If you’re even just the slightest bit into home theater, this blog post is for you. I’ll show you how to experience your Blu-rays, videos, pictures, music, games, and live TV from your PC, with a beautiful, sleek interface. What do you need? Windows Media Center (WMC) and a couple of plug-ins—we’ve got some very useful tips and tricks in store for you.
In Part 1 of our series, I showed you the basics of building a WMC rig. Part 2 guided you through WMC’s features and the most important plug-ins. In Part 3, I’ll demonstrate how I personally built my WMC rig and share some thoughts on streamlining your home theater experience.
My current WMC rig
Rather than having a DVD player, a Blu-ray player, a set-top box, or one of those media hubs connected to your TV, imagine having a single Home Theater PC (HTPC) hooked up to your LCD TV, plasma TV, or your projector. You could enjoy all of your content with one single remote control. As you can probably imagine, this makes things much easier. For example, I hooked a three-year-old laptop (that has been replaced over time and would just be sitting around collecting dust) up to the TV.
It sits below the TV and does a good job of handling live programs, DVDs, HD 1080p videos, my pictures, my music collection, and even a couple of PC games.
The best part is, I am able to stream all of the content from my main PC into my office via Wi-Fi. How is this possible? Well, first, I upgraded my router to a faster, dual-band wireless N router, which is capable of handling 1080p video over the air. My older router just didn’t provide the bandwidth and the signal strength to quickly send such a huge amount of data. It stuttered, and the video froze up on me all of the time. Terrible!
After a bit of research, I went for the Linksys WRT610N. I needed to equip both my WMC HTPC and my regular PC (with all of the photos, music, videos, etc.) using a dual-band USB Wi-Fi dongle, as well, to take advantage of the speed. The router is capable of transmitting wireless signals both in the classic 2.4 GHz wireless spectrum as well as in the 5 GHz spectrum. So, I set up a specific 5 GHz Wi-Fi network just for media streaming and connected all of my PCs to this network. This sounds complicated, but you can actually do it with just a couple of clicks in the router’s setup menu.
I also found one of the most beautiful yet functional WMC remote controls on eBay—the Philips SRM 5100. (Unfortunately, this model has been discontinued by the manufacturer.) It has a good grip, solid build quality and—most importantly—all of the necessary WMC buttons. If you see this remote control or the more advanced SRM 7500 anywhere, I’d suggest getting your hands on one. The best thing is, I don’t need to fiddle around with a mouse or a keyboard. I just press the “Power” button, and the laptop wakes up from standby. I can then browse around WMC and watch a movie. When I’m done, I just press “Power”, and the laptop goes back to sleep.
In the following sections, I’ll show you a couple of additional steps (see the first two guides in this blog post series for the first six steps) to streamline WMC to your liking.
Step 7 – Auto start WMC and enable “Auto Logon”
If you build an HTPC—whether with an older laptop or a dedicated HTPC—you definitely want to make sure that WMC starts automatically. You see, behind the beautiful WMC interface, there is still good old Windows 7 that needs important security and performance updates (and even some to make WMC more reliable). And so, once in a while, a reboot is necessary. When that happens, you want to make sure that WMC automatically starts up again. Also, you might want to turn on the automatic logon feature so that you don’t need to enter a username or a password, which doesn’t make sense for a WMC rig. Here’s how :
- To make WMC start automatically, just add the appropriate shortcut.
- It gets a bit more complicated when you try to disable the logon screen and make Windows automatically log you on. To do this, hold down the “WINDOWS” key on your keyboard, and press “R”. Now, type in the following command: “control userpasswords2″.
- Click on your user account, for example:
- Uncheck “Users must enter a user name and password to use this computer”, and hit “OK”. As a final step, you must enter your user name and password one last time. Click on “OK”. From now on, Windows 7 will not require you to log on each and every time you need to reboot your WMC PC.
