Robert McLaws: Windows Edition

Blogging about Windows since before Vista became a bad word

Changes Needed for Media Center in Windows 7 SP1

I *love* Windows Media Center. It’s my favorite part of Windows, and in Windows 7, it’s fantastic. There are a lot of improvements, and hopefully soon I’ll be able to post some of my favorite parts.

But I just spent the last 2 hours trying to fix my Windows Media Center installation at home (tried a number of different options before I ended up rolling back using Windows Home Server), so I figured now would be the best time to talk about the improvements that WMC needs by the time the next Service Pack rolls around.

Improving Reliability
The WMC database is by far the most brittle aspect of Windows Media Center. For whatever reason, Microsoft decided to use a lightweight database to power the whole system. Series recordings, configuration data… you name it. It’s all stored in a DB file in C:\Windows\ehome. If that DB file is corrupted in any way, you are completely SOL.

Such an event happened on October 2nd. I’m not the only one that experienced the issue, which means Microsoft distributed corrupted Guide data. Microsoft said the only option was to re-run the initial setup, and I’m sorry but that answer is unacceptable. It takes nearly 20 minutes to run the “Configure My TV Signal” process. I shouldn’t need to configure my tuners and blast away my Recording settings in order to clear out and re-download the Guide. But that is the only option that Microsoft puts on the table.

The Media Center needs to move the WMC database to a more robust engine that is capable of transactional rollbacks if an update fails. It also needs to store the Guide in a completely separate database file, so that Guide corruptions do not affect all of the other settings.

User Interface Changes
I run my Media Center in a headless configuration, because I don’t want those gigantic OCUR tuners on my entertainment center. The main problem with that setup is that I can’t run the aforementioned “Configure My TV Signal” wizard on an Extender. Whatever the technical reason for that decision is, accessibility trumps all. I shouldn’t have to lug a monitor into my office closet to configure my TV tuners.

And while the team is improving the UI, there needs to be an option to backup and restore your Series Subscriptions without downloading a 3rd party program. ESPECIALLY if the WMC database is so brittle. Yes, I know there are free/cheap options. We’re on like the 5th iteration of the platform at this point, it’s time to start building in better options for recovering from problems.

And finally, there needs to be a richer notification system for headless Media Centers. If the Guide won’t download, the only way to find out is to RDP into the system. While that’s not a terribly big deal, it’s not the best user experience. There should be UI for reading Media Center errors, and a queuing process for showing serious ones, for example like Windows Update restart notifications.

Conclusion
Windows Media Center is a fantastic platform, and Microsoft has pulled out all the stops to give it the potential to really hit the mainstream. The next update (which unlike the TV Pack 2008, needs to be available to everyone) needs to focus on improving the WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor).

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Comments

  • I couldn't agree more. I mean how Microsoft could create a product that can't be backed up or restored with the included backup utilities is just crazy.

    I would add one more suggestion for SP1; when a new channel is included in the guide data, MC should ask you if you want it added to the guide, not just add it automatically.

    October 14, 2009 7:08 AM
  • Jason Kentner said:

    I think the History and logging is lacking also.  Having the ability to export your channel configuration and your series recordings would be very helpful in the event that you would have to rebuild your WMC box.

    I really hope the Microsoft vision is to have an extender connected to your TV (like an Xbox 360).  However currently it doesn't seem like it because of the limitations mentioned in this blog.

    This extender should be able to configure all of the options as Robert stated.  Also it should have a web browser, flash support, and Internet TV support (It would be nice to add my own Internet TV channel).  This truly would then be a force to be reckoned with.  The WMC device should be just like the WHS.  It should be a true headless system.

    October 14, 2009 12:25 PM
  • Douglas Husemann said:

    Robert,

     The database used is a version of Sql Server CE.  That team was one of the first to use a desktop version of Sql Server CE.  

    I know the current version of CE supports transactions,  Doesn't support nested transactions though.

    Won't disagree,  Guide data needs its own database file so it can just be wiped and recreated.  

    MS does need to use the transact capabilities in the database though.

    Douglas  

    October 14, 2009 8:31 PM
  • Bob said:

    Being able to do TV setup from an Extender was looked at for Windows 7 but ultimate no finished due to some technical issues.

    October 15, 2009 7:33 PM
  • I think the History and logging is lacking also.  Having the ability to export your channel configuration and your series recordings would be very helpful in the event that you would have to rebuild your WMC box.

    November 6, 2009 2:03 AM
  • Lloyd Codrington said:

    I agree with everything said here but would like to add one thing to the list of features that need to be addressed.

    WMC when in full screen mode locks the cursor.  Now why would you want to move it when watching the TV, you may ask.  Simply because I was LISTENING to the news and trying to work with software on one of my other three monitors.

    Sky player and BBCi play do not lock the mouse within it's frame when in full screen video so I am at a loss to know why Microsoft did not address this with the release of Windows 7 as I am one of many that complained about this limitation in Vista forums.

    Windows 7 is a great breath of fresh air and I can now work without the constant crashes that Vista threw at me every day.  2 months no crash, but some simple things like these would get icing status if addressed and I love icing on my cakes.

    December 11, 2009 9:08 AM