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The Media Center Experiment

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Some might consider me a bit slow off the mark, but I’ve only recently been introduced to the world of Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, or MCE 2005 as we’ll call it from now on. Now for those that know me that might seem surprising since I’ve been an advocate of the 'PC under the TV' for some years. Having to watch downloaded content in the study on a relatively small screen never really appealed. Ok, once upon a time my 22in CRT monitor seemd big but it could never compare to my 36in widescreen TV. Therefore, a media PC was an essential. My first system was based on full size AOpen desktop cases as this was back before Shuttle introduced its small form factor (SFF) PCs to the world. I used wireless keyboards, an ATI Remote Wonder, and 802.11b wireless PCI card and just to show my commitment, owned fully paid for versions of Showshifter and DigiGuide - truly remarkable for a journalist.

However, while I would characterise the experience as fun overall, it was also fraught with difficulties and an expensive process. For a start, getting a decent quality signal into a PC from a Sky box wasn’t easy. At the time my Sky box has two Scart outputs – one RGB and one composite. The RGB went directly to the TV and the other only outputted a poor quality composite signal. The solution was an RGB splitter from J.S. Technology, giving me the ability to input a half-decent S-Video signal into my PC. However, this was a pretty pricey gadget for what I wanted to achieve and to be honest it was more out of sense of wanting to complete a project than financial sense that I made the purchase. Using Showshifter, the box could capture in real time to DivX with reasonable results but I could never get the reliability level and ease of use I craved. Eventually, I gave in to the dark side. I bought a Sky +.



As you probably know, this is Sky’s PVR that records Sky TV to hard disk, and can to be set to record using the onscreen EPG and can record a series at the touch of a button. Now while I had most of the functionality in my own home built system it was decidedly Heath Robinson by comparison. Along with the improved ease of use, there was the quality – recorded TV is absolutely identical to the broadcast; better in fact, as it doesn’t capture that blasted red ‘interactive’ button.

After that, the box under the TV saw much less use. I might be putting myself at the risk of arrest here but I was used to downloading and watching Enterprise the day after it was broadcast on my media PC, never bothering with the Sky broadcast. However, with Sky + it was just easier to Series Link – and the quality- I gotten used to low bit-rate files and seeing it on Sky was quite a revelation.



However, times change. Getting files off the internet no longer requires mucking about with IRC and telnet clients. It’s all BitTorrent these days; just a couple of clicks and your away. And as for quality – it may not be quite approved and it’s probably best I don’t know how its down, but it’s all taken from High Definition feeds these days with the result that the quality of files you can download is better than Sky’s broadcast – and with the adverts already removed it even makes having to fast forward through the adds on Sky+ seem like a chore. Of course the files are a lot bigger than they used to be but with the increased capacity of broadband connections and lowered prices it's all easier than ever.

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