Media Centres

Software

A number of efforts have been made to make PCs act more like consumer appliances. Media centre software is designed to provide you with a fast and accessible method of controlling the recording and playback of media without having to deal with the uglier aspects of PC operating systems. You want to access playback of your MP3 collection at the touch of a button, for instance, rather than having to navigate through Windows Explorer to get to it.

Various software packages allow you to do this. They allow you to access video, music, pictures, weather and news at the touch of a button.

An Electronic Program Guide (EPG) is an online TV guide that allows quick record scheduling. For instance, when browsing the EPG, you could see that there's a rugby match on Saturday night that you'd like to record. Rather than having to program in channels and times, you simply press a button and the PC automatically schedules the recording, based on the information in the EPG. An EPG also allows you to say, for instance, "record every episode of CSI", and the PC will manage the process of scheduling and recording them. When you're ready to watch them, they'll be waiting on the PC's hard disk (named and notarised) for you. EPG services, the most famous Australian one being ICE TV, are generally subscription-based.

Here's a brief look at some of the major software packages: Frey Technologies SageTV: Looking and working very much like Windows Media Centre, SageTV acts as an "overlay" for your operating system, providing quick menu access to your library of pictures, movies and audio. It works with multiple TV tuners and multiple remotes.

It's a little more polished than BeyondTV, and very easy to use, making it a very good way to make your complicated Windows PC act more like a consumer appliance than a PC.

MythTV: An amazing and very popular product, MythTV is an open source application designed to run on Linux. It has a very polished look (which is also "skinable"), an excellent interface and is packed with features. Out of the "box" (it's actually downloadable for free) it supports TV recording and scheduling (with an EPG), Internet-based weather information, RSS news feeds, one-click DVD and CD ripping to the hard disk, game emulators, DVD and CD playback, picture viewing, audio playback, a voice over IP interface, and a host of other media features. If you're not planning to run Windows applications or games on your PC, and your hardware has Linux support, we recommend MythTV. It's very easy to use once you get it set up. For a simple guide to installing MythTV, take a look at wilsonet.com.

Snapstream BeyondTV: Primarily focussed on TV recording and scheduling, BeyondTV has no interface for audio, pictures, weather or news. It does have a decent interface for recording and managing your TV shows, however, and can work in conjunction with multiple TV cards and remotes. It also features a function that (theoretically) automatically detects and can skip commercials in recorded shows, and has the ability to pause and rewind live TV. Without an Australian EPG, however, it's not a strong product.

Windows Media Center Edition 2005: MCE is technically meant to be sold as an OEM-only product, to go to system integrators building "ready-made" media centres, and not for off-the-shelf purchase by consumers. Nonetheless, MCE can be purchased separately from many computer retailers. Windows Media Centre

MCE is a fully fledged operating system. It's Windows XP with a new interface, designed to make recording and viewing media much easier. It requires TV tuner cards that have MCE drivers, and you can buy a remote (the MCE remote) that is specifically designed for the operating system.

MCE has a very easy configuration wizard and an interface that looks nothing like Windows XP (although you can drop to the Windows XP interface if you choose). A series of top level menus takes you down to the TV recording and EPG interface, the media libraries, DVD and CD player, and various online services, such as Internet radio services that are supported.

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