9 when tuned to an SD channel, and I get strange flickering as the device switches formats between channels and guides and it still has some rough edges (not to mention the rough edges on the graphics- this is HD!)
  • A year later, still no ability to stream video from one TiVo to another room, only vague statements of future support. I understand these are issues related to CableCard’s requirements and the long times to get certification on any solution, but this was a reason I wanted to go to TiVo! 

So, a few weeks ago I was invited to try a new Vista Media Center w/ CableCard support.  I held my breath and dove back in. 

Vista Media Center, Cable Cards Grow Up
cablecardAt first I was apprehensive. I knew how complicated Cablecard setup could be and didn’t look forward to training Comcast’s CSRs as I had to with TiVo.  I installed the new PC, plugged in the Drobo, the ATI HD Cablecard tuners and set up the cablecards.  I had one defective card which I returned and after a quick call to Comcast, both were up and running.  Next I paired my two Xbox 360’s and curiously, everything worked. I was tuning channels, recording two stations without issue.  Now keep in mind I have a wired ethernet network in my house, which certainly helps things.  I had forgotten just how polished the experience is on the Media Center.  Setup is still not as easy as it could be (this is symptomatic of the entire cable industry who was forced by the FCC to add support for 3rd party cable boxes on their networks so the clunky CableCard was born.  At least Comcast’s CSR’s were knowledgeable when I called to set it up. What a difference a year makes.

I’m now entering the two-week period with my Media Center working as an HD DVR. With a little reprogramming of my remote, my wife is actually happy. Every program we’ve scheduled has recorded.  Amazon Unbox works with Media Center as well and the promise of new Vista Media Center extenders with multiple format support (thank you Dave Alles!) and free Internet TV programming mean I can enjoy around the house.  I’ve been testing the new Internet TV features and think users will be pleased.

In an upcoming post, I’ll compare and contrast my experiences.

16 thoughts on “Falling back in love with Vista Media Center

  1. pat says:

    Well, you’ve seen the Motorola DVR that I have with Charter Cable. It feels like I’m using a DVR, Jr.

  2. Ian says:

    Good to see you back on Media Center, you can try some of the great Vista Media Center apps that are being developed. Big Screen Headlines (RSS reader) , TV Library, Yougle and check out mControl 2.0

  3. John Ericson says:

    I would recommend WebGuide4 as an add-on for any Media Center installation. With WebGuide4 I can program my MCE computer to record TV programs from any Internet connected computer. On top of that I can also watch live and recorded TV and listen to music among other things. Highly recommended! And it’s free since a couple of days ago!

  4. Michael says:

    Ok, dumb question. How do I change the background in Vista MCE to get the ocean background in the picture above?

  5. Chris Lanier says:

    Michael, you don’t. That’s a currently playing video/tv show. When you press the Green Button while content is playing the menu is shown transparent over the video.

    On top of everyones WebGuide suggestions, make sure to check out the Sidebar Gadget that goes along with it.


  6. Kyle says:

    When you are using a cable card how many streams do you get? Can you record multiple shows at once? Mutiple HD at once? Or is is some combination of analog and cablecard?

  7. Im using a dual cablecard system so I can record two at the same time.

  8. Tom says:

    John Ericson:
    If you record with a CableCard, you won’t be able to use WebGuide4 to play the files or watch live tv. All channels have DRM on them, and cannot be played in Media Player.

  9. Keith says:

    "Amazon Unbox works with Media Center"…. Can you explain this. I would like to use Amazon Unbox with Vista Media Center. Thanks a lot. As far as media center, great product, can’t wait to use new features. I would also pay for premium services (i.e. internet TV, on demand, etc), as long as I can share within my local network…. Need to offer more premium services…

  10. john says:

    What media center box are you using? The problem I have right now is that I am considering a MCE box or a TivoHD (basically series3-lite). The Tivo is going to cost me $299, whereas I haven’t been able to find a MCE box that supports cable card for less than $2k — they all seem to be provided by boutique manufacturers and the OEM markup is just way to high right now. I just don’t think I can justify the 10x cost difference that a decent MCE box is going to run me. Is there something cheaper out there that I missing?

  11. Chris Hynes says:

    You can build a Dell XPS 410 with dual tuners and bluray for ~$1900-$2000.

  12. John – Unfortunately I can’t say right now which system I’m using due to NDAs, but when I can, I will 🙂

  13. john says:

    I had not seen the dell xps 410 that had the ATI tuners. I still think the price isn’t where it needs to be to compete vs. tivo hd. Thanks for pointing that particular configuration though. Hopefully Dell will get its act together and sell the ATI tuner in some of its other configurations. Its interesting that you can’t get the "Hi-Def" 410 with the latest CPUs (such as the new quad-cores) and they force you to also buy a blu-ray drive.

  14. The prices are definitely where you’d expect new technology to be. ATI and others have significant R&D, licensing, and testing costs associated with OCUR (think TiVo Series3 at nearly $1000 last year). I’m not going to say it’s right, but with Media Center PCs, it also took time to come below the $700 "sweet spot".

  15. SoundForSound says:

    Check out the HP m8100y with CableCard support. It is cheaper than the Dell XPS 410, allows a QuadCore CPU, and does not force a BluRay drive on you.

  16. Peter Kay says:


    I’ve been loving my homebuilt Xbox/MCE combo for > 1yr now and REALLY don’t want to go to TivoS3. My problem is right now ATI’s cablecard box is still stuck in red tape.

    I know you’re under NDAs. Can you give a hint as to when we might see the ATI box go on the market for us homebuilders? I don’t want to buy a Dell/hp/whatever box if I can help it.

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