At the touch of a button

Not happy with the off-the-shelf media centre solutions on offer I built a HTPC based on Windows Media Center (WMC) that was small enough and quiet enough to blend into my living room. In other words, I couldn’t hear it or see it. This allowed me to replace our ageing stereo, DVD player and video player and three remote controls. That was about two years ago and I am still pleased with the result.

But as with all things technological, they become obsolete or need upgrading in order to keep them working. There were intermittent problems with playing DVDs and CDs that didn’t go away when I replaced the DVD player in the HTPC. Another issue was that the cable TV provider switched from analogue to digital TV which meant not only that I could no longer record TV using the analogue TV card in the HTPC, but now I had a another (decoder) box and another remote control to contend with.

The first upgrade was to replace our faithful 28″ Philips CRT TV with a new 32″ Samsung LED model that is very pleasing to the eye and fits a lot better in our living room where real estate is at a premium in our apartment. Bigger picture, sharper image but also built-in support for a CA module (eliminating the need for the separate decoder) as well as a HDMI socket for optimal AV connectivity with the HTPC.

So far so good. The next step was to upgrade the HTPC with Windows 7 Home Edition (OEM 1,145 SEK) which included a new version of WMC. This seems to have solved the DVD/CD playback problems. It also allows file sharing with the HP laptop that is also running Windows 7 using the new Homegroup feature.

Of course the real purpose of having a HTPC is to be able to access all of one’s media at the touch of a button: photos, music, videos, films, etc. At this point I had sufficient hardware to make a decent go of it: Digital TV, laptop and HTPC. One of the benefits of the HTPC is being able to add new features as the become available, so expectations were high.

Viewing one’s prized digital photos on a large screen is a pleasure. We manage our photos on the laptop using Picasa and also use Picasa Web to post them to the Internet. With file sharing the pictures could also be viewed using WMC. However, this required that the laptop is powered on and that the HTPC has connectivity to the distant wireless network, neither of which is always true. So rather than using file sharing, the solution was to synchronise the photos to the HTPC once a day. This eliminates any connectivity problems when viewing the photos and as a bonus, functions as a backup location. Without too much research I paid $30 for Beyond Sync which has a scheduler and real-time sync options.

There is also a whole library of MP3 music files on the laptop that should be able to be played back on the HTPC. This was solved the same way as for the photos using synchronisation. However, buying CDs and ripping them to disk is no longer the only way to stream your music. Now there are services like Spotify which can stream music for free to your HTPC. Enter Songler which is a free plug-in for WMC that allows one to control Spotify from your Windows remote control. Songler also has support for LastFM and YouTube.

And lastly, videos and films. I have a few video files on the laptop that can also be synced to the HTPC, but all of my films and TV series are on DVD. Two reasons for wanting to transfer DVDs to the HTPC: DVDs for the kids are prone to damage due to excessive handling and TV series one watches one episode at a time which results in a lot of DVD changes. WMC does not come with any DVD ripping function but there is an excellent program with plugin called MyMovies which costs $50 for disk copy functionality or $100 for full functionality. DVDs are usually copy protected so AnyDVD is a must for $64 (lifetime license).

As with music you can now stream video to your HTPC. YouTube is one such service and there is the MacroTube plug-in. Here in Sweden, the TV stations also provide a streaming service called “Play” for recently shown programs. This is also accessible from WMC via the Play-kanaler plug-in.

The only feature missing is recording TV programs, but I watch so little live TV nowadays that TV Play suffices. And following a TV series at the same time every week is just not possible. There are digital TV PCI cards available but then one also needs to buy a CA-module and a second subscription which isn’t worth it for me.

So now all of my photos, music, videos and films as well as music and video streamed from the Internet are available at the touch of one, or well, just a few buttons. Now only time will tell if all of this time and effort and money will result in a unified media experience.

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