You're My Obsession

I've wanted a media center for a long time. Or something like it, anyway. I already maintain a home network with a terabyte of storage and all of my music ripped to it. I don't need a big beefy PC up in my media room. I've been looking feverishly at a ton of products, but nothing really stuck. I was worried that the stand-alone products wouldn't work in my somewhat complex network environment. Even if they did, I like to have music playing in the living room. Today I can do that because the house is wired for whole-house audio and my processor supports multiple zones. Unfortunately, music from a server poses a problem here because I need to see a screen in the living room in order to make selections. Even my fancy Pronto Pro, with RF support, is not enough here: I need a two way connection.

So I sat. And sat. And sat. Finally, with Media Center 2005 Microsoft created an answer for me: I can buy a media center extender and it will connect to the media center and stream independently. All I need is a small amp, a pair of speakers and a small screen and I can plug the extender into an eithernet port in the living room and enjoy music.

Which Media Center?

I have a PC in my office. I have two servers and three laptops. I have an additional three network applicances that offer configuration web sites on my network. I am not in want of any more computers in the house: we're full. However, I do want all the rich control that Media Center has to offer right in my media room. I want it sitting in my audio rack, nicely covered by closed doors. I want to treat this thing like an applicance. My choices are slim. While many companies have learned that consumers don't want a tower in their family room and have produced designs that look like stereo components, few fit the polish and size requirements I have. I need a component that is no more 4.5" high, and it needs to look right at home in my rack and not like an ugly black plastic box. I was originally shooting for Niveus Media Center, but at a cost of over $3000.00, I couldn't justify it. Then, HP came to my rescue with the z540. At $1400, it was a comparable bargin. And the matching extender was only $299. Great. Now, how fast can I get it?

The HP z540 looks like a piece of stereo gear.

The HP z540 looks like a piece of stereo gear.

Impulse Buy

We were hosting a party a day before Thanksgiving. I wanted my new media toys to be up and running in time for the party. A word of caution: it is very difficult to impulse buy an entire media center setup.

The media center itself was easy. A quick zip of the credit card through brought it here next day air. I ordered it on Friday morning, and it was here Monday. But remember, in order to get music downstairs through the extender I was going to need a new amplifier, a pair of speakers and a screen to connect to the media extender. I also had two requirements for all of this living room equipment:

  • The speakers must be "musical". I hate the sound of our existing in-ceiling speakers.
  • The equipment must look good and blend into the living room. To quote my wife, "we already have one media room. I don't want two."

With those two requirements in mind I tore through store after store, listening to speakers. I listened to seven pairs of speakers over the course of two days. Here, I ran into a bit of a snag. My first requirement wasn't met by any of the speakers I listened to at consumer-level audio stores. Little audio boutique stores faired much better, but those guys aren't really into the impulse buy thing so nearly everything has to be ordered. Also, the speakers I found that sounded the best didn't really fit the second requirement: they look quite a lot like speakers. But, impulse is impulse, and I bought a used pair of Linn Katan bookshelf speakers with matching stands.

Next I needed an amplifier and monitor. I decided to reuse the amplifier that powered the in-ceiling audio speakers, so all I needed was a monitor. CompUSA had just the ticket: a 17" flat panel LCD TV. It wasn't very attractive, and it was pretty large for the living room, but what the heck. Impulse is impulse.

Setting Up

The media center was pretty easy to setup. I have to say, though, that it is one deep chassis. It's even deeper than my amplifier, and that's no small feat. Media center recommends you start out with S-Video and, once you get everything working, migrate to component. While the initial boot sequence seemed to take forever, my first experience setting up Media Center was really positive. The UI is very attractive and the first time setup walks you through configuring your TV, audio and video settings. I only bought a single tuner because I'm a Direct TV user, and no one makes Direct TV tuner cards for PCs yet. Instead, Media Center is controlling my Tivo box through an IR blaster. Setting this up was actually really easy: kudos to the Media Center guys for making that a decent experience.

The Media Center UI, by the way, is just fantastic. It's way faster and better looking than my Tivo UI.

The Living Room

Once I had the Media Center plugged into the media room I turned my attention to the living room. Here, I had a bit of a problem. I knew the speakers and monitor I just bought weren't going to cut it. When Danna came home she reinforced that fear and indicated that the best place for them would be anywhere but the living room. I did manage to get the media center extender up and running for a bit, but in the end we decided to take everything back and do a slightly less impulsive shopping run later.

