It started with Windows XP Media Center Edition, continued through Windows Vista Home Premium Edition, and now extends into Windows 7 Ultimate Edition. Are we sadomasochists, or is the pain of keeping our glorious multi-media, big screen experience worth it? Do I really need another computer in the house, with the accompanying palaver of monthly patches, backing up, and general tweaking? So far, the answer has just about been yes, though sometimes it's a very close call.
It would be easy to blame Microsoft for being over-ambitious with Media Center, but in fact it's not really a software problem. In Windows 7, as well as being very pretty, Media Center seems amazingly reliable most of the time. It generally manages to act as a high-resolution TV, record all the stuff we want, play all our music collection, display all of our growingly huge collection of photos, play videos and DVDs, and even has a neat screensaver that shows random photos when not in use.
The big issue, as ever, seems to be getting a working combination of TV signal and accurate guide data. We did the switch to satellite (DVB-S) during the digital TV changeover when the terrestrial signal was unavailable (as described in previous blog posts). But we can't get some of the ordinary free-to-air channels that we prefer through satellite, and matching the channels that we do want (and can get) to the reams of downloaded guide data seems extraordinary difficult and unintuitive.
So when they finally got the terrestrial signal changes done and we found that we can get an "ordinary TV" (DVB-T) signal again, we switched back. But the guide data for this seems to confuse Media Center altogether. The guide no longer seems to mark programs as repeats, so "New Only" series recordings pick up old editions of programs as well as the current ones. And the GUID identifiers for programs that are repeated seem to be screwed up, so it records the same program four times when it's shown on the "+1" channels, and then again the next day.
Then last week, when there was a special edition of a soap that my wife watches where somebody died (a "must-watch" episode she told me), it didn't get recorded because the guide said it was a repeat and that the original air date was in 2005. And I got more grief later in the week because one episode in a four-part drama wasn't marked as part of the series, so didn't get recorded either. Then I noticed that the guide now contains only a week of listings for the BBC channels instead of the usual two weeks, and so when they advertise a new program as "coming soon" you can't find it in the guide to record it. Perhaps the factor most likely to destroy the concept of Media Center as a home entertainment hub is the lack of accurate guide data?
Mind you, what I also can't figure is why, after a couple of days, it seems to decide that it can't do Live TV any more. Maybe there's something hanging on to the tuners in the background, because the same program will record although you can't watch it live. And, finally and annoyingly, none of the satellite or terrestrial tuner cards that fit our Media Center box can receive HD signals. But neither Sky (satellite) nor Virgin (cable) can provide the same comprehensive multi-media experience as Media Center, so I guess it's time for another hardware upgrade.
Or should I just wait for Windows 8...?