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Windows Vista Media Center

As far as I'm concerned, Windows Media Center is one of the best-- if not the best-- applications Microsoft has ever created. And it was written in .NET to boot.

I've been a huge MCE enthusiast since the original version was released in 2003, so I was greatly looking forward to the Vista edition of Media Center. I've slowly been upgrading my Home Theater PC over the last two years in anticipation of the shift to Vista:

Eventually I want to plop an internal HD-DVD drive in this machine once prices and configurations stabilize. But that's probably another 8-12 months out.

This weekend I took the plunge and upgraded my HTPC from Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 to Windows Vista Home Premium. I wasn't disappointed. Vista's Media Center is a vast improvement over XP's Media Center. It's faster, it's prettier, and it's thoroughly improved in every way.

Windows Vista Media Center, Recorded TV

The default UI makes better use of the horizontal, widescreen arrangements most home theater setups will have. Recorded shows are now displayed as a linear timeline with a graphic still, rather than plain text in a list.

Windows Vista Media Center, Music Library

Under Vista's Media Center, my 60+ GB music library is now a pleasure to navigate. Like videos, much better use of horizontal screen real estate; I can see dozens of albums at once. And the music library is dramatically faster. Displaying, searching, scrolling-- it's all nearly instantaneous now. I love the new "play all" shuffle mode, too.

Windows Vista Media Center, Guide

The program guide-- which is completely free, no monthly charges whatsoever-- now overlays the live video as a transparency. There's also a new popup Mini-Guide (not pictured) which lets you browse nearby channels without obscuring playback.

Windows Vista Media Center, Main Menu

The main menu no longer stops whatever I'm doing and zaps me back to a flat menu screen. It's more of a pop-up style menu, which can be accessed at any time through the big green MCE button. I can now continue watching my program in the background while navigating the main menu, too.

Another big quality of life improvement in Vista's Media Center is that a DVD codec is included right out of the box. So Vista's Media Center, unlike the one in Windows XP, is fully usable after a clean install. It even works with my SPDIF out for Dolby Digital sound playback. There's no longer any need to rely on questionable, expensive third-party DVD playback apps.

Did I mention burning TV shows to DVD is now included out of the box, too? As far as I'm concerned, Media Center is the killer app for Vista. And at $120 for the OEM Home Premium edition, it's a flat-out bargain for a better-than-Tivo experience-- without all those onerous monthly fees.

If you're interested in a home theater PC, all you need is the following:

  1. Vista Home Premium (or Ultimate)
  2. relatively modern PC
  3. MCE compatible PVR card
  4. MCE remote

One caveat: I've stuck exclusively and intentionally with analog cable. All my digital video needs are satisified at the moment through DVD rentals and downloads. However, it is possible to record and play back over the air HDTV signals with Media Center, assuming you have a MCE compatible HDTV tuner installed (such as the AverMedia MCE A180). The only unresolved issue at this point is CableCard, for digital cable.

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: http://twitter.com/codinghorror