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Windows Media Center after the Release of the TV Pack

August 18, 2008

Within the past week or so, Microsoft announced that the "Fiji" update to Windows Vista Media Center, would only be available on new PCs purchased from select OEMs (original equipment manufacturers). This upset many of those posting comments on The Green Button (the most prominent Media Center Enthusiast site). Nevertheless, Microsoft has been content to turn a blind eye to those who want to try out the feature pack on a unsupported basis. Many have done so with mixed results.

The best commentary on the significance of this move has come from Ben Drawbaugh (whose post is an allegory to the Goonies), Ed Bott and and a Media Center Show podcast that Ed did with Ian Dixon (with the latter being the best single source of analysis because of wide ranging nature of the dicussion). There are so many quality insights in the above sources that I won’t attempt a comprehensive summary, rather, I’ll relate my own perspective as a user, why I won’t be installing the TV Pack, and some thoughts about the future.

I was disappointed that the only features in the TV Pack in which I would really would be interested are:

  • Heterogeneous tuner support– the ability to use many more combinations of TV tuners (e.g. Cablecard, ATSC, clear QAM and NTSC instead of just ATSC and Cablecard) and have fallback tuners; and
  • Favorite channels and channel name searching– the ability to have a list of favorite channels or to search for a channel by name instead of having to look through 100’s of channels.

I would have liked to see:

  • H.264 video codec support (so I could watch video MPEG4 video podcasts using Media Center extenders);
  • The ability to fast forward and rewind audio files using Media Center extenders; and
  • Better updating of the library/index for audio files and photos.

Because most of the functionality added with the TV Pack addressed support for many more international TV signal formats, I can understand why Microsoft did not go to the trouble of making this update work when installed on existing Media Center setups: the few features that would be useful to people would not have justified significant testing and engineering challenges involved in that. Nevertheless I am disappointed that almost 2 years after Vista became final, there has been no real update or Media Center

I don’t plan to install the TV Pack because the few extra features of use to me aren’t worth the disruption to our home media center which is used by the entire family. Those disruptions would include:

  • Inability to access any existing Cablecard recordings (which is about 700GB of content).
  • No support from Microsoft.
  • The problems those with Cablecard systems have run into when they have tries to install this update.

It appears that most Media Center releases going forward may coincide with Windows releases. This would be a problem if it occurs as Microsoft could fall significantly behind third party developers like Sage if they take this approach. So let me suggest an alternative: save infrastructure improvements for Windows releases, but release annual feature packs that address less structural issues adding features and functionality in the Media Center application rather than those that require changes in the operating system itself.

Despite the disappointment with the TV Pack, at the end of the day, there really is no good alternative to Media Center for those who have a multi-room system that want access to digital cable programming.


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