6.3. Choosing Software
The traditional advice is to choose software before choosing the hardware to run it, and that holds true in spades for a media center PC. The PVR and related software applications that will run on the media center PC are fundamental. So, before we made specific hardware selections, we had to decide which PVR software to use. That in turn requires deciding which operating system to run. There are three practical choices:
Microsoft Windows Media Center Edition (MCE)
Microsoft Windows XP or Vista with a third-party PVR application
Linux with MythTV or another Linux-based PVR application
We examine each of these three options in the following sections.
6.3.1. Microsoft Windows Media Center Edition 2005
At first, Microsoft MCE 2005 seemed the leading candidate. MCE is pretty, provides all the basic functions we want, has an excellent integrated electronic program guide (EPG), and has one of the best "10-foot interfaces" available. MCE also supports Studio RGB, which defines white as 235, 235, 235 and black as 16, 16, 16. Most third-party PVR applications use Computer RGB, which defines white as 255, 255, 255 and black as 0, 0, 0. That difference means that for recorded video MCE provides more accurate color rendering, particularly in the dimmest and brightest parts of the image.
Measure Twice, Cut Once
If you decide to use Microsoft Windows MCE (or a version of Vista with MCE features), be very careful when you select hardware. MCE has very specific hardware requirements. Attempting to use unsupported hardware components can cause various problems, from minor glitches to MCE refusing to load, record programs, or play them back. Also pay close attention to the revision levels of device drivers and other supporting software. (We had already ruled out MCE when we designed our system, so we made no attempt to verify compatibility of the components we selected with the MCE approved-hardware list.)
Of course, hardware and driver compatibility is an issue for any PVR application, but Windows MCE has tighter requirements than most. Before you order components for a Windows MCE system, verify that each component is certified for use with MCE. We don't include a URL because Microsoft reorganizes its web site frequently, but a Google search of microsoft.com for "Media Center edition" and "hardware compatibility" should return the pages you need.
Despite all of these advantages, we decided not to use MCE 2005, for the following reasons:
Although it is possible to buy an OEM copy of MCE 2005 for $125 or so, Microsoft doesn't position MCE as a consumer product. Instead, they target MCE at OEMs that use it as the basis of a turnkey media center system. Accordingly, Microsoft does not offer direct support for MCE, which is a significant drawback for people who want to roll their own PVR systems.
Microsoft plans to discontinue MCE as a separate product, instead bundling MCE features with Windows Vista Home Premium and Vista Ultimate, which were unavailable when this book went to press. We tested Vista Beta 2, but found the MCE functions to be unusable.
MCE provides few customization choices other than basic setup options. With MCE, what you see is what you get.
MCE records video in the proprietary DVR-MS format rather than an industry-standard format such as MPEG.
MCE incorporates entirely too many DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) features for our taste. We want PVR software that does what we want it to do, not PVR software that does only what Microsoft decides to allow us to do. For example, MCE honors the proposed broadcast flag (which as we write this has not yet been approved or implemented, but appears to be inevitable). If the broadcast flag is set to prohibit copying, MCE allows you to view the programs you record only on the computer that originally recorded them. Similarly, if your video adapter has component output connectors, MCE restricts viewing of DVDs to 480p by prohibiting upscaling to native HDTV resolutions.
So, although we really wanted to like MCEusing it would certainly have made things easierwe reluctantly concluded that MCE wasn't the best choice for us. That doesn't mean MCE isn't the best choice for you, if you don't consider any of the objections we list as showstoppers. MCE is probably the most popular choice among those who build their own media center PCs, and for good reason. There's a lot to like about MCE, if you can get past its significant drawbacks.
6.3.2. Third-Party Windows PVR Applications
When we looked at third-party PVR applications for the first edition of this book in 2004, there weren't any ideal choices. We looked at half a dozen competing PVR apps, every one of which had significant drawbacks. We ended up using the PVR application that ATi bundled with its All-In-Wonder series cards. Although we weren't completely happy with it, it did the job.
Nowadays, it's a different story. There are many competing third-party PVR applications, most of which are quite polished, and many of which compare favorably with Microsoft Windows MCE. There are still differences, of course, in terms of feature sets, hardware requirements, and other factors. We won't presume to recommend a specific PVR application, because each of them has strengths and weaknesses. But if you want your media center PC to run Windows, one of these applications will almost certainly fulfill most or all of your requirements.
Beyond TV 4 (http://www.snapstream.com) is the latest in a long series of PVR applications from SnapStream. BT4 supports unlimited analog tuners, and can record over-the-air HDTV if you install a supported digital tuner. BT4 supports a wide variety of tuner cards, including the popular Hauppauge models (but not ATi All-In-Wonder models.) You can store recorded video in MPEG-2 format (which can be burned directly to DVD), in the space-efficient DIVX format, or in WMV format for transfer to a Pocket PC or other other device that supports Windows Media. The optional Beyond TV Link software allows you to stream recorded video to other PCs on your network. The EPG (Electronic Program Guide), formerly weak, is greatly improved, although searching is still weaker than with some competing products. Intelligent conflict resolution minimizes recording conflicts. For example, if two programs are scheduled to record at the same time, BT4 records the higher-priority program, automatically searches for a later airing of the lower-priority program, and sets that program to record later. You can download a time-limited, full-function demo from the SnapStream web site to test the product before you buy it.
