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  Getting started with Media Center Edition 2005 
  Feb 02, 2005, 08:30am EST 

Picking parts and installation

By: Sander Sassen

Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 is the first Media Center Edition from Microsoft that’s also available to end-users. Previous versions were only shipped to system integrators and sold with complete systems. Since an OEM version of MCE ’05 can be bought from most retailers you now have the option to build you own Windows XP Media Center Edition PC or equip an existing PC with Media Center Edition functionality. In essence Media Center Edition 2005 is similar to a standard version of Windows XP with Service Pack 2 in terms of look and feel, but obviously with added Media Center Edition features. To make full use of these features there however is a list of requirements set forth by Microsoft, not surpising, that includes an infrared remote control and the use of one or two TV-tuner cards.

Microsoft IR remote

The Media Center Edition remote control and getting started guide.

Previous versions of Windows XP Media Center Edition narrowed the selection of TV-tuner cards down to a very limited number of products that were only available to system integrators. This time Microsoft had to broaden the range a bit to make MCE ’05 work with a much larger variety of TV-tuner cards. The requirement is now more on the software side of things, as most popular chipsets are supported, but it is up to the individual manufacturer to supply a MCE ’05-compatible driver. As with previous versions of MCE though, many TV-tuner cards only work under MCE ’05, and no driver or application is supplied to make them work with regular versions of Windows XP. So as a first recommendation, make sure a MCE ’05 compatible driver is available if you’re looking to buy a TV-tuner card, else it simply will not work.

TV-tuner cards

The Hauppage Win-TV-PVR-150MCE and ATI eHome Wonder PCI TV-tuner cards.

If you want to explore the possibilities of Media Center Edition 2005 on a budget there is really only two TV-tuner cards you should be looking at. The first TV-tuner card is manufactured by Hauppage and is dubbed the WinTV-PVR-150MCE and retails for about $60. For that amount you get the card in bulk edition and a driver disc with the MCE ’05 driver so it has all you need to get started. The second TV-tuner card is built up North by the same company that butts heads with NVIDIA all the time and is also priced around $60. The ATI eHome Wonder is a TV-tuner card that comes in two versions: a value edition with just TV functionality and the regular eHome Wonder that offers both TV and FM functionality. Either one of the above mentioned cards will work fine with a MCE ’05 system; we frankly couldn’t really distinguish between them in terms of image quality.

Media Center main menu

The Media Center Edition main menu, which pops up right after startup.

But how about processor clockspeed, memory, harddisk and all that jazz you might wonder? Well, Windows Media Center Edition 2005 isn’t that demanding; even an entry level system consisting of a 2.4GHz Celeron processor and 512MB of memory will have plenty of processing power to run it. Only if you decide to use two tuners and are planning on recording one show while watching the other you would need something upwards of 3GHz, and 1GB of memory will certainly help as well. In terms of harddisk space you basically need as much as you’d think you will use, with 250GB and recording quality set at best you’re good for about 90 hours. But if you crank the recording quality settings all the way down that increases available recording time to 200 hours, whilst still looking good enough to record your favorite soaps.

Media Center CD/DVD writing menu

The CD/DVD writing menu, directly writing to CD/DVD is not supported.

So with a copy of Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 and a TV-tuner card we’re all set? No, not really, besides the MCE ’05 CD you’ll also need the Microsoft infrared remote control and a USB receiver. Only with this remote you’ll be able to control your MCE ’05 from the couch, rather than having to use a wireless mouse and keyboard. Obviously it also works without it, but for the $40 you’re looking to spend I’d rather have the convenience of an infrared remote. But there’s more, Microsoft does not ship Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 with a MPEG2 codec, despite all of the extras included. So we’ll have to install a 3rd party MPEG2 codec to make sure we can actually use the software, as without it you will not be able to watch TV or DVD. We used NVIDIA’s DVD decoder as that offers everything and the kitchen sink in one package for just $19.95 and despite it being an NVIDIA product, it works fine with all DirectX 8/9 compatible graphics cards, including those manufactured by ATI.

Media Center recorder storage

The recorder storage available, more than 90 hours with 250GB free diskspace.

Once you got all the parts in the actual installation is a breeze; install the TV-tuner card(s), connect the USB infrared receiver to an USB port and let the Windows XP installation wizard take care of the rest. When the installation is completed you’ll be greeted with a desktop much like you’re used to from Windows XP, just with a slightly altered color scheme. You can choose to keep it, or switch back to Windows XP defaults, as the real fun only starts after pressing the green button. Oh yes, that’s the green button on the remote control, press that to be magically transported to the ten foot user interface of Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005. Navigating is as easy as pressing buttons on the remote, but before you can actually start using MCE ’05 you’ll be asked to configure things first. Configuration simply includes setting up TV-channels and configuring your speakers as well as selecting what display to use. All this can be done from the couch by using the remote, so get comfortable and sit back whilst you key in your preferences.

Media Center program guide

The Media Center Edition program guide, all your TV channels are listed here.

Got everything working? Great, just make sure you read up on some of the shortcomings of Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 before you decide to do away with your VCR, DVD recorder or CD player. In the end Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 is a significant step up from previous editions, but still cannot compete with other consumer electronics devices it is pitched against. It however makes for a nice addition to an existing PC, especially if you want it to do more than surf the internet, send email or play games. Just don’t expect a Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 PC to function as a be all and end all consumer electronics device that combines the best of both worlds.

Sander Sassen.

1. Picking parts and installation
2. Pricing information

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