Perfecting Windows Media Center in Windows 8

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I'm an avid Windows Media Center user, and I still find that it's the best interface out there for my TV setup. It really is the best way to access all of my music, photos, movies, and TV shows in one consistent interface, while at the same time allowing me to have live TV, including any premium channels I subscribe to. Yes, part of this is the cable companies that restrict use of CableCard to only Media Center, but it still works really well for me.

Now, we've seen in screenshots leaked of the Windows 8 Consumer Preview that Media Center is there. However, it's just listed as another application in the start menu:

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While we don't know for sure since nobody has demoed Windows Media Player yet, I'd imagine that this means there will be minimal change. This is sort of to be expected for a niche product. However, that means that you're going to be using another interface in addition to the main Metro start screen just for Media Center.

I've written about this before, but never in too much depth. It's my opinion that a complete revamp of Media Center for Windows 8 would make the most sense. As great as WMC is, there are some major issues with it in its current form.

The biggest of these are:

  1. There's little plugin support: Very few developers have made the effort to release a Media Center plugin. There are some great ones, definitely. I use myTV and MyMovies regularly, and there's a good Netflix plugin, as well as the excellent MediaBrowser plugin. However, these are few and far between.
  2. The layout of WMC is too rigid: You can edit the start screen in Media Center with a discontinued tool called Media Center Studio. However, you need to constantly delete resources files (which I do with a tool called fixmc at every boot) because otherwise Media Center gets overwritten with the default layout.
  3. No Softsled: I won't really address this one much, but it'd be much nicer if you could get the full power of a Windows PC and use that as a Media Center Extender. Instead, you can only use the Xbox, which has limited codec support as an Extender, and almost no plugins work on it.

The best way to fix the first two problems is pretty simple, even though it would require a major revamp. If Microsoft just separated out the parts of Media Center into separate Metro-style apps, then you could not only customize your start screen however you want, but also add in any Metro-style app to your Media Center. Imagine something like this instead:

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(Apologies for the horribly done mockup but only have access to Paint on this PC).

By simply separating each part of Media Center out, you can create the perfect Media Center for your own needs. Of course, that wouldn't be enough on its own. The other thing that Media Center does perfectly is that it is completely controllable by remote control. I know, some people are complaining that the remote is a broken way of navigating, but Media Center does still do a great job with it. You really would only have to slightly modify some buttons:

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(I don't actually use a MS remote; I instead have a Harmony, but this is used just as an illustration.)

Typing out buttons could do a search of whatever screen you're on; if in Movies, you could search that just by typing (this is how it works now). However, you also would be able to search the Metro / Windows 8 start screen in order to jump directly to any application you wanted. Microsoft would just need to make sure the Metro framework supports navigation with the arrow buttons in a intuitive manner (which in fact it might do already, I didn't try the Developer Preview on my Media Center PC since it didn't have WMC at all), and then the start button on the remote could be modified to bring you to the Metro start screen (instead of the Media Center start screen). You would also still be able to jump directly to the Guide or Live TV using the dedicated buttons.

Really, Microsoft is only a few steps away from making Media Center perfect. With Windows 8, the framework for finishing the job is right in front of them; it's too bad that as of now it just looks like they won't be doing it.

I'd love to hear opinions on this though. Maybe I'm missing something entirely, but this would definitely be my dream for Media Center in Windows 8. The only downside I can see is in initial setup. You'd have to unpin a lot of the default stuff (half of the stuff in the mockup image would have to be removed, for example), but once you did that, it would be exactly the way that each individual user wanted it to be.