« Why you should avoid a Windows Home Server | Main | Pre-sales "support"? »

Why I ditched Microsoft's Windows Media Center (2005 + Vista)

I was scolded the other day by a coworker for complaining so verbally about Windows Media Center on my blog (in my last blog post about my experiences with Windows Home Server). I pointed out to him that it was my blog, and I could write about it if I felt like it. Adamant, he suggested that I was being overly harsh and that my experiences weren't the norm.

That may be the case, but I can still vent my frustration and maybe my venting will give someone else either a moment of pause when they are making a decision to use the Media Center software (or at least a shoulder to cry on).

Just to give a bit of background -- I had a first generation Panasonic ReplayTV back in 2000. So, I've been using DVR technology for many years! (We later bought a newer ReplayTV (the one with built-in commercial skip, BEST FEATURE EVER -- but it died an early death unfortunately.)

There are plenty of things to like about the Windows Media Center. Heck, I bought it soon after 2005 was made selling (OEM). I custom built a PC, dedicated just for this one purpose as I knew I'd never like sharing CPU/disk/etc. with the Windows Media Center functionality (WMC).

The custom PC was installed on a shelf in a basement, connected to our whole-house IR system, and in turn connected to a video-multiplexor, giving us the ability to turn on any TV in the house and remotely control the Media Center. The setup worked well enough generally speaking.

Some of the problems stemmed from the fact that we live out in the country (wired prairie, get it?), so we don't have access to cable TV. Instead, we were subscribing to DirectTV. I had dual tuners with dual satellite receivers. Most of the time, the shows recorded as desired. Occasionally, the channel wouldn't change successfully; we'd start watching a recorded program, to find out instead of channel 232, it had recorded channel 23. Wonderful. I experimented with various settings for adjusting the speed of how the IR signals would be sent to the receivers (even some low level tweaks to the registry). Still, I'd say about once or twice a month, it would record the wrong show. Frustrating, but not the end of the world.

(We had used DirectTv Tivo units for a couple of years at first, but they were so slow and kept recording such oddities that we wanted more control over programming -- the way ReplayTV and WMC work).

I drank the Kool-Aid: I bought a Linksys Extender. Wow, that could have been a more terrible product!

Later, I bought an Xbox 360 to extend the media center experience when those became available. Certainly, that was a better extender than the Linksys box. I think we must have used the Linksys about 5 times. Yeah. It was $300. What a waste! It taught me an expensive lesson (and to be wary of Microsoft's commitment to hardware platforms).

When Vista came out, we decided to buy a new dedicated PC as we wanted to continue with WMC. The HP came with tuners, both low and high-def. We had decided a while back to switch to Dish Network.

Vista wasn't any better at IR blasting than 2005. I'm sure it's a function of the receivers, the PC, sunspots, etc., but it actually got worse. Probably 2-3 times a month, the wrong show would be recorded. Often, on Sunday mornings for some reason. I even had setup some dummy manual programs to force shows to record early in the morning (when it seemed to happen most often), but it still happened.

I had some new things with Vista that weren't happening as frequently in 2005: crashes. I had to restart the machine at least once a month manually. The display would get corrupted, and the wonderful Nvidia drivers would often get confused about the display and start sending the video to the wrong display (the video card had dual output -- it was set in a mirror mode so that it would go to our multiplexor and to a local attached monitor in the basement). Sometimes, randomly, Nvidia would declare: "Mirror mode -- you don't need that!"

Also -- we initially had some problems with the network -- 'congestion' it called it -- yet it was connected to a gigabit LAN and network card and nothing else was happening on the network. Some flaw in the network card driver supposedly could cause it, so a few tweaks later, that problem seemed to resolve itself (after a lot of hair pulling!).

Then, the Xbox 360, during the middle of a show, would play audio, but no video after about 15 minutes of watching the show without pressing any buttons (it was like a screen saver in behavior!). (It didn't matter if it was low or high def content).

The crashes continued. The lock-ups continued. The shows not recording properly continued. The Xbox 360 taking so blasted long to connect continued. The 'screen saver' feature of the Xbox MC experience continued.

If I used the WMC PC for other things, I'd would expect some problems -- but this PC was DEDICATED to only running Media Center 24x7.

We're now using a HD DVR 722 receiver from Dish Network. It's got the stupidest UI I've ever seen in a DVR-- but in line with all their other terrible UI mistakes in other receivers that I've seen. (Dish? Do you need some help with UI? I'd love to help!) However, with the exception of the nice movie finder feature that my wife liked, it has all the features we were using on the WMC.

We can watch 2 shows at once, and depending on setup, can record 3 shows (1 HD, 1 LD, and 1 HD antenna). It's instant-on (as it's in standby usually). It's fast. It has 30 second skip. It has a 300+GB HD.  I haven't had to reboot it. Nor install any security patches, or device driver updates, or tweak the network card.

My wife continues to use the WMC movie finder in Vista even though she can't hit 'record'. She just writes down the names of the movies and finds them on the Dish DVR. Supposedly, in the Spring, Dish is releasing some new online services for remote scheduling, etc., that will be welcome additions.

I bought a Slingbox SOLO, so I can now watch "HD" content in my den from the Dish DVR. (I don't have a TV in my den). (Slingbox -- SLICK!).

 

So, summary:

When the WMC can be 99.999% stable, like other pieces of home electronics (like a DVD player for example), record 99.999% of the time satellite content we want, can interact with an extender 100% of the time, then I'll consider going back. Until that time, I'm going to stick with a single purpose box, even if it's not as polished in some areas.

 

I'm tired of dealing with technology. I don't want to troubleshoot other people's software or technology in my house. I just want it to work!

Help support my web site by searching and buying through Amazon.com (in assocation with Amazon.com).