Being able to mix TV with hifi, photos and video into one device seemed such an exciting prospect that 18 months ago I consigned our old Freeview PVR to the cupboard under the stairs to be replaced with a Windows Vista Media Centre PC.
Of course with any project like this there were several things to consider.First off, did I want to purchase an off the shelf media centre ready PC or build from scratch to my own specification. Let’s be honest, I didn’t procrastinate for long and my research into off the self units wasn’t thorough; in my mind the choice was clear.I was going to build a PC to my own specification.
Since this PC was going to be an ever present object on our living room it couldn’t look like the old grey/black box we are used to seeing under our desks.It needed to be stylish and more importantly quiet. Antec have long manufactured high quality cases and their Fusion Black case is no exception.
Now what to put in the case?Some bits were easy to pick, a motherboard here, some memory there and a couple of fast and large hard drives to store all our media.The crucial components are the TV tuner and graphics cards.I’ve had experience with a few tuner cards over the years and none had really impressed.After some research I found a UK company by the name of Blackgold Technology with a range of TV tuner cards that were getting very good reviews.I chose to go with a dual tuner card that would enable me to record/watch two digital or analogue channels at once.The key requirements for the video card were to find one that could provide the resolution required for a high definition TV (This is quite low compared to your average PC monitor) and remain silent.Such a card exists, the ASUS EAX1600XT.Back in 2006 this was described as a mid/low performance card but it met the specification required and just as importantly was fan less with the cooling provided by a large heat sink on the card.
Using the media centre has been a breeze.The interface is clear and intuitive and the electronic program guide is the best I’ve seen.Picture quality from the BlackGold TV Tuner card is very good and the difference between the built-in tuner on the TV and the media centre is minimal.The built-in tuner is marginally better but that is to be expected.
Media centre has certainly changed the way we use our TV.It is a much more rewarding and involving experience.Being able to record and watch two channels at once means there are no longer schedule conflicts and the ability to pause, rewind live TV means you don’t miss a thing.
There are times now when our TV isn’t a TV.It regularly is used to display slideshows of photos, play music and browse the internet from the comfort of our sofa.
A great addition to our media centre has been TunerFree MCE.This is a great piece of software from www.milliesoft.co.uk that enables your media centre to play back online TV and radio content from the BBC, ITV, Channel4 and Five.Having iPlayer seamlessly integrated into your TV means that even if you don’t remember to record a program you still have seven days to watch it through iPlayer.And with the BBC now streaming High Definition programs through iPlayer, the quality of the stream is better than any standard definition picture.
Things have moved on of course over the past 18months.When our media centre was originally built, HDMI graphics cards were an expensive novelty.Now they are much more attractively priced.Also, Freesat now brings high definition TV to your house so the addition of a Tuner card that is Freesat ready would make an interesting choice.
The next big change is going to be the upgrade to Windows 7 Media Centre. If our experiences running Windows 7 on our desktops are correct this should prove to be quicker, more reliable and have fantastic new features such as the remote media streaming service that will simplify streaming your favourite media to other devices.
Yes, there have been a few problems; it’s a PC after all.We’ve had problems with the Media Centre software occasionally freezing and the remote control behaving erratically but these problems have all been resolved over time.
Overall it’s been a total success and we won’t be swapping it for another system for quite some time.