Windows 8 Media Centre

Tea Londons Elton gives some thoughts on the future of home automation, and how the humble PC can play an important role in changing your TV viewing habits.

From a young age I have always been surprised how ideas and concepts imagined by the fertile minds of Science Fiction authors and scriptwriters became to be realised as significant technical accomplishments later on. I have come to understand that pretty much anything is possible if we have the vision to imagine it and the willpower to accomplish it.

Nowadays home automation presents home owners with the level of automation and integration so advanced that it is not so much what it automates for you, but more a case of how much you can invest in it. With the advent of affordable home control system products such as the hardware based Control4 systems to software driven systems like Stardraw Control, the notion of installing a home automation system no longer exclusively applies to the incredibly wealthy. It now puts it within reach of those consumers who can comfortably afford to buy, say, a Mac notebook computer.

In addition to installing home automation control systems, I still see the PC as the essential piece of ‘kit’ as the centre of any home AV system, and will likely win out over more complicated and specialised home control systems as time goes on. It already provides a compelling array of Media storage and delivery services. Windows Media Centre, which is a ‘built-in’ feature of most versions of Windows Vista and Windows 7, provides you with a media-centric, intuitive user interface that is designed to be displayed and comfortably on flatscreen TV’s.

We are looking forward to the next release in Windows 8, which is currently in test or ‘preview’ stages of development. The first version of the new Media Centre Metro application included in the latest preview release.

Some reasons why Windows Media Centre is good for you:

  •  Simplified file sharing. File sharing is not a big deal, it can be achieved with most computers or even with NAS drives, however something like recorded TV is not typically shared. Using Media Centre to record TV, means that recorded TV is stored as a video file, that can be opened by any other system capable of running Media Centre. If you imagine how, for example, SKY+ operates, where recordings are only accessible on the box that recorded a programme, you may begin to understand how this subtle difference can bring about significant advantages to you.
  • Windows Media Centre typically supports 4 tuners of any type or combination. So it is possible for you to have ‘PVR’ that is capable of receiving and recording both terrestrial and satellite TV. Normally a PVR is restricted to only receiving signals from either source.
  • With satellite tunes, Windows Media Centre supports DISEqC switching. This allows you to connect either a motorised satellite dish or an array of fixed position satellite dishes to one tuner.  Again this does may not sound like a big deal, but it is possible for you to have up to 4 ‘positions’ configured per satellite tuner, each position relating to a dish that is aimed at a different broadcast satellite. This greatly increases the number of TV channels you can view. Windows makes the selection of the various satellite dishes transparent, these positions are selected simply by you changing channel. Usually TV content is limited to ‘unscrambled’ channels only, but it is possible to get some PayTV or scubscription based TV services working on this system, if the encryption system used by the broadcaster is more ‘open’. Sadly SKY is not one of them – we suspect that even if people wanted to pay a premium to watch their services on a system like this they will never allow it to happen. Using a simple 2 dish configuration with a TV antenna, comprising of FreeSAT (ASTRA2) and a dish aimed at European TV Services (Astra1), you will have in excess of 1000 free-to-air TV channels at your disposal. A surprising number of them are broadcast in HD, with more and more broadcasters launching HD services on a regular basis.
  • Although Media Centre can’t natively decode scrambled services like SKY and Virgin, it is still possible for you to connect our set-top box to a Media Centre PC. The Media Centre PC will provide you with full TV listings in its programme guide, and can change channels on the set-top box automatically. The only real weakness in this ability is that it delivers video in full HD quality. You certainly can view and record HD channels, but the viewing experience will always be in standard definition. The ability to connect HD devices for the purposes of recording still remains a sensitive issue for the likes of Hollywood, so this is more political/business restriction, rather than a technological one.
  • The killer feature of Media Centre is its fully interactive TV programme schedule guide. It will provide you with a fully consolidated programme guide of all of your TV channels – regardless of whether it is a foreign satellite service or FreeView/FreeSAT services. It provides you with a 2 week guide that you can browse not only in chronological order by category, genre, actor and director,you can also use text searching. You can for example, browse for all films that will be broadcast across all of your available TV channels for the next two weeks. By selecting to record any of the films that suit your tastes, you can rapidly build up a movie library at no cost and perfectly legally. Remember the rest of the home can share and access these recordings too. The guide fundamentally works the same as any other interactive guide, however its two week time line and its flexibility in how you can browse the guide makes it by far the best interactive programme guide we have ever used.
  • I don’t think I need to remind people how easy it is to rip music CD’s and build-up a music library. You can also rip DVD’s and Blu-Ray content, but this is a more complicated area which also has copyright implications.
  • As Windows Media Centre is a PC. This means it can playback all mainstream media file and disc formats. It is a truly universal media player, wiping out the need for you to adopt one video or audio standard or install additional equipment for the purposes of playing specific media (it makes installing a separate Blu-Ray player, DVD Player, CD Player, AppleTV, or media streamer redundant). It can play proprietary content such as Windows Media or Apple iTunes content as well as all other open video and audio file formats. Of course it can also access web based services, giving you access to a vast array of online, on-demand video and audio sources.

Internet TV and other on-demand services clearly will become more popular with consumers than traditional off-air TV viewing (broadcast TV).  All mid-ranged or better flatscreen TV’s have networking capabilities. They have buildin-in ‘apps’ that will give you access to online services like YouTube, BBC iPlayer and Skype, even access to LoveFilm’s online content. This to some extend negates the need for a media PC to be attached directly to the TV. You could access media stored on the PC using DLNA. Flatscreen TV’s are becoming ‘smarter’, and they are progressively becoming purpose built ‘appliance computers’. Soon plugging your laptop into the TV will become a thing of the past.

The manner in which TV and PC’s are merging it would make sense to only install one or the other in any room – why have both?

Tablet PC’s  will ultimately become your remote control that can handle almost all control of your home automation system. From TV remote control to the light switch. You can view your CCTV cameras, or answer your door phone from the same device. Perhaps you might want it to open the window for you and automatically turn off your air con at the same time.

The automated stuff we used to watch in Sci-Fi movies is becoming reality. Things that seem far fetched today will more than likely be accomplished sooner than you think.