As a large screen, entertainment-oriented user interface, Windows Media Center is really good. It is intuitive and it works well from the distance you will probably have in your lounge.
But my first "must have" is an EJECT option in the UI. This new option would actually eject media inserted in an optical drive. Hw innovative!
As described before the Mac mini doesn't have an EJECT button, and neither does the Microsoft Media Center remote control. And there isn't an EJECT option in the Media Center interface either.
Lucky the plugin MyMovies has an EJECT option. But this should be there, just after "Watch DVD".
Next is the content itself. While having a plugin such as Yougle allows you to watch YouTube, MSN Soapbox and Apple Quicktime movie trailers, I realy want movie rental downloads in New Zealand.
And I don't mean something that uses a browser, but an actual Media Center interface (better if the service offers APIs so others can create plugins for other software and devices) that would allow me to browse the catalogue, rent and download the movie directly from Media Center without having to ever see a web browser.
Then comes the infrastructure. People who are fortunate to live in a cable modem serviced area with speeds of 10 Mbps or more or even ADSL2+ should have no problems in downloading a full length movie in just under one hour.
But providers should make sure the servers aren't in Australia or somewhere else.
They should be here in New Zealand for fast delivery. And the ISPs should help fostering this by for example not charging traffic to these specific servers or charging a fraction only as "local traffic" - like TelstraClear used to do in the old days.
Then it's on-line TV. I don't like to have another box for cable TV. I don't want to have a sattelite dish on the roof. I want an all IP solution. Providers, deliver IPTV now and integrate with Media Center. TVNZ, you can enhance TVNZ On Demand to provide this. Make it come to my lounge. I don't want in the browser!
Again, make an API available so that people can develop plugins for other devices or software. And make sure you have XML feeds with your programming guide.
Microsoft could and should help too by creating incentives for local companies to invest in the media industry.
And again Microsoft, where's the damn EJECT button in the remote control?
This is nothing new here because we already have a Squeezebox, but that works with music only.
I found references to some interesting products - the Popcorn Media Tank for example - that included music, photos and video, but I wanted something easy to use, with wireless LAN support - and most importantly something that didn't look like an IT departement had landed in our lounge.
So I thought of using Windows Media Center, based on Windows Vista Ultimate.
Just one problem though and that is most of the PC cases are either too big, or noisy because of the fan requirements, too costly when part of a completely new PC, or simply plain ugly.
So I thought I should look at the temple of modern computing design, Apple. And I ended up settling on a Mac mini. Mind you this is not the first Mac in this house of Windows. But this is a special one, because it is the first computer in the lounge (except for laptops sometimes).
The best thing about the Mac mini is certainly the size and design. It doesn't look like a computer and it's not much bigger than a paperback. I choose the smallest one with 1.83 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 1 GB RAM and 80 GB HDD - no need for large storage because everything is on the Windows Home Server.
So I ordered this on-line from the Apple Store and had it delivered next day (sorry DSE, but your sales guy in Featherston St missed a sale by being dumb and not allowing the one you had there to be transferred to my local store in Johnsonville).
Anyway, I was really impressed with the small box delivered to my door. I opened it and in less than ten minutes of the initial Mac OS configuration I was running Bootcamp and installing Windows Vista on this machine.
Windows Vista installed really fast and all the drivers were delivered with the Mac OS DVD that comes with this box. I installed Avast antivirus, Daemon-Tools and configured the box to use Windows Vsta as the default OS.
Basically if it runs on Windows Vista it will work on this hardware - including ReadyBoost.
The next thing was the installation of a few Media Center plugins and the first three were MyMovies, Yougle and Media Center RSS Reader.
Yougle allows you to play social media content from sites such as YouTube, MSN Soapbox and others - including Apple Quicktime trailers! The Media Center RSS Reader is obvious.
But the most important plugin was MyMovies. It allows you to create a database of the movies you own and then cross-reference movies, actors, directors, etc on the big screen. You can find a biography and then check all the movies you own where that actor worked. It will also automatically load the movie for you before playing. And it solves a big problem too...
You see, I installed LogMeIn so I could manage ths box from my laptop because it does not have a keyboard and mouse - only the Microsoft MCE Remote Control. But there's no EJECT button in this remote control and there's no EJECT button on the Mac mini either! MyMovies solves this problem because it lists the movies in your database and the movie currently in the DVD drive - including an EJECT option.
Overall I am really happy with this setup and even over wireless LAN it can play DVDs streaming from the Windows Home Server with no problems at all.
UPDATE: Just to be complete, I've posted a couple of features I'd like to see to enrich the Media Center experience...
Not to my surprise we did not get any official comment neither on the blog itself or in the Geekzone forums where there's a TelstraClear account which they could use to let people know things.
Today I found out on Stuff that the upgrade is not coming until mid 2008 for Wellington:
TelstraClear expects to offer 25 megabit per second broadband connections to customers of its Wellington cable network by mid-year.
The lightning-fast 25Mbps plans should be available in Christchurch next month, says spokesman Chris Mirams.
