Windows Media Center: the sleeper that's a keeper

I just need to throw out the love to the under-appreciated, under-covered, and under-installed Windows Media Center.

Yes, it's a chore to setup (and virtually impossible to setup properly if you're not technical).   But if you're blessed with the genes of tech, you can set yourself up with a whole-home A/V system that seems designed for millionaires in mansions.

It's my primary interface to all my media, everywhere in my home.  And it's elegant, smooth, responsive, and just awesome to use.   The interface is what ended up inspiring the Zune/Metro/Win8 look.  This is where it all began, folks!

OK, so why is it the sleeper that's a keeper?

Why it's a sleeper:

  • It's never talked about in the tech media.  It's severely under-reported.
  • Microsoft doesn't market it.  Virtually nobody knows about it.  It's only used by about 6% of all Windows users.  Oh, did you know that it's probably built into your Windows PC? 
  • It quietly, competently works.  And there's a host of software and hardware support for it out there in the niches of the webosphere. 
  • OEMs pretty much gave up on creating dedicated HTPCs powered by Media Center.  Shame.

Why it's a keeper:

  • Between my base HTPC and my extenders, I have a consistent, whole-home A/V management system that powers every TV, the same way. 
  • It's 100% wife-friendly (once set up!)
  • It's beautiful
  • It's the only CableCard-ready solution that does not have a monthly fee!
  • You can give back your ugly cable box (and it's ugly UI!)
  • You can tell your cable company to stop charging you $15/month for their DVR
  • You can have Media Center host all of your movies, music library, TV shows, video podcasts, podcasts, blu-rays, whatever... all in a single, unified, remote-controlled interface that the whole family can use with ease.
  • You can launch Boxee from within Media Center to get instant access to all of the more modern net-connected apps (Pandora, YouTube, etc.)
  • You can watch streaming NetFlix movies directly from within Media Center
  • You can make beautiful digital photo albums with awesome transitions with music background.   There's never been a better way to show off your photos than via Media Center.
  • You can have unlimited DVR storage.
  • Yes, it works with your digital cable channels, including HD.  (No; it does not work with on-demand channels)
  • It will be in Windows 8 - so there is a future for Media Center.
  • Integrates with Amazon's download service for video and music (which is nice)
  • With my Ceton quad-tuner, I can:
    • Watch live cable TV on up to 4 different TVs in the house simultaneously... all through 1 media center PC.
    • Record up to 4 shows simultaneously, while watching up to 4 DVR'd shows on 4 TVs - at the same time.

Last, but not least, why it can also be a stinker:

  • Microsoft doesn't update it too often -- feature set falling behind in new media
  • Lacking core, native apps to access net-hosted media (Hulu, YouTube, Pandora, etc.)
  • No on-screen purchasing of music.
  • The App/Plug-in ecosystem has lost its juice over the years.
  • Microsoft purchased WMC's on-line community and summarily destroyed it.
  • Did I mention initial setup is not trivial?

My primary HTPC is in a slick case that makes it look like a mega blu-ray player, and it's always running in full-screen Media Center mode (in "set top box" mode), so I don't use it as a PC at all.  Just as a Media Center set-top-box.   When people visit, they are astounded by what I have running my TV!   They can't believe something like this even exists.  It's fun to be ahead of the curve even when the software itself is getting quite long in the tooth.

Yes, GoogleTV is interesting, and so is AppleTV.  But we still watch 90% of our content via Cable TV.  And that's the game WMC plays best... traditional media management.   Natively.

I do watch a lot of video podcasts and internet-based media as well.  WMC hosts podcasts easily, but it's far less elegant with internet media.  For that, I need to pop over to Boxee or a custom WMC app.   This is where WMC needs to grow and expand, and I hope it does so with Windows 8 in 2012.