Windows Media Center is an application designed to serve as a home-entertainment hub. It is included in Windows XP Media Center Edition and premium editions of Windows Vista (Vista Home Premium and Vista Ultimate). It is designed to be controlled by special remote controls which prominently feature the Green Button (similar to the logo to the right), but can also be operated with a mouse and/or keyboard. This button is used to either launch Media Center from Windows or to return to the Start Menu from within the application. Media Center visualizes the computer user's pictures, videos, and music from local hard drives, optical drives, and network locations. It then categorizes them by name, date, tags, and other file attributes. Media managed through Media Center can also be relayed via a home network to standard TV sets via the specially designed Windows Media Center Extender or the Xbox 360.
With the addition of TV tuner cards, Media Center can play back and record scheduled TV shows in either over-the-air High-definition TV, Digital Cable w/ CableCARD (1080i Premium HDTV) or standard antenna, cable, or satellite signal. While setting up the TV tuner, an IR (infrared) receiver or hardware is sought, such as a hand held remote control. After recording (which can be initiated either manually or scheduled via the program guide), it can then burn the shows to DVD or transfer them to a portable media player (with exceptions). Media Center originally had a limitation of 1 analog tuner, but was raised to 2 analog tuners with Media Center 2005. With Update Rollup 1 for Media Center 2005, support for a digital tuner was added, but an analog tuner must still be present for the digital tuner to function. With Rollup 2, up to 4 TV tuners can be configured (2 analog and 2 HDTV). All the tuners must use the same source, for example they must all be off an aerial or a set-top box using the same guide data, you cannot mix Sky Digital and DVB-T for example.
Hacks are available that remove the two-tuner limitation. Five DVB-T tuners have been confirmed to work simultaneously, but the maximum is unknown.
Media Center can stream live and pre-recorded television to Windows Media Center Extenders and to the Xbox 360 console, but other Windows computers can just access recorded content (not live).
Connectivity features of Media Center include various inputs and outputs, for example for RCA
type cables (e.g., from cassette players or analog videocassette recorders), microphones, digital video signals and other inputs. Analog to digital conversion within the tuner card enables users to convert older type media to digital media.
Windows Media Center organizes and displays music found on the computer. Music can then be played by selecting "My Music" from the Start Menu. In the default view, albums are arranged in alphabetical order with accompanying album art. Album art can be downloaded off the Internet automatically, or it can be added manually into Media Center. The user can create playlists of different songs or albums, but once created, playlists cannot be edited.
When playing music, the user can pause and fast forward music, as long as Media Center is not in the "View Queue" mode. The user also has the option to shuffle or repeat music in the queue. Visualizations, as in Windows Media Player, can also be viewed, although Extenders do not have this option.
Media Center, with the addition of third party plug-ins, can also play back video from URLs as well as server and client side playlists.
Some TV tuners support FM radio
. Media Center supports play back of all FM tuned stations.
Windows Media Center has the ability to synchronize media with certain portable devices. These devices include Windows Mobile Pocket PCs
, Portable Media Centers
, and other players that can sync with Windows Media Player
. While synchronizing television shows, Windows Media Center encodes the shows using Windows Media Encoder
to a Windows Media Video
format at a lower quality than the DVR-MS
format used for viewing on the desktop media center. This is to complement the limited storage space and processing power of such portable devices. Optionally, music can also be re-encoded to a smaller file size upon synchronization.
, Windows Media Center allows fast-forwarding through commercials
of recorded programs. In fact, some users deliberately wait 10-15 minutes to start watching a program in the live buffer so they can fast-forward through the commercials and catch up to "live TV" by the end of the program.
Windows Media Center provides the ability (not supported by Microsoft) to skip commercials automatically, by installing external plug-ins like DVRMSToolbox, Lifextender or MCEBuddy.
Media Center in Windows XP
The final version of Windows XP Media Center Edition was 2005 Update Rollup 2 (UR2), which is basically Windows XP Professional Service Pack 2 (SP2) with the additional Media Center functionality. The main feature of Windows Professional Edition that Media Center 2005 lacks is support for Domain Controllers. XP MCE 2005 was the first version of Media Center that could be bought other than on a pre-built system, but it was available only under OEM licensing.
Windows XP Media Center 2005 runs well on relatively low-end hardware, such as a Celeron D with integrated graphics (256 MB of video memory required to view HDTV content). Because Vista's more intense graphics (for translucent and glowing effects) require a more powerful computer, MCE 2005 is still popular.
Media Center in Windows Vista
Windows Media Center in Windows Vista includes a redesigned menu system that takes advantage of the graphics capabilities of the operating system as well as the common 16:9 aspect ratio. Each button in the main menu, which contains sections such as "Music", "Videos", and "TV", gets encased in a box when selected, and for each selection, a sub-menu comes up, extending horizontally. When any of the options is selected, the entries for each are presented in a grid-like structure, with each item being identified by album art, if it's an audio file, or a thumbnail image if it is a picture, a video or a TV recording, and other related options, such as different views for the music collection if "Music" is selected, extend horizontally along the top of the grid. Similarly, other items are identified by suggestive artwork. The grid displaying the items is also extended horizontally, and the selected item is enlarged compared to the rest.
