How I use Windows Media Center

After about 10 months of using Windows Media Center I decided to look back at how I use it. I guess it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the feature I actually use is the very same feature that motivated me to start using it in the first place. That’s right, out of everything it’ll do, for the most part I just use it as a DVR. The problem is that although it has a nice enough interface for listening to music, watching misc vidoes and looking at pictures, these features aren’t useful to me.

Music and Photos
These Media Center components actually work pretty nice, the problem is that my content lives in an Apple ecosystem. Sure you can just copy over your pictures and music, but you lose all your playlists, metadata, etc. There are some 3rd party applications to help integrate iTunes with Media Center, but to someone who also ownes an Apple TV, it just doesn’t make sense. So whenever I want to look at pictures or listen to music I switch inputs to the Apple TV — to my wife this means hitting the blue button on the remote.

This is the most useless of all Media Center features. Luckily most of the reasons why it is useless are resolved in Windows 7, but just to cover the highlights. The fact that you can’t resume videos, and even worse you can’t fast forward or rewind — only skip — makes it completely unusalbe. And then there is the folder fiasco. I mean why is it so hard to limit the folders that show up here. Do people really what to see the sample folders etc? I know I don’t.

I really only have one add-in that I use on a regular basis and that is mControl. And even with it, I have like 20 things I don’t like about it. Overall the worst thing about add-ins is how difficult it is to add the shortcuts to the main menu. But even once you get in, most of the add-ins feel very tacked on, and I find that programmers don’t seem to like Media Center’s UI as they try their best to not look like it. The most popular add-in for most is My Movies and although I could see it being useful if I still watched DVDs, the cover-art is way too small. And where are the good (free) weather apps? I just don’t understand why there aren’t more great add-ins.

The DVR rocks!
I can’t say enough great things about the way the DVR works though. I have a few complaints, but overall it is very enjoyable and so much better than TiVo. One thing is for sure, the thing is rock solid — when I haven’t broken something. I don’t think I’ve missed one recording because of a malfunction in the past 10 months.

I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating. In my household you don’t watch TV without watching it on Media Center. I have my home automation system setup so that when someone hits the power button on my Media Center remote the TV turns on to the correct input, the AVR turns on to the correct input and the Media Center goes to the Recorded TV screen. So it is a true one button, on one remote setup. I use the same remote in every room of the house and it functions the exact same way. From a user’s perspective the only difference is that Blu-ray and Apple TV re limited to the main room. Provided I don’t mess with it — a big if — it is very dependable. 

I look forward to the features in Windows 7 and hope to see other competitors give Media Center a run for its money, but as it stands now when it comes to the ultimate DVR experience for the home, it is Media Center and by a long shot.

14 Responses to “How I use Windows Media Center”

  1. Interesting thoughts.

    I agree with your DVR comments…VMC is rock solid and I’ve had no problems with 7MC either (outside of add-in compatibility issues).

    I see your point about videos being difficult to use in Media Center but I can also attest that I have used the videos feature many times without really thinking about that limitation. 5 seconds (or whatever it is for the skip back button) is all the granularity I need.

    The other add-in I have used with great regularity is vmcNetflix. It’s a great feature.

    I have started to transition to using my 360 for this though.

    My only issue with music is that there is no way (or maybe there is an I haven’t searched for it) to tell media center to rip music to MP3s. I’ve had no problem using both iTunes and Media Center for this though. Same with photos.

  2. Ben,

    You can use Heatwave for weather. It’s free. Here is the thread from TGB:

    – Andres

  3. Oh I also forgot to mention OML and/or MediaBrowser for a richer experience with movies. I moved away from MyMovies awhile ago. I still use the DB Editor for MetaData but OML has a much richer experience.

  4. DWAnderson says:

    Your post made me think about how we use Media Center (and the four Xbox 360 extenders) in our family:

    We use it as a DVR (in the same manner as you).