Step 8 – Make icons and text look better on an HD TV
Once you step out of WMC, all of the icons and texts are small—very, very small. This is because a regular, full HD TV has a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. So, especially on TVs that are smaller than 40–50 inches, you will have trouble reading any Windows Control Panel settings, for example:
This is perfect for regular computer or laptop screen sizes between 12–24 inches. But, you can forget about making out anything on your full HD screen. Fortunately, Windows 7 is capable of blowing up icons, windows, and all on-screen fonts to 125% or 150% of their original size. That way, you can easily see all of the menus on the screen. To do this, right-click on your desktop, select “Screen resolution”, and click on “Make text and other items larger or smaller”. Select either “Medium – 125%” or “Larger – 150%”; try out each setting to see what works best for your screen. Hit “Apply”, log off, and log back on again. Windows 7 should now look like:
Even with a high-resolution display, you can clearly see all of the menu items, and it’s easier to click on the icons.
Step 9 – Remote control your WMC-based PC from anywhere in your home
There can be many reasons to configure your WMC rig. Upgrade codecs, change WMC settings, and install new plug-ins. If you’re lazy like me, you might want to configure it from the comfort of another PC. I use the excellent and free solution called TeamViewer 5 .
From my office, I can easily configure the HTPC sitting in my living room; there is no need to go in that room, turn on the TV and fiddle around with a keyboard or a mouse. This is perfect if I just need to install some plug-ins or tune some settings. Follow these steps:
- Install TeamViewer 5 on both machines. Start up your WMC-based PC, and select “Extras/Options”. First, make sure that “Start TeamViewer with Windows” is enabled. Then, go to “Incoming LAN connections”, and select “accept”. This will let you remotely control your desktop over your LAN or Wi-Fi connection.
- Go to the “Security” category. I entered a fixed password for my HTPC and enabled “Full Access”. If you want to increase the visual quality of the remote desktop connection, go to “Remote control”, and select “Optimize Quality”.
- Well, that’s about it. Write down the TeamViewer ID (seen in the main window) or the IP address of the WMC PC. Go to any other PC connected to the same network, and start “TeamViewer”. Enter the ID or the IP address you wrote down earlier into the “Create session” window, and confirm the password.
- Now, you should be able to see the desktop of your HTPC inside of a window!
The only downside is you still need to go and wake your HTPC up (using the remote control), before it can accept any Wi-Fi connections. If you’ve connected your HTPC using a LAN cable, you may be lucky. Most LAN adapters support a feature called “Wake Up On LAN”, but this is a configuration story for another blog post.
Step 10 – Play Blu-ray discs on your HTPC
This is what you really want to do with your new WMC rig, right? Crystal-clear 1080p video on a Blu-ray disc is simply awesome. Here’s what you need:
- A Blu-ray drive, of course. If your HTPC didn’t come with a Blu-ray disc drive, you can easily snag an external one. I recently got an external USB Blu-ray disc drive from Velocity Micro from Amazon.com, as my WMC PC did not have a built-in drive. Note: Velocity Micro is only available in the U.S., but there are a couple of alternatives around.
- Blu-ray software. I personally have tested many Blu-ray players out there, but my favorite has to be Cyberlinks PowerDVD 10. Why? It integrates wonderfully with WMC.
Simply pop in a Blu-ray disc, launch WMC, and go to the Cyberlink PowerDVD 10 menu item. That’s it! The Blu-ray disc plays from within WMC, and you can use your regular WMC remote.
I am also impressed with the picture quality that PowerDVD 10 is able to produce. Yes, a Blu-ray is supposed to look nice, but depending on the codecs and the enhancements a player uses, there can be differences. I used a couple of other players and found that PowerDVD had a crisper image compared to the others.
Step 11 – Watch TV on your HTPC
Next up: TV! Although, I’m more of an on-demand guy—meaning that I like to watch movies and TV shows from my hard drive or on Blu-ray—however, there are times when TV is fun. And, it’s pretty easy to set up in WMC, too:
- Start up WMC, and go to “TV” and “live TV setup”. Make sure that your region, for example, “United States”, is selected, and click on “Yes, use this region to configure TV services”. Hit “Next”.
- Enter your ZIP code, and click on “Next” again. Now, you need to accept the license agreements of the program guide. Click on “I agree” and “Next”, and install the “PlayReady” feature, which is required for live TV. Make sure that your TV tuner (for example, DVB-S, DVB-T or analog) is properly connected and installed. WMC downloads the TV program guide for your region, which might take a while. Click “Finish”, go back to “TV”, and switch between channels. Yes, it’s that easy!
That’s it for now! In the next part of this series, where I’ll show you how to enhance and troubleshoot your WMC!
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