Things that Suck

Not all is rosy in Media Center land. In many ways, the Media Center PC is just that: a PC, masquerading in a flashy chassis. It would have been better off in my office. I think Microsoft has a real hit in the making, but they need to start at the bottom of the stack and work their way up. Here are some of my "experiences" I'd rather other folks not have to relive:

  1. The Media Center UI is really a fantastic app, but it doesn't do everything. When you need to exit it to setup the Media Center, watch out: you drop straight off a cliff into Windows-land. The difference in the family room is like going from Windows to DOS. Power users feel cool, but everyone else just wonders why they had to do it in the first place.
  2. Setting up component video is a chore. Forget the flashy Media Center UI. Instead, dig out the wireless keyboard and mouse and start fiddling around in the ATI control panel. That's the only way to get it to work correctly.
  3. Can anyone say "script error". The Media Center UI is great, with nice flowing animated graphics. Too bad all the plug-ins for it, mostly written by third parties, don't get to play with the same UI primitives. Most third parties resort to DHTML and script for their UI. If you squint and drink a pint of whiskey the UI looks almost as good. However, I still get random script errors and if the network drops out for a moment sometimes the UI doesn't display at all.
  4. Windows Media supports multi-channel sound. This should be a good thing, but most people that have real home theaters want direct digital outputs from their source components to their really fancy surround processor. I do not want base management handled by some $60 SoundBlaster card. Unfortunately, all multi-channel digital outputs today must be encoded using Dolby Digital, DTS, or some other consumer encoding format that the surround processor can understand. Those encoders cost money and are not included on that SoundBlaster card, so the card can only output multi-channel audio through the analog output jacks. I have a nice digital coax cable coming out of my Media Center that plays in two channels only. Note that, because DVD is essentially a pass through, a DVD played in Media Center does have full multi-channel sound.
  5. Speaking of sound, WHY IS THE VOLUME OF THE TV SO DAMN LOUD? It's twice as loud as "reference" volume, and I can find no way to adjust it. I just have to make sure I turn down the volume on my processor before switching to TV. Major pain.
  6. DVDs. I know in this day of music and motion picture companies pissing and moaning about their intellectual property rights it was too good to be true. Forget about the pipe dream of ripping a DVD to my hard drive (I would even be fine if it was heavily DRM protected; I just don't want to keep all the DVDs easily accessible). No, Media Center can't even play most recent DVDs because they are copy protected. Thanks, Mr. Media Mogul. Just what I want to do: store every DVD and CD I have ever purchased in some nicely accessible and alphabetized drawer so I can find what I'm looking for. Jesus, it's the equivalent of using a card catalog at the library. Update: If you run media center through either a DVI connection or at 480p through component, the copy protection warning won't appear and the DVD will play fine. I still think the copyright owners are being too restrictive here.
  7. While the Media Center OS came pre-installed, I had to install software to support the Media Extender. I put the software in the Media Center's DVD drive and got a nice, flashy installation UI entirely usable by the Media Center remote. Usable, that is, until I was prompted for a 25 digit product activation code. Come on, Microsoft. What good is the media center extender software without a media center to talk to? No consumer should ever have to type in one of these damn product activation codes, especially for a Media Center experience.
  8. There is no support for domain controllers in Media Center. I'm not too surprised by this -- who runs a domain in their house anyway? -- but, all of my music is shared out on my domain. It wasn't very hard to get media center to use this share, but it wouldn't find it by default. However, I just couldn't get the media center extender to see the share at all.
  9. Finally, the thing is just flaky sometimes. There is a pesky service that spins and eats an entire half of the processor sometimes. Other times, it wakes up out of standby for no apparent reason. The Media Center UI has crashed on me before. I have received script errors while watching movies from Cinema Now. If Microsoft wants Media Center to feel at home in my living room it needs to be very stable and very predictable. My Tivo, which runs Linux under the covers, is very stable. It's not stable because it runs Linux. It's stable because they are only using the bare minimum components. Media Center could be this stable if it started out using NT Embedded, but that would make it an appliance and not a PC. For me, that would be a good thing. For others, that would be a huge waste of money. I think Microsoft will have some trouble here as long as Media Center keeps its current identity crisis: it can't be both a PC and an appliance. Not until the PC side of it becomes as easy to use as an appliance.

Things that Rock

That's a long list of things that suck. You'd think I don't like my new Media Center. I do like it. In fact, I love it. My list of things that suck stems from my desire to see this product really take off in the consumer space. There's plenty to be really quite happy about, however:

  1. Media Extenders rock. I can get my music streamed to multiple places in my house pretty easily. The media extender and media center itself actually ship with 802.11g WiFi built in, so even if you don't have wired ethernet you can still rock out.
  2. The Media Center UI is really one slick piece of work. It's attractive, fun to use, and very fast.
  3. There are inputs everywhere for both audio and video. I finally have an avenue to take Danna's skydiving video and rip it from VHS to Windows Media or DVD.
  4. Because I have it pointing to my server for all my music, and I do the same for all my other PCs in the house, I can create playlists and rip CDs anywhere that is convenient to me. Its a great "it just works" experience.
  5. Built-in Napster, Cinema Now and Movie Link are awesome. Sure, they're implemented using flaky script and DHTML, but that's not the point. The point is that I can get music and movies on demand from these services whenever I want. Someday, I hope that everything -- telephone, TV, audio and internet -- all come into my house through some fat digital pipe. Using these services today is a hint at what is to come.