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I have a DVD player, CD Player, A/V Amplifier sitting in my front room all linked to my LCD TV and Sky Digi Box. They all work fine but it does take up quite a bit of room and I'd realistically like an HTPC set up to bring my multimedia module into one unit!
Enter Windows Media Center 2005!
My setup consists of a Silverstone LC16M Case which houses an Asus A8N-SLi Motherboard, Hauppage PVR 250, Maxtor Diamond Max 250GB Hard Drive, 1GB Crucial Dual Channel DDR Memory to name just the main core of my system.
Contents of Windows Media Center 2005 Pack.
You will be supplied with two CD's, a Setup Guide and a Product Key to be placed on your system. To make full use of Media Center it is recommended that you also purchase a Media Center Remote Control & Extender.
Installation of Media Center 2005.
Installation of most Windows Software is fairly straightforward. Not so with Windows Media Center 2005. The Setup guide supplied with the software will provide you with various configurations for your HTPC, unfortunately, it will not give you any help with loading the software. It took me a number of days to get this installed on my system only to stumble across the information I needed to complete the installation by visiting a forum.
A note for anyone purchasing this software. Make sure that your system is fully compatible by visiting the Microsoft website otherwise you may find the software will not load.
When asked for the SP2 CD, re-insert Media Center Disc One as this is where it is located. Do not insert a seperate standalone Service Pack 2 CD or other copy of the software as this will not work and the software will not be installed.
Once you get passed this part you should be home and dry by just following the onscreen prompts.
Setting Up Media Center 2005.
Once you have the operating system up and running you'll then have the option to personlise your own setup. This will give you the option of first installing your ISP/Broadband settings so your system can access the web immediately. As per usual, ensure that you install a virus protector prior to going online!
You then have other options which include incorporating your photos, music and videos onto your system. If you have a Media Center 2005 compatible PVR Card as part of your setup and you are connected via an aeiral, set top box or digi box then you can search for a feed. You have the option of where to save your media and to help speed up your system it may be recommended that you store this all on a seperate drive, something I will aim to do soon.
There are a series of prompts to help you go through the setup process which is quite succinct allowing you to override one or all parts. You can choose not to setup the system fully initially and do this the next time you log into your system.
I did find the support on the Microsoft website good although I have found some useful informaiton on other sites.
How well does it work?
I think this has to be the best system that Microsoft has produced to date. It is easy to use, comes with an array of bundled applications that are well integrated and quite straigtforward to use. This will help you cut down on the amount of seperate third party software used cutting down your overall computing costs and simplifying yours and others use of your system if it is used in perhaps a family setting.
You may find that you want a more comprehensive CD burner or Image Viewer but to be honest, for the average person that will not be doing much in the way of editing, all that you need is there.
The PVR function I find invaluable and is also supplied with a great TV Viewer which is great for scheduling any programs you'd like to record. It pays to be choosey with the hard drive you use as some appear to be quieter than others for use in an HTPC, when using Media Center for this purpose the quality I managed to attain was quite good although could be better with a higher quality card than what I have currently been using.
Play back of DVD's and CD's is good through the system. The quality of both is obviously not up to quite the same standard as a standalone unit howver as an integrated solution it can't be faulted. The sound I have through my current Logitech surround speakers is good although it won't be long before these will be replaced as the bass doesn't quite hit the low notes but treble is clear enough. The image quality is very good with rich colour on my LCD Monitor although the image is not quite as good when connected to my LCD TV but that's me being very pickey as friends were quite happy to view Films through my setup.
Playing DVD's is easy through the use of the additional remote control, likewise the use of any other feature you care to use although will find that you'll need your keyboard for entering vast quantities of data or perhaps url's. The remote control not only gives you the option to contol your PC but you can program your TV to be used through the Microsoft remote to clear clutter even further.
There are quick buttons for Recorded TV, TV Guide, Live TV and DVD Menu on the remote. There is a central Media Center button which allows you to fire up the operating system at any time.
The one thing I have really noticed with using this variation of Windows XP is that lack of stalling or system crashing. In fact I have not had a single problem thus far in almost 2 months use!
In case you are not aware, Windows Media Center 2005 runs behind Windows XP Professional. Depending on your setup, you can start in either version of XP or you can have a menu system at boot up to allow you to go into either Media Center or XP Professional.
Once the niggle of compatibility and installation are condemned and your system up and running, I think you'll find Windows Media Center a throughly entertaining option to use with its clean new interface. It seems like Microsoft have taken a few que's from Apple and have added slightly more functionality to make this a comprehensive media hub that can be linked to other computers in your home.
There's a lot to explore and many settings are attainable but only you will find out what is best for you. This could be the ideal solution if you are looking to tidy up your front room so that you can truly entertain and eduacate yourself/family.
I have no hesitations in recommending Media Center 2005, especially as you'll have to wait until at least 2007 before the next incarnation of Windows is likely to emerge. You have the option of using the XP Professional interface or the more pleasent Media Center one. Don't forget to purchase your Media Center 2005 remote and invest in a decent wireless keyboard and mouse.
One thing I did forget to mention, I purchased my Software and Remote as a bundle at a cost of £94.95 including postage from www.wehavethings.com. However they seem to have disappeared off the face of the earth however I know there are other retailers out there who sell these items including Scan and Ebuyer although they will need to be purchased seperately.