Other features of Windows Vista Media Center include:
- Support for up to four TV tuners* (outside the US, a maximum of two tuners can be used)
- Support for two dual-tuner cards* (outside the US, one dual-tuner card can be used)
- Native DVD/MPEG-2 decoding support
- Addition of Movies and DVD button which lists all the movies on the hard drive and DVD.
- Tasks button that provides access to jobs such as setting up and configuring Media Center Extender devices.
- The UI is translucently overlaid on the video, if the UI is navigated while the video is still playing. This presently only occurs with the Start and Electronic Program Guide menus. All other menus have the video playing in a small rectangle in the bottom left hand corner, in a similar fashion to previous versions of Windows Media Center. The layout is similar to that of Sonys XMB.
- Support for high-definition (HD) content, and CableCARD support*. Windows Media Center can play HD video in all countries, but does not support HDTV in any country except from the United States. Additionally, there is no native support for HD DVD or Blu-ray Disc movies in any country. Developers can, however, register their Blu-Ray/HD DVD playback applications with Windows Media Center so that the application will be launched automatically when a disc is inserted and Media Center is running. CableCARD support is only available by purchasing a new CableLabs certified computer.
- Ability for a digital tuner to function without an analog tuner present.
- New "Sports" section which gives real-time access to sports scores, as well as free broadcasts of games over the Internet.*
- Microsoft partnered with Fox Sports and NASCAR to provide these services. Support for fantasy sport-style player tracking has also been demonstrated.
- ''Note that the features marked with an asterisk (*) above are available in the United States only.
Internet TV beta
Internet TV is a feature, which integrates with the Windows Vista
version of Windows Media Center, and allows users to browse (using a UI like the offline video library browsing view) and view streaming
-delivered video from within the Media Center interface or Windows Media Center Extender
. Currently, the software is in beta testing and only provides pre-recorded television content licensed by MSN Video
, and a various selection of MTV videos.
Windows Media Center TV Pack 2008
On July 16
, Microsoft released the Media Center TV Pack 2008 after the product was beta-tested between late May and early June 2008. The software, which was previously codenamed "Fiji", was released as an OEM only feature and will not be released as a standalone update for people who have already bought a computer with Vista Home Premium or Vista Ultimate installed.
Aside from changes to the UI, other new features include: improved control over TV tuners, replacement of the .dvr-ms filetype with .wtv files, favorite channels listing, ability to change digital OTA channel numbers, digital OTA subchannel support, native QAM support, DVB-S support, MHEG support (digital interactive, e.g BBCi) and heterogeneous TV tuner support. In the beta there was support for H.264 (which allows for DirecTV) streams, however that feature has since been removed from the release version.
Windows Client Business Group manager Ben Green in an interview said that "The product is designed to add new television standards support, enhance the user interface and set up experience, and add interactive TV features to Windows Media Center."
The 32-bit Installer for the TV Pack was leaked on August 6, 2008 in the reply to EngadgetHD's article reviewing a copy of the update. The installer was then taken down from the source but subsequently has been posted to many other sites and the links to both the 32-bit and 64-bit installers can be found on AVS Forum. The final build number of the updated Media Center is: 6.1.1000.18273 (longhorn_mc_dev(wmbla).080702-2208) which is the confirmed RTM build as stated in Microsoft KB article 955485. When TV Pack is installed, its possible in Vista Home Premium to have 2 tuners of each type supported, and within Vista Ultimate this limit is raised to 4 tuners per type, allowing therefore to have 4 DVB-S and 4 DVB-T tuners working concurrently.
Windows Media Center was designed as a programmable platform; other programs can tie into the Media Center UI using the WMC API
, which is provided as a managed
API. The functionality of Windows Media Center can be extended by three different types of applications:Windows Media Center Presentation Layer Applications: These are managed
applications written using the WMC API
and packaged as .NET assemblies
. Presentation Layer applications can have full access to both the .NET Framework
as well as the Windows Media Center API, with the latter exposing a managed object model
to access and manipulate the current states of the media management and playback, live television, video recording as well as the presentation capabilities of Windows Media Center. Presentation Layer applications are rendered using the bitmap
-based Windows Media Center Presentation Layer
, the user-input and presentation system of WMC. Presentation Layer includes support for animations, dynamic layout, keyboard/mouse as well remote navigation. Presentation Layer applications can be streamed over RDP
to Windows Media Center Extenders
; so Presentation Layer applications run on the extenders without any modification. Presentation Layer, however, exists only in the Windows Vista version of WMC.
- Presentation Layer applications are created using an XML based declarative markup language, known as Media Center Markup Language (MCML). MCML is used to define the user interface, with animation, text input, navigation, data binding, and local storage support available from the markup itself. If custom code or other functionality is required to implement a certain feature, .NET assemblies can be referred. Any .NET language can be used to write the code-behind assemblies that implement the required functionality. An MCML document defines the interface as a collection of
UI elements, each exposing four attributes:
Content which defines what that UI element will display,
Properties to control the presentation aspects of the element,
Locals which enumerate the set of private state data for the element, and
Rules which allow the attributes to be modified based on certain triggers. By modifying these attributes at runtime, either from markup or code behind classes, the interface is generated.