How To Upgrade To Windows Media Center Edition

Windows XP MCE is supposed to be OEM-only. But why should the manufacturers get all the fun? Here's how to make your PC into a full-fledged media center.

January 4, 2007

10 Min Read
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When it comes to audio, video, and still-image file handling, Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE) offers a lot in terms of convenience and overall organization. The problem is that Microsoft has always intended MCE to be installed by the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) who sell PCs, and not by the end users who spend their hard earned money on them. As a result, those who want to upgrade a system to MCE (or put it on a fresh system) will encounter a few more roadblocks than with the usual Windows install.

If you're new to OS installs, this will give you the guidelines you'll need to get through the process with a minimum of angst. If you're an installation guru, then you might find a couple of tips to help you avoid any unnecessary time-wasters.

To begin at the beginning: For this exercise in taking control of your computer you'll only need a few items: A copy of MCE, a TV tuner (keep in mind that many systems that come pre-installed with MCE don't come with tuner), DVD player software, and, of course, a PC that you're willing to upgrade. Your computer should also have an available PCI slot or USB connector for the tuner.

1. Check Your Computer
Make sure your system is up to multimedia before you start investing in MCE. More times than not, MCE will work just fine with the hardware you already own. However, if you're looking to upgrade, the best way to go would be a dual core processor in the mid-2GHz range or a single core closer to 3GHz.There are no particular memory requirements for Windows MCE except the usual that apply to all versions of XP. A minimum of 1GB of memory is, at this point, your best option; if you elect to increase your current memory, just be sure to match the new and old memory types.

Disk storage is important as well. An hour's worth of reasonable quality video will occupy about 3GB of hard disk space. MCE will let you save clips forever, or until you decide to delete them — or until more space is needed. If you do run out of space, it automatically discontinues recording until you make some room.

If you've been getting along with a 200GB hard drive you may still be able to so. But the easiest solution is to add some extra storage by hitching on an external hard drive. USB, FireWire, or eSATA connectivity will each work well. Just make sure that you reformat the drive to NTFS if it arrives using the FAT filing system (as most do). Things will be so much faster.

2. Find A Copy Of MCE
Since MCE is solely an OEM product, you might think that you'd have a tough time finding a copy in the consumer market. Don't underestimate the power of capitalism. For example, both Newegg and Tiger Direct, two popular online buying sources, sell MCE in OEM packages for about $110.

A warning: OEM products have zero documentation. This shouldn't surprise you too much — after all, they're meant for people who supposedly already know what they're doing. Not to worry. By the time we're done here, you will, too.There's also a version of MCE available with a remote control for about $30 more. Now, a remote is a wonderful thing when spanning distances. It saves on all that annoying exercise you'd get by lifting your body out of the chair, waking a short distance, walking back, and then lowering your body into your chair once again. On the other hand, if your PC is sitting under or on top of your desk, a remote is just something that hangs around until you knock it to the floor with your elbow. In other words, don't spend the extra money on a remote version if you don't need it.

3. Decide If You Want A Tuner
Congress has, in effect, declared February 17, 2009, to be Digital TV Day. It's the day on which all broadcasters must switch from analog to digital technology. Your analog TV or tuner won't fall over dead, but you will need a converter box to continue viewing TV.

Televisions aside, buying a digital tuner package now, in the hope that it will be current two years from now, is (to be polite) folly. If you feel that you must, right now, look for a hardware/software bundle such as those sold by SnapStream Media. There are also HD solutions such as Hauppauge Computer Works' WinTV-HVR-950, a pocket-sized converter that plugs into your USB port.

If you've decided to opt for an analog tuner, don't look toward traditional favorite ATI — back in August, AMD/ATI announced that it was decommissioning its line of ATI All-in-Wonder multimedia video cards. Something else may come along from AMD/ATI someday, but there are current alternatives out there, including Hauppauge's range of analog tuners.

Whatever brand you buy, look for a tuner with its own hardware-based MPEG encoder. It takes a load off of your computer, especially if you like recording TV full-screen (720 x 480 for analog or whatever resolution your broadcaster is using for digital). You might also consider a dual-tuner unit such as Hauppauge's WinTV-PVR-500 MCE so that you can watch something other than what you're recording or record two shows simultaneously.

No matter which tuner you select, and no matter which vendor you select, the installation will be relatively the same for any USB or bus-connected device. If you want to take the worry out of being close, make sure the tuner you want is MCE-compatible. However, if it's Windows XP compatible you can be 99.8 percent sure it's MCE compatible — whether it says so or not.4. Install MCE
Windows MCE OEM is supplied on three discs. Two of them have holographic faces; if you angle them just so, you'll be able to see that they're labeled "1" and "2." The third is a silver-faced disc that's labeled "Updates for Version 2005." The labeling is pretty much moot, since at no time during the installation process will you be asked for "Disc 1" or "Disc 2" or the "Updates Disc."

