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The Experiment Gets More Experimental (Enter Windows 7)

How To: Build An HTPC (With Windows 7)
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When AMD sent us its Maui platform to test, it had preloaded Windows Vista Ultimate, ArcSoft’s TotalMedia Theatre, its own AMD Live Explorer software, and TVTonic’s control panel. We used the hardware and software configuration for a little while and it worked as advertised. But, after sitting down with Microsoft at CES in Last Vegas and getting the full preview of Windows 7’s Media Center interface, we hurriedly chose to shift focus and give the Maui box a spin under new management.

Getting the operating system installed (after downloading it from Microsoft’s site, which you can’t do any more) was a breeze. Most of the hardware was detected automatically, and the components that weren’t were summarily brought up to speed after a round of Windows Update. We’ll refrain from making any speed comparisons, since Windows 7 was loaded onto an OCZ Apex-series SSD rather than the PipelineHD magnetic drive provided by AMD. With that said, the Windows 7/SSD combination was smoking fast.

From there, setting up the included Windows Media Center only took a couple of steps.

Up And Running With Blu-ray

We had ArcSoft’s TotalMedia installed in Vista—and it worked well—but we wanted to try out Cyberlink’s PowerDVD 8, which is also optimized to take advantage of AMD’s Avivo decoding technology.

Gladiator playing seamlessly from the Media Center interfaceGladiator playing seamlessly from the Media Center interface

Our initial install enabled DVD playback right away, but we weren’t able to get Blu-ray content working. A subsequent patch, which the app automatically prompted us to download, rectified the issue. We were disappointed, however, in how PowerDVD handled Blu-ray content versus standard DVDs. With a regular DVD inserted, playing through Media Center is seamless. Playing Blu-ray content, you get kicked out to the Windows desktop, where PowerDVD fires up in its own window. It’d be nice to have the experience similar in either case.

Media Center minimizing to open PowerDVD for Blu-ray playbackMedia Center minimizing to open PowerDVD for Blu-ray playback

Aside from that one snafu, movie playback is as easy as clicking a button in Media Center.

Turning On The TV

Getting television up and running under Windows 7 was a little more complicated, but very much a rewarding experience (minus one small technical hurdle left to overcome). And it’s worth noting that the process absolutely demands that you have an Internet connection already up and running.

Start of the TV Setup wizardStart of the TV Setup wizard

With the analog cable line and ATSC antenna connected to their appropriate coaxial inputs, we began the TV signal setup process. Media Center correctly identified both attached devices and began downloading programming information for a two week span. After detecting available channels, we were able to see the analog and digital options available in one EPG--a task that had vexed Media Center editions prior.

From there, bringing up live and recorded content was simple. If you wanted an individual show, right-click and Record. To save an entire series, right-click and choose Record Series. If a given time slot was scheduled to be in high definition, it'd sport an HD tag. Otherwise, the digital channels were easily identifiable by their x.1, x.2, etc. designations in the EPG.

We'll get into our tuner-switching issue on the following page.

It's also worth noting that Microsoft is counting on an always-on Internet connection here. Company representatives made it a point to show off the growing list of Internet television offerings. And although there is limited content available during this beta period, Microsoft seems determined to get very Hulu-like with on-demand content delivery.

Listening To Some Tunes

After all of the new (to me) functionality, it was nice to wrap up with my good old fashioned music collection. Whereas I'd persistantly fought with the Playstation 3 in order to get my library to display in some logical fashion (who has time to organize tens of gigabytes of music files these days?), Media Center dove right into the shared music folder on my NAS and created entries in its music library with album covers--where available--to make navigation easier.

If you don't want to browse album names alphabetically, Media Center gives you a handful of other sorting techniques, though you're best off if you have put some thought into organization before-the-fact.

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