Hands-on with the Vista Media Center TV Pack

The Microsoft eHome team's favorite beta tester is at it again, and this time they went as far as to share the RTM build of the Vista Media Center TV Pack (aka Fiji) with us -- lucky for us the update isn't language specific. We're not sure why Microsoft is officially holding back the details of this update until CEDIA, but either way all the previous details we shared with you are true. Although there is no H.264 support or DirecTV tuner information to be found, the new stuff we did find we really liked. We really had no idea how great native QAM support could be and this heterogeneous tuner support is much cooler than it sounds.


Installation was anything but simple and it's definitely not designed for end users. First we had to re-install Vista on our Dell XPS 420 and all the updates and drivers that go along with it -- not to mention lose access to all of our old CableCARD tuner recordings and recordings settings. Then, before we launched Media Center for the first time we ran the 50MB update (named MediaCenterTVPack_x86), and a few other miscellaneous hot fixes. Next we installed our HD tuner card drivers and finally ran the Media Center setup.

No real surprises during the setup, but we were delighted to see that our CableCARD tuners installed without a hitch using the original product key. The first hint of something new came when we were prompted to configure the clear QAM tuners that were found. Now that clear QAM is supported, we can have six tuners (2 ATSC, 2 QAM and 2 CableCARD) with Premium and twelve with Ultimate, not to shabby. Setting up the clear QAM was a cinch; in fact, the scan found all of the channels we expected it to. But after the channel scan was done, and we started mucking around, that is where the real fun started. We were happy to see all the channel 1000s gone -- good riddance -- and in the place of them were all the sub channels (finally!) right where they belong. But even better, we were finally able to remap every channel 8 from each tuner as one channel. So no longer do we need to worry about running out of tuners because some channels are ATSC and others are CableCARD, and best of all you can set the tuner preference for each individual channel.

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You should realize by now that the clear QAM and the heterogeneous tuner support are the biggest new features, but that isn't it. The other new feature is favorites. You can finally create multiple lists of favorites and easily chose which to use in the guide.

We have to say this is a pretty nice upgrade, but most definitely not everything we wish it was. Beyond the obvious missing H.264 and DirecTV support, there are plenty of things we wish were included like: 16x9 thumbnails; ability to list Recorded TV by date and put it them in a folder; and the ability to filter keyword recordings by HD -- you can however now set series recordings to HD only -- just to name a few. The update isn't all good either, as we still haven't figured out which plug-ins are compatible and so far we haven't found anything that can play the new WTV file format -- yes we tried VLC. But as soon as we find a way to play back the files on another computer, we'll be sure to check and see if the new more lenient CableCARD DRM is in effect.

If you made it this far, you have to be wondering where you can get the update, and we wish we knew. Microsoft is going to officially announce the update at CEDIA (in about a month), but at this point it is expected that the TV Pack will be a OEM only update. Then, to add insult to injury, the few OEMs that have acknowledged the existence of the update have said it will only be available on new purchases. Doh.

**Update, there are a few links in the comments that appear to be the update.