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Maximizing Media Center

This is the year that the CableCard-supported Microsoft Media Center platform coupled with a wide variety of Media Center Extenders options was going to shake up the residential world of high-definition, whole-house media management and distribution. With HD personal video recorder storage, 1080p streaming capabilities, and the support of Blu-ray HD drives this media center/extender architecture seemed ready for prime-time… well, almost ready.

For several years, the Windows Media Center platform has been promoted as having the best potential for distributing an audio/video experience throughout the home. While strides have been made with the technology, from Media Center 2004 to Vista Media Center, to get the best experience still requires installers to perform operations like Windows Registry Hacks, which can present a customer service nightmare when software upgrades, new hardware, etc., get added. To try to minimize the customization of a Media Center PC, the following tips and tricks can help make the best, supportable experience for your clients.

Prepping the PC
First, you need a clean computer free of add-on programs commonly referred to as crapware. Some Media Center PCs from OEMs like Niveus and Life-ware already come that way, which can save you the two to three hours it takes to clean a commercial machine, only to find out that not everything can be removed. You could build your own machines, but that, too has long-term customer support issues attached.

On a commercial machine, a good program to run is PCDecrapifier. This eliminates some, but not always all, of the add-on programs that typically come on a commercial PC. After you get your PC cleaned, it is best to do an image backup of the hard drive. This way you can always get back to your known, good starting location. Doing a commercial system restore will put all of the add-on programs back on and you will have to repeat the process to get it clean again. A good program for disk imaging is Acronis True Image. Also, make sure to turn off Microsofts automatic updates so as not to risk making your Media Center PC inoperable due to driver updates, etc. It is always better to test the updates first in your office before updating your customers machines.

After you have a clean PC, a few more basic setup tasks to do include setting the system to auto logon. This can be done in Vista from the command line by entering control userpasswords 2 and clearing the Users must enter a user name checkbox. Then, in the Network and Sharing Center, turn on Network Discovery along with Public Folder Sharing and turn off Password Protected Sharing. We find that using the public folders to store music, pictures, videos, and recorded TV makes it the easiest to share this content with Media Center Extenders and other computers on the network. This content can easily be backed up to a Windows Home Server.

Alternately, you could redirect your public folders to another location on the network, but we are trying to keep the installation as free from trouble as possible. One other task to do is to quiet Vistas UAC (User Account Control), the feature that always asks you for permission to perform an operation. A very easy way to do this is with is a utility called TweakUAC. It has a quiet option that lets you suppress the elevation prompts of UAC without turning the UAC off completely.

Tweaking the Player
In Windows Media Player, a few tweaks will make it easier to find and correctly display your media content on the Media Center PC and Extenders. Click on the Library tab, click on More Options, and then on the Monitor Folders tab. Only monitor your Public Music Folder in WMP, no others. Set the Media Center PC and Extender to only watch the public folders. As always, reboot. Your Media Center PC and Extender should now correctly show the files from the public folders. If needed, you can clean out the existing folder libraries for the extenders by deleting the *.wmdb files in C:UsersMCXyAppDataLocalMicrosoftMedia Player. This will force the Extender to rebuild its library on re-boot, but will not erase any of the content in your public folders.
Speaking of Extenders, we have found the Xbox (noisy) and Niveus Edge (quiet) units to be the most reliable overall. One brand of Extenders that we have used has no on-screen information for up to a minute after booting or re-booting. It says please wait on the display, but the customer has no idea if anything is happening when the Extender is mounted away in a rack closet. Needless to say, this can be very frustrating for the user. We also have found that periodic re-booting of the Extender minimizes most of the hangs and freezes that you may encounter.

Final Steps
We have deployed Media Center Extenders in both a centralized and a distributed topology. The approach described above has helped to minimize network errors and congestion by having all Media Center PCs and Extenders plug into the same 10/100 business class ethernet switch. Gigabit switches can be used, but need to have QoS (Quality of Service) tweaked to work correctly. It is an extra step and currently not necessary for distributing AV signals to the Extenders.

Since none of the current Extenders support Blu-ray, we have used a Media Center PC with integrated Blu-ray, rather than a standalone Blu-ray player, to give the user a more consistent Media Center experience. The only problem with this setup is that if you are using a centralized CableCard system for HDTV distribution, you would still need an Extender to view the content; DRM (digital rights management) flags prevent HDTV from being distributed to another PC, but allow it to reach Extenders.
Also, if you are using CableCards in your installation, make sure you have installed the latest firmware upgrade from ATI. It cleared up a lot of the problems we had with initial CableCard installations.

Following these tips and tricks should help you get your Media Center/Extender installations up and running more quickly and reliably. It is the key to having profitable installations and satisfied clients.

cyberManors lead Media Center programmer and system architect, Rick Kalm, contributed to this column.