Windows XP Media Center 2005


posted 1/26/2005 by John Yan
other articles by John Yan

I’ve been an avid user of BeyondTV but recent problems with the stability of the last few builds has made me look elsewhere for a good PVR program. I don’t have a Linux machine so MythTV was out and Media Portal looks to have potential but I don’t think it’s ready for prime time in my household yet. SageTV is one that I will be looking at next but my subscription with MSDN led me to the availability of XP Media Center 2005. Microsoft has eased up on restrictions to the OS and even has OEM disks for sale at places like So today we’re going to go through XP Media Center 2005 and see if it’ll stay on my computer as the main PVR program of choice.

Windows XP Media Center 2005 is really Windows XP with a tightly integrated PVR and multimedia program. With XP Media Center 2005, you can pause, rewind, and record TV. If you have digital pictures, you can use MCE to organize and display them. Music lovers can use the program as a digital jukebox and play all their stored music files. DVDs can also be played with the program as well. A feature called Online Spotlight holds content provided by other providers that are accessed via an Internet connection. For example, you can view ESPN Motion video or watch music videos via AOL Music in this area. New programs can be pushed to this menu at anytime so this section can grow over time. There’s also some third party plugins that people are developing such as weather and DVD libraries. While it’s not as extensive as say Meedio Essentials in terms of customizability, there is some activity for MCE to add functionality to the OS.

So after receiving an OEM copy, I had two setups to try it out on. :

AMD XP 1700+
512MB PC3200 RAM
ECS K7S5A motherboard
120GIG 7200 Maxtor HD
Hauppauge PVR-150
ATI All-in-Wonder 9600XT

AMD XP 2400+
512MB PC3200 RAM
ABIT NF7-S motherboard
160GIG 7200 Seagate HD
Hauppauge PVR-250
Sapphire Toxic X800 Pro

Installation on a clean setup is just like any other Windows OS setup. After installing the two disks, you’re shown a familiar Windows XP desktop with a different color scheme. You’ll have to get some updates as there’s one out there to incorporate HDTV tuners into the OS. And you’ll also need to install an MPEG decoder such as PowerDVD, WinDVD, or NVDVD. Without it, you won’t be able to watch TV or DVDs. With many video cards and motherboards including software DVD players, you shouldn’t have too many problems utilizing one of those for MCE. You can also purchase decoders from NVIDIA as well to use in the system. The first setup was a little more difficult to get to work because of using an AIW card, which is not supported. There are some hacked drivers that you can get to get it to work. Setup on the second system went smooth and without any hiccups.

The magic happens when you press the Green XP button on your remote or if you select Media Center from the startup menu. The first time you access Media Center, you’re taken to a wizard to setup your MCE environment. I will say that setting up the Media Center was pretty easy and by answering a few questions, everything was ready to go.

One of my biggest hassles was getting the picture to fill up a regular TV correctly. The adjustment settings in the Catalyst Control panel can never seem to get it right and without resorting to some third party program such as TVTool, I always had some black borders around my display. MCE 2005 does an auto-adjustment for you and it worked perfectly on multiple TVs I tried it with. No black borders were visible and the picture filled the entire TV screen. There’s no manual adjustment however and I would’ve liked some ways to tweak it. And I did experience one auto-adjustment where the picture didn’t even show up. The no-picture problem though was because of using some hacked drivers to get the AIW tuner running and there were a few tries in installation where I did get it to auto adjust correctly. Still, some manual way to adjust the picture would’ve been a nice feature to have.

On the setup with the HDTV Wonder, MCE was able to setup the channels and incorporate them into the guide. All the digital channels were in a four digit format consisting of the number 1, then two digits for the regular channel number, then a sub channel number. I really like Microsoft’s seamless incorporation of DTV channels in with the regular channels making it a lot easier to deal with. ATI’s Multimedia Center actually sets up two separate programs for DTV and regular Analog TV. MCE keeps it all in one interface and simplifies the process of watching OTA DTV along with analog TV.

Setting up the guide was pretty simple. Just by entering in your zip code and which cable provider you have, the guide downloads two weeks worth of data and you’re up and running. I do like the visual display of the guide but I prefer BeyondTV’s look a little more. I sort of miss the little vertical line that visually marks where in the timeline you are at.

You’ll also setup folders for your music, videos, and pictures. I was able to choose some networked drives without any problems and played videos off of them without a hitch. Oh, almost everything can be setup via the remote and I think you can probably get through it entirely without touching the keyboard.

Once you’re all done, you’re taken to the main screen of the Media Center GUI. It’s a very nice looking setup in my opinion and I do like the look of the icons with the blue background. You can’t change the skin without some third party programs currently so maybe in the future, Microsoft will build in a theme feature. There’s buttons to various functions and some of them also have sub functions such as MyTV. By digging a little deeper, you can access recorded shows here and a nice feature that I really like is the movies option. When selected, it will go out to the Internet and download box covers for all movies that are playing currently no matter what channel it’s on. It’s a nice general overview of what’s playing and upcoming with great sorting options such as by rating and genre. It’s really a slick interface to find movies to watch on TV.

One of the things I didn’t like about MCE was that the LiveTV buffer was set at half an hour and there’s no way to change it. The buffer is saved in five minute increments and as you go over the 30 minute limit, the earliest five minute block is erased. That’s a better implementation than BeyondTV’s where the whole buffer is erased once you hit the set limit. But, I would’ve liked to have the choice in buffer size and not be limited to MCE’s setting. There’s also no way to save the buffer to watch later. It’s a feature that I don’t think would be too hard to add and one that I think is really needed. There were a few times I was watching a program and I wanted to record the earlier parts to view later. A buffer record setting is one enhancement that I hope Microsoft puts in as an update or into next year’s version.