If you're starting with an existing XP installation, start by popping Disc 1 into your optical drive. It will autoplay and ask you what you want to do. Of the several options presented, select "Install Windows." This will be followed by a second screen, which will recommend that you perform an upgrade. If you follow this procedure, you'll retain all of the data and applications that already exist under your XP installation. (A second option, "New Installation," will let you junk everything that's on your hard drive and start fresh.)

Of course, if you're starting with a blank hard drive, check your motherboard's BIOS settings to make sure your optical drive is set as a boot drive, start your computer, and slide in Disc 1. After a few moments of analysis, MCE will start the process.

The basic rule is that you begin with Disc 1, swap in Disc 2 when you're asked for an SP2 disc, and go back to Disc 1 when you're asked to switch again (or told that such-and-such file can't be found).

Everything else is pretty much automatic. If you've never done a Windows install, just relax and read the screens as they're presented to you. The questions will relate to user IDs, passwords, and time zone settings for Windows' clock. It's definitely not rocket science. (By the way, you will be asked to enter the security key, so don't think you're going to be able to avoid that if you're doing an upgrade.)Once you're finished juggling Discs 1 and 2, run the silver-faced MCE upgrade disc. If it finds anything to complain about, just do what it says and then try running it again. (Remember, MCE is an OEM product, not an end-user friendly installation. Don't get too bent out of shape if it asks you to jump through a few hoops.)

5. Install The Tuner
There is only one real difference between installing a USB-based TV tuner and one that plugs into a PCI slot inside your computer (besides the obvious inside/outside distinction). While you install a tuner card before you've installed its software, you don't connect a USB TV tuner until after you've installed its drivers. Windows, clever sleuth that it is, likes to examine USB devices and divine their function. (And, of course, Windows sometimes does strange and troubling things with those devices should it guess incorrectly.)

You won't go far wrong if you just read the directions and go along with what they say. The only time you'll depart from those instructions is if you're installing a tuner that's not specifically aimed at MCE. In that case, the device will probably be supplied with its own TV viewing, scheduling, and program guide software. My advice? Don't bother with them. MCE's built-in software is at least as capable as (if not better than) anything you'll get in a box for free. Besides, if you're not going to use MCE's facilities, why upgrade?

The basic premise behind a tuner, of course, is to get an RF TV signal to the device from your cable company. The tuner card (or USB device) will probably offer a number of ports for video input, including S-video, F connector (that's the threaded one), and RCA or miniplug connectors. You can either connect your cable line directly to your tuner or (if you don't want to incapacitate your TV set) purchase a cable splitter and separate lengths of cable, and "split" a line from your cable box to your tuner.

How you do it and what type of cabling you use (most often RG-59 coaxial cable) will sometimes depend on your tuner and on your cable (or satellite) system, so you may have to actually read the manual(s). And don't forget the duct tape — it can be used to cover the cable and hold it in place, out of harm's way from errant feet.

6. Install DVD Software

Despite its media credentials, MCE doesn't provide an MPEG decoder. Without one, it will not work one iota as far as anything television-ish is concerned.There are a variety of DVD software packages available, including Intervideo's WinDVD products , Cyberlink's PowerDVD 7, and nVidia's PureVideo Decoder . (All three of these products have free trial periods so you can kick the tires.)

7. Set Up TV Viewing
Having placed all the pegs in their respective holes, the final hurdle is to tell MCE about your television environment. It needs to examine your tuner, scan for channels, and set up your viewing guide. The procedure is painless — you only need to agree with what it tells you and enter your zip code when prompted.

Once you're set up, you may find a few differences between MCE and programming your VCR. For example, if you choose to record a TV show (and you must remember to never say "tape" again), MCE will track the show for you — but not the time slot it's in. In other words, when you record a TV series, MCE will stop recording that show when it no longer appears in the guide and then begin again when it re-appears. (It won't mindlessly record the time period during which some dull summer replacement runs.) MCE will also adjust its recording times and days according to the guide, so if your precious program is moved somewhere else, MCE will follow it.

You're Done!
Windows Media Center Edition isn't just about television — although its TV handling features are outstanding. It's Microsoft's best attempt at converging all of your media needs — television, video, photos, music, and even radio — into one management package.

Better still, it means you can get a feel for the media-handling features of Vista without carrying around Vista's baggage until you're ready — or at all. And when you're not directly using MCE, it stays out of the way, doing whatever chores you've set it to do in the background, while you think you're just running XP.0

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