Windows 7 Media Center review

We've been waiting a long time for this and it's finally here, the latest version of Windows Media Center. Well, we really stopped waiting a few months ago when the release candidate hit, but waited on composing our thoughts until after we had a chance to play with the RTM copy. For the most part, as you'd expect the RTM build is identical to the RC, sans the bugs, but there are plenty of upgrades over Vista Media Center. Many of these new features were also in the TV Pack, but in our book that doesn't count. For starters it was OEM only, and thus you could only get it (legitimately) by buying a new PC, but the real reason is because it was so buggy, it was beyond usable. In fact we still stand by the theory that the TV Pack was nothing more than an early preview for OEMs of the new guts of Windows 7 Media Center. Gladly that is all behind us now, so keep reading to find out what gets us excited about Windows 7 Media Center.

Windows 7 Media Center in action on an Xbox 360.

Windows 7 Media Center in Windowed mode.

Pleasantly surprised

  • TV show images throughout the guide and Recorded TV (not a frame of the show).

  • Channel logos are now possible with 3rd party plug-in and much appreciated.

  • Series recording options have some welcomed additions like HD Preferred, Live, and airtime.

  • Improved EPG DB makes great utilities like Guide Tool possible and you can import custom programming data.

    Windows 7 Media Center TV Gadget
  • Media Center Desktop gadget.

  • The new mini guide is 100x better than the old one.

  • Guide can be color coded by show type.

  • Guide button added when in windowed mode is a nice addition.

  • You can easily manually add missing DTV channels without editing xml.

  • All the Win 7 versions support four tuners of each type (QAM, ATSC, CableCARD, etc) instead of only two.

  • Trick play is noticeably more responsive, skip, fwd, etc.

  • Scrub bar when used on a PC is awesome, really love the thumbnail previews as you drag, but the current time can be hard to read at times.

  • The scheduling of recordings seems streamlined.

  • Fade in and out when you stop and start video adds to the experience.

  • If one show in a folder is going to be deleted there is now an ! and towards the bottom it explains why.

  • Current time to the seconds is displayed on the scrub bar when watching Live TV.

  • New text input method with remote when searching is improved.

  • Internet content is tightly integrated with regular TV, but no HD or decent content to be found.

  • Pictures and music have a few new features like ratings and favorites.

About time

  • There are now HD logos in the grid and in the show info at the bottom.

  • Accessing Recorded TV from another Media Center is easy with HomeGroup, but resume is limited.

  • Alphabetical order of Recorded TV is now correct (The Office is listed with Os, not Ts).

  • One button press for show info when watching video, wonder why it wasn't there before.

  • Can edit channel 3.1 to make it 3 instead of forced to use 1031.

  • Extender UI (360 and 3rd party) is greatly enhanced, faster and better looking.

  • ATSC sub-channels are now supported and even include guide data -- shocker.

  • Favorite views in the guide, which can be made static so you don't have to select them every time.

  • Movie Library is actually usable (and doesn't require a registry hack to enable) and supports more file types.

  • Ability to resume video types other than dvr-ms and wtv.

  • Native QAM support that even finds channels that have PSIP data, and you can add the rest manually.

  • Ability to combine tuners of different types to resolve recording conflicts automatically based on priority.

Still waiting

  • Only one Live TV buffer, so when you change the channel you lose it.

  • Can't record the buffer.

  • Configuring the display is still a mess. Things don't act as you'd want, it's a mystery to figure out what Microsoft's idea of a monitor or built-in display is, etc. All we want to do is to be able to turn off overscan for goodness' sake.

  • H.264 support isn't implemented the way you'd think, (can't play MKV's with AVC).

  • "Deleted by" screen in History should show the extender name not mxc2-7mc.

  • Settings for single recording are still useless, can't even record extra on a show without extending the entire series.

  • Still no deleted items, so you have to confirm every delete and they are all permanent.

  • HD is still not a category for keyword recordings.

  • Video preview is still too small.

  • Still can't list Recorded TV by date AND put the shows in folders.

  • Still no resolution pass through, so everything is scaled to one resolution.

  • Grid guide still won't take up the entire screen.

  • 4x3 thumbnails are cheesy, and should be the aspect ratio of the recording.

  • When watching a show that is still recording, the show info pops up when it is finished recording -- why?

  • If the 360 Extender gets disconnected, it won't re-connect with a press of the Green Button, but it does try to auto-connect after some time.

