Media Centers: A supplement or alternative to TV!

media center screenshotThis posting is geared more towards our home readers.  With the economy down the past few months, many folks have been looking for ways to trim the budget and save some extra cash.  My favorite quick-hit?  Television!  Ok, so I know many of us hate to miss the newest episode of “How I Met Your Mother” or “House”, but it really is possible to drop cable (or at least reduce the bill).

What many of you may not know is that over the past few years a new breed of streaming media websites and “Media Center” hardware has been popping up, expanded your options past the old way of thinking: cable versus satellite.  While sites like YouTube have been providing video entertainment for awhile, a few new sites (like Hulu and Netflix) have started streaming current television shows and movies over the Internet.  Additionally, Media Center hardware has become exactly that, providing a central place to view all your stored and/or streamed digital media content:  videos, photos, music, and more.

I’ll start with the most obvious:  Windows Media Center (a feature in Vista Home Premium and Vista Ultimate), Front Row, and Apple TV.  Once hooked to your TV and an Internet connection, they provide the ability to play videos, photos and music.  Here are the difference between both:

  • Apple TV is heavily reliant on iTunes, as it mostly acts as an extender which syncs music/videos to/from your computer.  It also has Flickr/YouTube apps which allow you to view content from those websites.  I’ve seen some websites with “hacks” for it, but I’d imagine that voids the Apple warranty!  If you’re pay for cable simply to watch movies and listen to music, this may be a good substitute as you can watch free YouTube videos, purchased movies, and listen to songs.
  • Front Row for OSX is an alternate interface for Apple computers which provides a “Media Center” view of your digital content (photos, videos, music).
  • Windows Media Center scans your computer for files to add to its library.  A number of folks have developed add-ins, which allow it to integrate with a number of online media websites (YouTube, Flickr, Hulu, Netflix, etc).  One thing to note, it will have trouble playing any DRM protected content you get from iTunes.  One thing to note, you can add a TV Tuner card to your machine and use Windows Media Center as a DVR.  You can also take Windows Media Center content and “extend” it to a number of other devices (such as Xbox 360) throughout your house.  If you already have a Windows Vista Home Premium or Ultimate computer, take it to the next level.  If you’re feeling adventurous, check out TweakMCE (customizing Media Center), Aaron Stebner (techie stuff), and TheGreenButton (forums/info).  This option allows you to either supplement your cable TV by using the DVR functionality, or completely replace your cable subscription via the add-ins for Hulu and Netflix.

boxee screenshotI’ll admit, most of my experience has been with Windows Media Center (as I also own an Xbox 360 and it was the most logical thing to do).  However, there are a few other options for you do-it-yourselfers!  While I present this list mostly as an FYI, I welcome all of you to post a comment with your experiences:

  • Plex Media Center (for OSX):  This one is for Macs only, providing instant access to your media (local and online).  It also seems to have some great “library” features to help you manage all your digital content.
  • XBMC:  Media Center software for all platforms.  I found a nice little review on ArsTechnica.
  • Boxee:  This media center alternative seems to be up and coming.  While it rivals Windows Media Center (and in some respects may surpass it) with its feature set, it adds a new twist with it’s “social networking” features.  Boxee allows you to share what you’re watching with your friends, and you can make recommendations for each other.   I found some reviews on PSFK, Examiner, HomeTheaterBlog, and PaulStamatiouThis option is still considered “alpha”, but probably has enough features that you could do away with cable tv completely.

Personally, I’ve been happy with my Windows Vista Media Center, although Boxee is looking pretty attractive.  If you’re serious about looking for a cable/satellite alternative, I’d stick to Boxee and Windows Media Center.  Feel free to Contact Me if you have any questions!

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About Robert

An IT nerd with 10+ years of experience in almost *anything* windows (server and desktop), Citrix, Exchange, Google Apps, and WordPress. I like to dabble in just about anything IT related, and read blogs and tech books like crazy!

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  1. I've been using a Mac Mini for a while now. It works pretty well. It's the early Intel model, so the graphics card can't quite power a 1080p display.

    I also picked up the Apple Wireless Keyboard and Mouse, which is a great suppliment. I also use a Logitech Harmony remote to power the whole thing.

    The whole system works great and when it's time to upgrade, I'll go with another Mac Mini.

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