Windows 7 Tip of the Week
Get Free TV Content with Media Center
Tip date: June 4, 2010
Windows Media Center is one of the most innovative and entertaining technologies Microsoft has ever added to Windows. Essentially a wonderful, remote control-accessible ("ten foot") front end to all of your digital media content, Windows Media Center helps you enjoy live and recorded TV shows, and digital videos, photos, and music. Media Center is equally at home in your living room or bedroom as it is in the home office, or on a laptop during a cross-country flight. And in Windows 7, the Media Center environment has been evolved with added functionality and an improved user interface. It's also been made available in more versions of the operating system instead of just one or two as it was with Windows XP and Vista. Thus, it will reach a far wider audience than it did previously.
Despite this, Media Center remains a hidden gem, of sorts. Few users utilize this nice interface, and even fewer use it for its original purpose of watching live and recorded TV shows. The reason is simple: Setting up Media Center to record TV shows is complex and time consuming, and can be unreliable. And few people have the required TV tuner hardware, or the patience, to make this exercise worthwhile.
Fortunately, you don't have to connect your PC to your cable box to enjoy TV and other video content. In addition to working ably with your own digital videos, and with some third party services like CinemaNow and Amazon On Demand, Media Center provides access to a number of other TV and TV-like services that give you a taste of what this environment has to offer. Two of my favorites are Internet TV and Netflix.
Internet TV began life as MSN TV, but now it's a fully integrated part of Media Center, or at least it is once you install it. To do so, launch Media Center and wait. After a few moments, you'll be prompted for the install. (If you aren't, try quitting and re-launching Media Center. It will appear eventually.)
Once Internet TV is up and running, you can access it in two ways. In the TV menu on the Media Center home screen, you'll see a new Internet TV option. Or, you can simply click Guide instead to bring up the normal Media Center program guide; the Internet TV "channels" are available right at the top.
Internet TV provides access to full shows, both new and old, as well as TV show clips. The quality is good at best--it's your basic video streaming, after all--but some of the content is decent. I've lost more than a few hours watching some full episodes from the original Star Trek series, for example.
Internet TV can't give Hulu or even YouTube a run for their money, but then neither are integrated into Media Center, at least not yet. For now, Internet TV provides decent and free TV content that anyone can enjoy: All you need is Media Center and an Internet connection.
If you're a Netflix subscriber, you've probably heard of the Netflix Instant Queue, which augments the service's traditional DVD rental offering with Internet-based streaming of TV shows and movies; it comes free with any Netflix subscription, including the low-end, one-movie-at-a-time version, and can be accessed from the web, from dedicated set-top boxes (Roku), video game machines (Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii), and from other devices, including some Blu-Ray players. You can also access Netflix from Media Center, and this is a nice interface for doing so.
Like Internet TV, Netflix will need to be installed first. (It will be advertised in the Movies menu.) Once that's up and running, logon to your account and you can access your Instant Queue, DVD Queue, and a number of related views, including movie recommendations.
The nice thing about the Netflix interface in Media Center is that you can manage your queues too. As you watch content in the Instant Queue, you can delete it directly from this interface, and you can browse DVDs, add them to your queue, and reorder items as you like.
Netflix isn't free, but the service's Instant Queue feature has grown into an excellent reason to subscribe. I've heard complaints that much of this content is older, but that's changing too, and there's now a lot of decent content in there, and it's getting better all the time.