  • No easy way to backup and restore your channel lineups and Series Recordings.

Performance and Guide
Just like the rest of Windows 7 when compared to Windows Vista, performance and revisions of existing features are the theme in Media Center. The performance improvement on Extenders is instantly apparent especially with the trick play functions like fast forward, rewind, and skip. This is one area where Vista Media Center noticeably lagged when compared to TiVo, and now we'd like to see it side by side to see how it fares. The menus and guide are also more responsive. This also goes for the 3rd party Extenders which although they all seemed to be discontinued, they get a much needed speed improvement with Windows 7. The other big improvement is with the Electronic Program Guide. This is an important aspect of any DVR and the fact that Microsoft doesn't charge for data is one of the best things about Media Center. While the guide in Vista was archaic and basically like XP 2005 MCE, Windows 7 is all new -- well it is kind of new, as most of it was available in the supper buggy TV Pack. Not only is the new guide visually better, but it includes images throughout that add to the experience as well as new ways to navigate -- like holding down the right button to fly to another time in the future. Under the hood things have changed too, and many of the painful limitations in Vista are gone. No longer are ATSC channels crippled with bad channel numbers (1081 vs 8.1) and no sub-channels. On top of this, all the tuner can be combined per channel to help resolve conflicts and give you control over which tuners are used for which channels. In addition there are new APIs available that finally make it possible to inject logos for each channel -- not sure why they aren't included -- and create utilities to edit the lineup. It is even possible to import custom data, but what you can't do is easily backup your data.


What still remains a question though is how Media Center fits into Microsoft's overall ecosystem. In the past Microsoft has received a lot of heat for not integrating all of its products, and for good reason. Some believe that it just isn't going to happen, but it does seem that things might be coming together this year. Now lets be clear, Windows 7 is feature complete, and we're not trying to say anything to the contrary; but this doesn't mean that integration with the other products is out of the question. We learned that the Zune HD will be available about the same time as Windows 7 and that it is going to integrate with the Xbox 360. We also got to see the latest Windows Home Server Power Pack 3 Beta bring more integration with Media Center and expect to see much more in the next version of Windows Home Server due next year. The question is how well will the Zune work with Media Center and other unknown devices. One thing that leads us to believe everything is coming together is PlayReady (one of the types of DRM approved for use with Blu-ray's Managed Copy). This latest generation of DRM from Microsoft is being included into just about every product out of Redmond, Windows 7 and the Zune HD included. These facts combined with the new reorganization happening inside of Microsoft under the new Microsoft TV, Video & Music Business division gives us hope that it'll all work together.

Project Draco screen shot

Unannounced tuners
The last remaining unknown at this point are new tuners. With Windows 7 we've already seen a few ATSC and QAM tuner from Avermedia that have made adding live HDTV to Media Center much more affordable. We also know that the new version is due of the ATI firmware which is rumored to bring us relaxed DRM and Tuning Adapter support. Ceton has also announced a multi-stream CableCARD tuner capable of recording six HD channels at once. More recently, ATI Digital Cable Tuners have shown up on sites at close out prices; which leads us to believe that new tuners might be on the horizon. On top of all of this, are the leaks from the Windows 7 Beta group indicating that DISH Network will have a tuner that works natively as well. Unfortunately it seems that a DirecTV HD tuner is off the table, but we haven't given up hope that it might be released eventually. (Both DirecTV and DISH Network use h.264 for HD, so 3rd party extenders won't work.)

Once you switch to Windows 7 Media Center there is no going back. It might not seem like that much at first, but when you try to go back to Vista or even another solution like Moxi or TiVo, it is like going back in time. The fact is that Microsoft has been in a league of its own with Vista Media Center and while the competition is still sitting idle suing each other, Microsoft has yet again raised the bar. There is no doubt in our mind that it is the all around best DVR solution available today, but we recognize it isn't for everyone. The upfront cost is the most glaring barrier to entry, with the potential maintenance a close second. That being said, we say with confidence that Windows 7 Media Center is extremely stable and don't worry about missing recordings -- at the same time we leave automatic updates disabled and leave it be by not using it for anything else. We have high hopes that between now and the official release of Windows 7, that Microsoft will improve the value proposition by building a comprehensive ecosystem, while at the same time hardware prices will come down to reduce the upfront costs. All of this combined with what might happen with Windows Home Server 2, makes us believe that we won't be moving on from Windows 7 Media Center in our home anytime soon.