Falling back in love with Vista Media Center
(These thoughts are my own and don’t reflect my employer)
There 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
At 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.