Setting Up a Media Centre PC
With a few tweaks you can turn Windows into the ultimate entertainment centre.
Last month we looked at converting a boring beige box into a whisper-quiet lounge room companion. Now we’ll tackle configuring the media centre interface (MCE) and playing your favourite video files.
MCE is built into Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional and Ultimate. You can use it to play CDs and DVDs, as well as music and video files. MCE also lets you watch and record free-to-air television if you add a TV tuner card or USB dongle.
After you’ve run MCE’s initial set-up wizard, in the main menu go down to Tasks and choose Settings. Under General you can set MCE to start automatically with Windows and always stay on top. Go into Visual and Sound Effects to kill off the annoying ping as you navigate the menus. Enable Optimisation to force the MCE interface to restart once a day to improve stability.
Thankfully an MPEG-2 codec is pre-installed with MCE versions of Windows 7, so you don’t need to install separate software to watch DVDs and free-to-air TV. It doesn’t offer native Blu-ray support, but most Blu-ray drives come bundled with Blu-ray playback software, some of which offer MCE integration.
If you encounter stuttering when watching live TV, you could have digital reception issues or perhaps your tuner card is overheating. If you only experience stuttering when watching something you recorded earlier, perhaps while recording something else, then you should consider dropping in a second hard drive just for storing your recordings. If you’re recording to an external drive, you might need the performance boost of USB3 or eSATA.
When it comes to scheduling recordings, MCE can extract the Electronic Program Guide from the digital TV signal. You still might consider a third-party EPG service such as IceTV, which offers extra features such as scheduling your recordings via a web browser or your mobile phone.
MCE also makes a great DVD jukebox. If you rip your DVD collection to the hard drive as .vob files, MCE still lets you navigate the menus and access the extra features. You can add the folder containing your DVD collection to MCE by dipping into Settings, Media Libraries and Movies. MCE’s Movie Library doesn’t always display your DVD collection by default, but you can fix this by editing the registry. You can also install plug-ins such as My Movies for Windows Media Center, which downloads cover art and other metadata.
If you’re downloading video files from the internet, you’ll want to install a codec pack to extend MCE’s format support. Shark007’s Codec Packs are a one-stop-shop codec packs for MCE, with versions available for Windows 7 and Vista/XP. Format support includes DivX, Xvid, MKV, QuickTime, RealMedia and MPEG-2 as well as DirectVobSub for handling subtitles and AC3Filter for playing AC3 and DTS soundtracks.
With MCE configured, next time we’ll wrap up with a look at controlling your media centre from the couch.