TelstraClear had originally promised the faster broadband plans last year. Mr Mirams says the upgrade was held up by the availability of equipment that has only recently become available, and which arrived in New Zealand shortly after Christmas.
It took sometime but it's here now: Windows Mobile 6 update for Treo 750v Vodafone New Zealand.
I don't know why it took so long but this is a must have update for your Palm Treo 750v (New Zealand only!). I haven't tested it yet (a friend is using my Treo 750v at the moment), but I am told it provides improved Calendar management, Voice Commande over Bluetooth, USB cable charging and the much expected HSDPA update!
You can only download it once and you must be running a Vodafone-branded Windows Mobile on your Palm to update it.
By coincidence, today I received in the mail the InternetNZ Business Plan 2008 - 2009 and a booklet "Liability of Internet Service Providers for Third Party Content", by Dr Judith Bayer, InternetNZ Senior Research Fellow in Cyberlaw:
Dr Bayer's research considers ISP liability within a variety of different fields of the New Zealand law, including defamation, copyright, hate speech and related freedom of expression issues. She draws on overseas experience of ISP liability schemes and evaluates thepros and cons of those schemes.
It is a 109 page paper with (sometimes) dense information - IANAL but it is easy to read and understand the implications of current and propose laws in New Zealand.
I would like to see a similar paper describing the content creator's side of this scenario, in special the implications for on-line publications such as newspapers, blogs, portals and forums.
Through the end of Febuary 2008 you can get 25% discount off any oder of US$ 50 or more at Skooba Design - even discounted items - using the code TECHREADER. And if you are in the continental US you get free UPS shipping.
The MSDN team has announced the decision of not making Windows Home Server available on MSDN.
You just have to go to a Dick Smith store and look for product code XC5822. The picture here is the same as the one on the site, but I am told it's not exactly the same as the model being offered.
They are some late 2004 Acer Aspire 4315-100508Ci models, based on an Intel Celeron M 540 1.86GHz Processor, 512MB DDR2 RAM, 80GB 5400 RPM SATA HDD, 14.1" Widescreen Display, DVD+CDRW Combo Drive, Intel Media Accelerator X3100 Graphics Card and wireless LAN.
The laptops are running Ubuntu 7.10.
What's more interesting is the price: NZ$699, making it a great value when compared to the ASUS Eee PC, which has only a 4 GB flash memory for storage and costs the same.
This should be a good introduction to Linux machines if you don't feel inclined to install this system on your own hardware.
If you don't know yet, Windows Home Server is based on server code, making it a more robust platform. But not all software will run on it, so some special versions are needed. Also, add-ins can plug into the Windows Home Server console for easier remote management.
The first program I installed was Avast for Windows Home Server. One of the cool features is the complete integration withthe console, plus remote management of any Avast installed on PCs connected to this server. You can initiate a scan, schedule scans, start a program or virus definition updates and check the event logs.
Then I installed Whiist, so that I could add links to the Windows Home Server pages. But not only that, it will automatically create photo sites, including thumbnails, with nothing but a few clicks.
Next I installed Diskeeper 2008 for Windows Home Server. This new version also integrates into the console and is specially designed for Windows Home Server, which uses some special redirectors for file storage.
The most interesting add-in is Webguide (pictured). This is such a cool program that Microsoft entered into an agreement with the developers so that it could be free for Windows Home Server users. Go and download yours!
Webguide has some tricks though. If you are running the Power Pack 1 beta you will need to change a web.config file before installation. If you want to stream music from your server, make sure to load the local library using Windows Media Player. And if you want to stream DVDs then you will need a MPEG2 decoder and an AC3 decoder.
I have installed Cyberlink PowerDVD 7 on this server, so that I could use its MPEG2 decoder. And you can download a free AC3 decoder from here.
If you have an ISO file for your DVDs then you will need Daemon Tools. Just be aware when installing it to not install the advertising part of the software. Read each disclaimer before clicking ACCEPT!
Of course if you are playing DVDs over the network you will need the drive set to the appropriate region encoding - but you know this, right?
But we don't have IPTV in this country. And now that we had to move the Sony LCD from the wall because of some renovations we can't watch TV or cable anymore.
Even a service such as Sling Media would help - just plug their box to the cable modem adapter and get the output over wi-fi on the other side of the house.
But not in this country.
I understand we can have this functionality if we add a specific video card to a PC and configure the right software, hack a couple of XML files and things would be up and running.
But I don't want thing that require an electronic engineer to get working. I want simple things. A box that transmits wirelessly to my media centre or connects to my wireless network directly for streaking. We want consumer grade stuff.
We need TV tonight. The father-in-law is coming for dinner, and I am sure he will want to watch TV news at 6pm - Sir Ed died today, the news, the news!
The solution? Go out and buy rabbit ears for $20. Not even all those gigabytes of RAM, terabytes of storage, computing power and bandwidth can help if our providers don't come to sense and offer some decent modern entertainment service.