    We also use it for watching kids movies using MyMovies and for playing home videos (which I try to record in easily digestible 1-2 minute chunks). The home videos would seldom get seen if not for Media Center allowing them to be watched easily from the couch in front of any TV interface. Our young kids like this more than I would have expected.

    We will also watch photos using Media Center even though I keep them all cataloged using J River’s Media Center (JRMC). I put all the relevant metadata into fields in the JRMC Database and then use JRMX to convert it into keywords that Vista Media Center can search on. But notwithstanding the keywords functionality, in practice we watch most of our photos just be selecting a folder.

    My experience with music DOES parallel your. I keep all our audio files organized with JRMC and either use JRMC or one of three Roku Soundbridges connected to JRMC’s UPnP server to play back the music. The reason I don’t use Vista Media Center is the lack of customizable methods of drilling down to files and smartlists (both of which I get when using JRMC as a UPnP server).

  5. Jonathan says:

    Clifton- If i’m not mistaken, to rip CDs to MP3s in Media Center, change the settings (encoding type, bit rate, format…) in Media Player and Media Center should use those settings.

    Ben- That remote you linked to in this article, do you use that with your 360 or do you use a Harmony remote? Can you use that remote with the 360? I find the 360 Harmony remote sluggish and it doesn’t have all the media center buttons on it!!

  6. Ben Drawbaugh says:

    Yes it will control the 360, but I don’t use it to. It controls my HA controller which controls the 360 via either TCP or IR.

    The reason for this extra step is to avoid needing a programmable remote. So when I’m watching a Blu-ray then the play button sends a play IR command to my BD300, but when using the Media Center it issues a play command via VMCcontroller.

    I’ve tried a bunch of programmable remotes and think they are too complicated for normal people to use. The last one I had was the Harmony One, which is great hardware, but I couldn’t program the power button to turn the system On, and on top of that the touch screen intimidates people.

  7. Ben Drawbaugh says:

    Can’t believe I’ve never ran into that before, it looks great! I’ll try it when I get home, thanks.

  8. Josh S says:

    I am the same way as you, VMC is primarily my DVR first and for most. But I do run a few plugins OML, Heatwave, VMCnetflix, and now for plugins.

    We all know you’re an HD “snob” 😉 so we can’t put it past you for not using plugins like VMCnetflix or for hulu.


  9. Mark says:

    Hey Ben

    I’ve heard you talk about not being able to record the TV buffer a few times. Try this:


  10. […] How Ben Drawbaugh uses Windows Media Center [Ben Drawbaugh] […]

  11. Thunderdome says:

    My main use for Vista MCE is to watch videos. So I purchased a 360 for use as a media extender in the bedroom, and guess what? Not a single video will play on the 360. Sad. The 360 mce remote is also whacked. Pressing vol(-) changes the input on my TV, pressing it again changes the channel on the TV. The whole way we browse and view videos on MCE is junk. If I wanted to just browse blue folders, I’d change the colors of my desktop and go from there.

    My whole goal was to stay away from TV tuners and get my media elsewhere. Looks like Microsoft has gone the exact opposite direction. But who wants to spend $500+ on a DVR? Seriously? It needs to do something else.

  12. Ben Drawbaugh says:

    I spent $1200 on a DVR and figured out that it was actually cheaper than I paid for TiVo once I considered the service fees.

    With no single standard video it can be impossible for just about any device to support every format. That being said when you consider how well the DVR functionality works combined with the ability to transcode MC is hard to beat for an all around living room experience.

  13. Jim says:

    Totally useless write up. I can’t even believe this came up in a google search.

    Understandably that these are your thoughts on your site, Ben, but seriously they help nobody.

    You have no historical basis in which to be writing about. My advice is to keep a pen and paper diary about such thoughts and stop wasting other people’s time.

    • Ben Drawbaugh says:

      You do realize you replied to a two year old blog post on a personal blog. I mean what were you expecting to find on a personal blog? Sorry that Google and me let you down.