GB-PVR (http://www.gbpvr.com) is a reasonably full-featured PVR application that's free for the download. GB-PVR supports multiple tuners from a wide range of compatible models. The core application provides basic PVR functions, which can be supplemented by numerous available plug-ins that support extended features such as weather forecasts, RSS feeds, theater listings, video transcoding, and so on. Although GB-PVR doesn't offer all the bells and whistles available with competing commercial applications, it's all many people will need.
SageTV (http://www.sagetv.com) is another full-featured commercial PVR application that's been around for years and is now a mature, polished product. SageTV supports multiple tuners from a broad list of analog and over-the-air HDTV models. SageTV records natively in MPEG-2 format, which can be written directly to a DVD, and can also be configured to use MPEG-4 or DivX formats to minimize the size of recordings. The EPG is attractive and makes it easy to locate programs and schedule them to be recorded. Its intelligent recording and scheduling feature works much like the TiVo recommended viewing option. You can download a time-limited trial version from the web site.
We recommend that you begin by checking the feature sets of all of these products. Spend some time on the web sites of the various products, comparing features and looking at the screenshots until you have narrowed the field to two or three products that appear to be the best fit for your personal needs. Download the manuals if you need more detail. If one or two of these products look suitable, download the demo versions and try them out.
Of all the PVR applications we looked at, Meedio (http://www.meedio.com) came closest to being an exact clone of Microsoft Windows MCE. In fact, it's hard to tell the difference at first glance when Meedio uses default settings. Once you start configuring Meedio, though, the differences become clear. In contrast to the "have-it-our-way" approach of MCE, Meedio offers almost complete flexibility in configuring the appearance and functioning of the application to suit your own preferences. The basic package, Meedio TV, provides standard PVR functions and has one of the most comprehensive feature sets available. Meedio Pro bundles Meedio TV with Meedio Essentials to provide full media center functionality. If Meedio has a weakness, it's the search function, which is limited by the remote-centric design of the software. Alas, the future of Meedio is uncertain. In April 2006, Yahoo! bought Meedio and discontinued the Meedio products and EPG service. We hope that Yahoo! will decide to offer Meedio again under its own brand. It would be a shame to lose such a good product.
6.3.3. Linux PVR Applications
The two best-known Linux-based PVR applications, MythTV (http://www.mythtv.org) and Freevo (http://freevo.sourceforge.net), are, like most Linux applications, works in progress. When we reviewed them in mid-2004 for the first edition of this book, we concluded that, although both were impressive, neither was ready for primetime.
Things have changed a lot in two years. MythTV and Freevo have both improved dramatically since 2004, and Linux itself is now much more new-user friendly than it was back then. Linux, and Linux-based PVR applications, are now reasonable candidates for our media center system.
We spent some time looking at the features and capabilities of MythTV and Freevo, and concluded that MythTV had every feature we wanted, not to mention several features we hadn't even thought about wanting. Some MythTV features, such as its fully automatic commercial detection and skipping, are ones you'll never see on Windows MCE, let alone TiVo. (ReplayTV tried that and got sued out of business.) Even the third-party Windows PVR application companies tread lightly to avoid the attack-lawyers of the MPAA, television networks, and advertisers. Not so MythTV. Its feature set is designed to appeal to users, not to movie studios and television networks. There's no DRM, and no attempt to restrict what you can do with the programs that you record.
MythTV is more complicated to install and configure than the Windows-based alternatives, but we think it's worth trying even if you eventually settle on another PVR application. After all, Linux and MythTV can both be downloaded at no cost, and you may find they do the job as well as or better than competing Windows PVR applications.
If you decide to try MythTV, you'll find that much of the work has already been done for you by others. Search Google for the name of your preferred Linux distribution and MythTV. For example, we searched for Ubuntu and MythTV, and found several sites that provided detailed step-by-step instructions for installing and configuring MythTV under Ubuntu. But be prepared to do some research and a lot of tweaking before you have MythTV working to your satisfaction.
There's no law that says you can have only one operating system installed on your media center PC. Many media center PC owners dual-boot Linux and Windows (which our Technical Reviewer Brian Bilbrey calls "Gaming OS.") Linux runs by default, and handles the PVR and other main system functions. When you want to play a game on the media center PC, reboot it into Windows. When you're finished gaming, reboot the system into Linux and it's immediately ready to record programs, serve audio streams, and perform its other primary functions.