Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Media Center


In Windows 7, Windows Media Center is a more useful tool than ever before for working with audio and visual media. While at first glance, Windows 7's version of WMC doesn't look a whole lot different than its predecessor, it includes many improvements. In this article, we'll focus on improvements in WMC's TV setup process, support for digital broadcast TV, the program guide, Internet TV, WMC access from the desktop, RAW file support for photos, picture and music playback and sports.

Digital Broadcast TV Made Easier

In Windows Vista, ATSC digital over-the-air broadcast TV was handled clumsily. The already-long TV setup process took even longer if you had an ATSC antenna, and after you had set up your digital channels, they were assigned four-digit channel numbers that were located far from their analog counterparts in the program guide. Windows 7 makes the process of setting up and using digital broadcast TV much easier. When you run the Live TV Setup option from the TV menu strip, Windows 7 determines the digital TV channels that are in your area and assigns them .x channel numbers, such as 14.1, 7.2, and so on in the program guide. If you can view all of the digital TV channels Windows 7 assigns, you don't need to do anything else.

However, it's more likely, especially if you use an indoor antenna, that some channels might not provide a strong enough signal to be usable. In Windows 7, you have two ways to optimize your ATSC digital TV experience: Scan for More Channels and Digital TV Antenna Signal Strength . These options are found in Tasks>Settings>TV>TV Signal . Use Scan for More Channels to determine if you can pick up any additional digital TV channels. Next, use Digital TV Antenna Signal Strength to scan the assigned digital TV channels. During this process, adjust your antenna to improve signal strength, and uncheck any channels that are not strong enough to be usable. The channels you deselect are removed from the program guide.

Keep in mind that if you get a better antenna, you can run these wizards again to see if more channels are available to you.

Internet TV Turns 2

You can access Internet TV in three ways in Windows 7:

  • From your desktop via a gadget
  • From the Windows Media Center Program Guide
  • From the Windows Media Center Internet TV options in the Extras menu stripe

Whether you have a TV tuner or not, MSN "channels" are displayed in the Program Guide. Windows 7 now includes a new version of Internet TV, version 2 (beta).

The first time you select Internet TV Beta 2, you are prompted to update your desktop player. Click Update to download and install the 2MB update file. While WMC still includes Internet TV Beta 1.1 (a slightly updated version of the first-generation Internet TV found in Windows Vista's Windows Media Center), Internet TV Beta 2 is the better version to use - if you have a fast enough connection. It offers an interface that puts more emphasis on content than on categories and looks much more like WMC's other media menus, while offering higher resolution video than the original Internet TV.

However, keep in mind that Internet TV is still in beta, and works best with a fast Internet connection: I'd recommend Wireless-N or Gigabit Ethernet. When I tested this feature on my office PCs (connected to a 10/100 Ethernet network), there were a lot of timeouts, and some video clips played, but with scrambled video on my widescreen display.

Opening Media Center Content from Your Desktop

When you start WMC, you will be prompted to install a desktop gadget to access Internet TV on your desktop. Click Yes, and you can launch TV recordings and Internet TV from your desktop by adding the Windows Media Center gadget. When you add the gadget to your desktop, it displays your most recent TV recordings and Internet TV channels. You can specify how many to offer and what categories to display.

Click a category (1), click an item (2), and WMC opens and immediately starts playing the selected content

You can also access WMC content from the Start menu. WMC supports Windows 7's new jump list feature, so when you click Windows Media Center in the Start menu, you can choose from the latest TV recordings or from other recently-view media.

Working with RAW Image Files in Windows Media Center

In Windows Vista, you couldn't view RAW digital camera files from within Windows Media Center. Thankfully, with more and more photographers switching to digital SLR cameras and using RAW files, all you need to do to enable RAW support in Windows 7's version of WMC is to add the appropriate codec for your camera and operating system type (32-bit or 64-bit). For this article, I installed the Ardfry Imaging, LLC 64-bit codec for Canon CR2 RAW files, as Canon does not yet offer a 64-bit codec.

Creating a Slide Show You Can Edit and Reuse

In Windows Vista, the Slide Show feature in Windows Media Center was useful only for a quick review of the current folder or month's photos. In Windows 7, though, you can select the picture files and music files you want, change the order of the files, and create a show you can edit and replay again and again from RAW, JPEG or other supported file types.

The process is quite similar to creating a music playlist. WMC automatically syncs the music and photos for you, and, you can also burn your slide show to DVD.

Viewing Your Favorite Pictures

Windows 7 adds the option to play your favorite pictures. To use this feature, rate your pictures, either in Windows Media Center or other Microsoft apps, such as Windows Media Player or Windows Live Photo Gallery. To rate your photos in WMC, you can right-click the item and select the star rating from the right-click menu.

To finish the process for photos, open Tasks>Settings>Pictures>Favorite Pictures , select the criteria you want to use, and click Save.

To start playback, open Pictures + Videos>Play Favorites . The pictures you selected will be displayed in a screen saver that alternatively scrolls thumbnails of all selected photos in black and white across the screen and periodically zooms in on one photo and displays it in full color (assuming it's a color photo).

Listening to Your Favorite Music

You can also select your favorite music by star ratings or other criteria for playback with Music Favorites. To access the setup menu, open Tasks>Settings>Music>Favorite Music , select the options desired, and save changes. To start playback, open Music>Play Favorites . You can play favorite music and favorite pictures at the same time.

Customizing Sports

Windows Vista's version of WMC offered a strong Sports module, but Windows 7's version one-ups it by enabling you to select how much information you want to display for each league you follow, and now lets you keep an eye on the leading racing leagues: Busch, Truck, Nextel, and IRL.

Windows 7's version of Windows Media Center builds upon the best features of Windows Vista's version and adds plenty of refinements. It's just one more reason to take a closer look at Microsoft's newest operating system.

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