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Giving Media Center a Second Look

I have tracked Microsoft’s Media Center technology for the past seven years, often inaccurately predicting that the platform would take off within the custom installation channel. Needless to say, I have become a bit gun-shy about making that prediction yet again. But, following the announcements made by at CEDIA EXPO last month, and after my own beta testing of the Windows 7 (W7) operating system over the last month, I am cautiously optimistic that the MC interface will be the perfect complement to today’s custom home control and automation systems.

In Atlanta last month, Microsoft made some very key announcements that dramatically improve the value proposition of the MC platform in the custom integration channel, specifically:

• Almost any Windows 7 PC that you buy or build will now support CableCARDs.

• Support for CF (copy freely) recordings allows you to stream un-flagged HD content (almost all HD content except for Showtime and HBO movies is currently un-flagged) recorded on a W7 MC to any other W7 MC. This means that you can use one central W7 MC in the home (which can currently support up to four CableCARDs) to stream HD content to all the rooms in the home that have a local W7 MC computer. You can even copy this content to W7 laptops to take HD content on the road.

• Enhanced support for Internet TV content in the electronic program guide of the W7 MC allows you to easily search not only what is available from your local cable provider but also the entertainment options available from the Internet.

• While not publicly announced, Microsoft showed a W7 version of a MC plug in for Netflix that seamlessly integrated into the MC environment

For me, the only way to mitigate system reliability concerns of the past was to put the Windows 7/CableCARD platform solution to the test in my own home.

In my family room, I installed a W7 Niveus Rainier supported by the ATI CableCARD tuner as an AV source for a Samsung DLP TV. In the kitchen I have a 23-inch HP TouchSmart that I upgraded from Windows Vista to Windows 7. In my daughter’s room we have another W7 Niveus Rainier connected to a 17-inch Toshiba LCD. All of the computers are connected over Ethernet Cat-5 wiring to a standard Cisco 10/100 24 port switch in the garage.

During a month-long test, the W7 computers have never locked up. We have programmed more than 100 shows from almost all of the HD channels that we get from Comcast, and they have streamed without any connectivity or video packet errors to the HP TouchSmart in the kitchen and my daughter’s room. I have streamed the same show or different shows to these zones error-free and with negligible latency.

Provisioning the CableCARD to work with the ATI tuner took less than an hour. This process used to be a nightmare, but in this installation it worked almost immediately.

W7 MC platform graphics have been beautifully enhanced, and the electronic program guide rivals the best EPGs on the market. The music interface has Kaleidescape-like beauty, with all the cover art appearing on the screen while an album is playing and the very engaging photo playback accompanied by music application.

Using W7 MCs instead of Extenders allowed us to enjoy the full functionality of a computer in each of these rooms. For example, Internet browsing was not possible with an Extender, but is with a W7 computer. There is no longer a need for a separate TV in the office or children’s rooms with computers; for these zones the PC is a full-functioning HDTV (either by using a locally installed CableCARD tuner or by viewing content that was prerecorded from any CableCARD-enabled W7 MC computer in the home).

You still cannot legally record and distribute DVDs from a Media Center to other Media Centers or Extenders around the home (managed copy functionality is not enabled). This problem can be alleviated, however, by the planned support of Netflix movie downloads for MC.

There is growing belief in our industry that the future of DVD viewing will come more and more from Internet movie subscription services than from purchased DVDs, and the MC architecture embraces this trend.

Unfortunately, the streaming of music from a head-end MC is not synchronized to Media Centers located around the home. If you want to play one song throughout the home, there will be audio latency issues that are unacceptable to our clients. Until this is resolved, I recommend that another whole-house audio distribution solution be used. We use the Sonos system, which gives us the ability to control music from an iPhone/iTouch, their own handheld controllers, or from a desktop client. The last interface is an important one, because we now have W7 computers around the home for easy access to the audio control interface screen.

It is important to understand exactly what the strengths of this Media Center architecture are versus the custom home solutions that we already design and deploy. My company’s vision of W7 MCs is primarily for the support and control of distributed HD and photo content around the home. While it can support whole-house music, videos, and home control (with software enhancements from brands like Life-ware), it is uniquely effective at providing a whole-house HD DVR solution that is easily extendible into these other whole-house applications with one common interface installed on a relatively inexpensive hardware.

Our company has been successful at leveraging this streaming video distribution solution with Control4’s suite of products, and these solutions have been very complementary. Control4 gives our clients the synchronized whole-house audio, lighting control, camera control, security control, scenes, etc. that they can control from a variety of in-wall, handheld, or touchscreen platforms. This same complementary fit could be applied to Crestron, AMX, HomeLogic, HAI, and many other whole-house control solutions. (I don’t envision Microsoft entering the in-wall keypad or lighting control markets anytime soon, so the MC platform has to be integrated with solutions from many of the other key partners with which we commonly work.)

While one month of testing doesn’t guarantee that there will not be glitches down the road, these early indicators are very promising. I think most of us would agree that if we could start to move away from the complications of HDMI switching of our TV set-top boxes to the network-based streaming of HD content around the home, we would have a more robust and rich solution to offer our clients.