Sunday, December 23, 2007

Vista Media Center Two Cents

December 23, 2007 Posted by Jason Irwin , 1 comment

I mentioned in a previous (less happy) post that I had switched to media center having formerly used media portal. Frankly, I hadn't used my PC as a media center in quite some time, so when I purchased a new PC and got a copy of Vista Ultimate x64, I decided to brush off my old dual tuner and give Vista Media Center a test drive. I only have basic cable as I tend to watch TV series and movies in bulk a la Netflix, but for newer series, sports events, etc., I've gotten into a routine of recording it using media center, removing the commercials and watching it on my 19 inch monitor.


Media center is a beautifully polished application that has become part of my daily life. Its search features are awesome and everything just feels like a real DVR - not an application running on a Windows box. Personally, I would have liked a fully fledged Picture-in-Picture mode, otherwise very little is missing from the setup. I do not own, nor have I ever owned, a TiVo, so I can't compare the two…however, I am so happy with MCE that I don't feel the need to change.


Fortunately, Media Center also has quite a large community backing, with users creating all sorts of plug-ins - from Netflix and eBay browsers, to actual applications that extend the capability of media center. With this in mind, below are the Media Center plug-ins that I just couldn't live without:


ShowAnalyzer/Comskip (http://dragonglobal.org/ and http://www.kaashoek.com/comskip/ respectively)


The chances are that if you've used any dvr software on a Windows box you've run across Showanalyzer and Comskip. They aim to do the same thing, and are both (in my experience) quite effective in doing it - they scan recorded TV shows for commercials, outputting commercial information to a text file which can be read by other applications. Due to advertising revenue, TV stations seem a little reluctant to embrace commercial skipping - and to the best of my knowledge TiVo does not offer any automatic commercial skipping .


Comskip may be the publics favorite, since it is the free to use. I've found the out-of-the-box results to be pretty good on most stations and the wealth of configuration options will drive any technically-able user mad with excitement. Configuration is all done via a text file and the application itself is command based. Comskip is accompanied by Comclean and DVRCut which allow the detected commercials to be permanently removed.


ShowAnalyzer on the other hand is (at the time of writing) $20, though I personally purchased it a few days before the price was hiked from $10. It does the same thing as Comskip and again the results were pretty good out of the box. Showanalyzer supports the real-time detection of commercials and is packed with an application called SchoolHouse which is used to tune your commercial skipping settings. There is also a small configuration application which I prefer to Comskip's config file approach. ShowAnalyzer has its own UI, compared to Comskip's dos based approach - though I'd like to be able to select multiple files to scan from the UI (right now only single file selection is supported).



DVRMSToolbox (http://babgvant.com/)


DVRMSToolbox is the most complete set of tools available for dealing with Microsoft's DVR-MS filetype. It interacts with Comskip or Showanalyzer - enabling the detection and/or removal of commercials, and more pre and post-processing options than you can imagine - including conversion to mpeg, wmv etc. It has a file-watching service which allows the monitoring of a specific directory whose contents will be scanned when a new file is added. DVRMSToolbox's true beauty lies in the myriad of configuration options and the ability to create profiles to perform almost any sequence of tasks that you could possibly imagine on a recorded file. Another free application, DVRMSToolbox is the ultimate package for anyone interested in interacting with their recorded media.

Lifextender (http://lifextender.com/)

Lifextender is a beautiful little application which, similarly to DVRMSToolbox, uses Comskip* to detect commercials in DVR-MS files. On the surface Lifextender offers fewer configuration options than DVR-MS toolbox. Its beauty, in my humble opinion, is better support for the 10-Foot Interface with which many Media Center users are familiar. Interaction with DVRMSToolbox requires a PC setup, but if using your media center box as a dedicated PVR, remote control interaction will be much more straightforward with Lifextender. It allows the creation of rules for commercial removing based on theTv channel, the show's title etc. Furthermore, it allows scans to start automatically when Media Center stops recording.


*At the time of writing Lifextender does not support Showanalyzer. However, the developers of this application have included it in the latest beta version!


Webguide (http://www.asciiexpress.com/webguide/)

For me Webguide is worth it's weight in gold. Previously a licensed application, in September of 2007 Microsoft and Webguide's creator Doug Berret came to a deal with Doug joining the Media Center team while making Webguide available for free! What does this mean to the man on the street??? It means that we now have a high quality and free plug-in for media center which allows for seamless remote viewing and scheduling of media. Live or recorded TV (as well as all manner of music/pictures and even DVDs can be streamed to a browser over the internet. When on the road you can schedule TV shows to be recorded from the comfort of your laptop or even pocket pc or Smartphone.

I have used Webguide for approximately 6 months now and am completely blown away by this application - from its streaming options, to the beautiful TV guide interface, this app is a must have for any self-respecting MCE user. And its price-tag isn't too shabby either!

mceBackup (http://iandixon.co.uk/cs/files/default.aspx)

If, like me, you are running media center and are a little concerned at the possibility of your settings/recorded shows being blown away the next time you fool around with your PC configuration, then mceBackup by Ian Dixon, is a wonderful little nugget. It allows for the scheduled backup (and if necessary the immediate restoration) of your settings, recorded tv and 'extra folder' and runs as a service with a simple but pretty graphical interface. Frankly this is an application that I don't interact with too often, but one that I rely on every day (actually, every night at 2 A.M.) to keep the state of my media center up to date. Like some of these other entries, it's free as in beer.


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