If you only have one tuner, MCE will present an interface for you to resolve recording conflicts. With MCE 2005 support of dual tuners, that goes away unless you have three programs in the same time slot. The program expects you to have identical tuners in a dual tuner setup but there are some hacks to enable different types of tuners to work in conjunction. I have successfully used my HTDV Wonder analog tuner and my All-in-Wonder 9600XT tuner together. A choice of what tuner to use during your viewing and/or recording session would’ve been nice, but I can see how it was not implemented as MCE 2005 is initially designed to work with identical ones.

While watching TV, both setups exhibited a very nice picture quality. There were some stations where I thought the picture seemed a little soft or there was a little too much red though. I mostly saw this with the Hauppauge cards. But for the most part, 98% of the channels I viewed looked great on TV. The All-in-Wonder tuner also produced a very good picture. Guide information is shown in the lower left giving you the time, show, channel number, and program time span. Switching channels will cause slight pause, but it wasn’t annoying and I quickly got used to it. I would’ve liked an option to only go to the channel when I press OK, such as with BeyondTV. Pressing OK on a channel will take you quickly back to a previous channel you are watching.

You’ll get all the basic PVR recording options such as record single show, record all showings, or record only new showings. There are some more fine grain adjustments as well such as only record shows in the same channel or go to all channels. For sports recordings, you can even pad the end of the scheduled time in half hour increments. Priority settings for shows are setup so if there are any conflicts it will record the higher priority show.

When viewing a full screen guide, a small window of the video is placed on the lower left corner so you can still see what’s happening as you go through the listings. With BeyondTV there was a very noticeable stutter on both systems when I would switch through the guide using 3D enhanced mode. In MCE 2005, there was little or no stutter at all in the video frame. Using my Harmony 688 remote, I was able to fly through the guide and the video played on like a champ. You can even filter the guide further by a few selectable variables. So if you just want to see movies in the guide, click on the option and the guide will just display channels with movies playing.

As stated earlier, the HDTV channels are in the 1000 range and switching to them produced a longer, more noticeable pause. The picture quality though was amazing and I was receiving 5.1 surround sound through the airwaves. With the rollup from Windows Update, the HDTV Wonder worked great provided you have a good signal. I did have to rotate my antennae around when switching between a few channels and I didn’t notice any stuttering during playback. Even pausing and timeshifting worked flawlessly on my system. I was able to rewind a few questionable plays during a Monday Night Football game. Since you’ll probably have an analog tuner along with the HDTV tuner, you can schedule a recording on one and watch the other tuner concurrently. Switching to these channels does generate a long pause of a few seconds though but switching between HDTV stations after the initial one is a little quicker. When on an HDTV station that’s not broadcasting in HDTV, you’ll normally see a black border around the picture. MCE 2005 has a great zoom feature whereby the picture will take up the entire screen, eliminating the border. Just go into the information screen and click zoom, pretty damn cool I must say. After watching football games on the HD channels on MCE 2005, seeing the incredibly sharp picture, and hearing the great sound coming through my home theater setup, it’s hard to go back to regular TV.

I did run into a slight problem with DVD playback and it took some research to find out that NVDVD combined with an ATI card was the problem. Menus on DVDs would not show me what was highlighted and even some menus didn’t display at all. The DVDs would play fine though and the quality was pretty good. I had the setup with the NForce 2 board connected to my receiver with an SPDIF cable. When playing DVDs, I was able to get 5.1 surround sound. You get very basic commands via the remote when playing DVDs though but that’s part of MCE in making things as simple as possible. Also there’s no FFDshow support; something that needs to be fixed as well in my opinion.

For music lovers, there’s MyMusic where you’ll be able to access all your digital music. With correctly tagged music, MCE 2005 will default to an album view but you can also sort and search by others as well. If you have a very large collection, you can use the search feature to find the songs as well. When playing music, you can setup some visualization options and there are also some dancers you can download that moves to the music on the screen.

If you’re a radio listener and your card has an FM tuner, has the radio option to setup a few stations and you can listen to it through the program. There’s timeshifting but no recording capabilities like ATI’s Multimedia Center though. I used the timeshifting feature a lot actually as I would go to a meeting and pause the talk show, come back in an hour and resume listening to the show without missing a beat. Hopefully, Microsoft is looking into expanding the functionality of the radio features and add recording in there someday.

MyPictures is a place to go to when you want to bore your friends with pictures of yourself or your family. Pictures in folders will display some thumbnails of up to four pictures and you can easily navigate into folders with the remote. There’s also a slideshow feature whereby it will show all pictures in a folder and features a nice soft transition as it switches.

Overall, I enjoy XP Media Center 2005 for the ease of use and GUI interface. I had a very easy time setting it up and for the most part it was pretty stable. There are some missing features that I think needs to be addressed but the positive experience I have from using it the past few months has convinced me to use it over BeyondTV for now. If you’ve got issues with DRM, then I would try another PVR program. I haven’t run into anything yet but then again I am not watching premier stations such as HBO. In the end, I think Microsoft did a pretty good job with XP Media Center 2005 and I’m looking forward to future iterations of the OS.

It's very easy to setup and will please HTPC users who want something that works out of the box, provided you have Media Center approved hardware. There are still some issues that keep it from earning high marks.