Or, How I Learned to Stop Doing Things the Hard Way and Love Miracast
If you’ve followed me for a while, you might know I’m an old Windows Media Center junkie from way back. I’ve been using PCs in one form or another to power my home entertainment experience for about the last 15 years or so. And even before that, I was using computers to accrue and organize my media collection since the mid 90’s. And it’s been something of a love/hate relationship.
Probably the first time I ever saw a Windows PC tethered to a TV was 1996. I was teaching technology classes for a small computer company, and the instructor’s PC in our training lab was mirrored to a hulking CRT display, but the resolution was so fuzzy, you could really only make out the basic shapes. You had to keep a regular monitor on hand to get anything done. But I was fascinated and thought about a day when I’d be able to do something like that in my own home. The same company did a few custom home theater PC installs (mostly for physicians, go figure), using a ridiculous array of parts and software that didn’t fit together very well at all. But I watched the techs and learned a lot.
A few years later I was working for Gateway, and they offered this complete home theater solution called the Destination. It was essentially a custom Windows 98 rig with a huge 32″ TV, surround sound speakers, a wireless keyboard with a trackpad, and remote/trackball thing.
Not pictured: forklift
So, for a couple thousand dollars, you could watch TV through your computer…on a TV. It looked amazing in the showroom, but nobody really bought them.
My first foray into digital home entertainment came in 1999. I was living in an apartment that was so small, there was space in the bedroom for a TV or a computer, but not both. So, I threw a cheap Hauppauge TV capture card into my desktop PC, and with this goofy little included remote, suddenly my 17″ computer monitor could pull double duty. It could record live TV, I suppose, but I didn’t have enough disk space to bother.
Could I BE more nineties?
When Windows XP Media Center Edition débuted in 2003, I knew it’d a game-changer for the way I consumed entertainment. I moved from watching TV and movies and listening to music on my desktop PC to devising increasingly convoluted ways to pipe my content to TV screens throughout the house.
My madness 2.0
First, I tried the Media Center Extender add-on for the Xbox (the original one) that required you to put in a disc every time you wanted to watch something, which was then streamed on-demand from the Media Center PC’s hard drive. The setup also included a Media Center remote and an IR receiver that plugged into one of the console’s available controller ports.
Now you’re playing with POWER!
This was in the era of Core processors and 802.11b wireless networking, so as you can imagine, the overall experience was less than stellar. The MCE setup actually created a hidden user account on the host PC to manage everything. Downstairs, I used included remote to navigate clumsily around the familiar Media Center interface from my PC. But it was such a novel experience, I was hooked. I knew wanted to build my home theater around Windows.
It wasn’t long before I found myself ditching the Xbox and converting an old tower PC to connect directly to my TV. It became the stuff of weekend projects. But it wasn’t easy. Or cheap. I had to buy a better video card. And an S-Video/coax converter. And then a bigger hard drive. And then a sound card that would drive 5.1 speakers.
And this thing, at one point
Then came the accessories – another Media Center remote and keyboard, which required a shared USB-powered IR receiver, and a lot of wires. Oh, so many wires.
But, when it worked, the experience was totally worth it for me. At a time when most people were just discovering the power of using a TiVo set-top box, Windows Media Center let me seamlessly switch between my live and recorded cable TV, radio, my media collection, and – as long as I didn’t mind dropping out of the Media Center application to read tiny text on a CRT – really anything else a PC could do. But it wasn’t without plenty of difficulty, and at times, awkwardness. Boy, was it loud. And hot. Content would intermittently stutter and freeze. Plus, it seemed like whenever the kids wanted to watch SpongeBob, Windows really needed to install a critical update. Try telling a toddler they can’t watch their movie because of a pending reboot. WAF (wife approval factor) was never very high, but we all learned to live with it, partly because it was darn convenient, and partly because by that point, I had invested a small fortune in living the Media Center lifestyle.
Once you go blue, you never have money to go anything else
Performance steadily improved under Windows Vista (which still required a special edition to run Media Center). I moved from a CRT TV set to an LCD, which simplified the wiring somewhat. Then another in the bonus room, and another in the bedroom. By the time Windows 7 rolled out (considered by many to be golden age of Media Center, as it was finally included in virtually every edition), I was running a total of 4 HTPCs around the house, each one with more or less a complete replica of our media library on it. Around the holidays, there was Christmas music playing 24/7 from wherever in the house my wife happened to be.
Somewhere along the way, I made the jump over to digital cable, which rendered all of the DVR features in Media Center kind of useless to me. I wasn’t about to shell out for a CableCARD solution, and besides, the Comcast DVR got the job done.
That slot is actually for your credit card
So, the PCs were now really just for enjoying my media library. Then Pandora happened, then Hulu, and then Netflix. Suddenly, TV seemed the least exciting part of the equation to me. On-demand entertainment was coming of age.
I moved my stuff to a NAS for a while, but after nearly losing everything when a disk died, I ended up installing Windows Home Server on yet another spare PC and moving all my content over there. Personal documents, family pictures and videos, and ripped movies and music lived on the home server, and my family learned to stream content to the room in which we happened to be.
Also this book, which Microsoft published…for reals
And it worked just fine, especially after we finally got an 802.11n wireless router. My wife had never been a big fan of Windows Media Center, but over the years, she had grown accustomed to its quirks (Media Center and I have a lot in common, it seems). I installed Carbonite on the home server right away to ensure everything got backed up to the cloud on a regular schedule.
I also got an Xbox 360 with its greatly improved its role as a native Media Center Extender, but I never bothered much with it. And why would I? I had the real deal – an actual Windows PC connected to each of my TVs.
For people who don’t have a real PC crammed under their TV
When Windows 8 came along, I knew Media Center’s days were numbered. But I didn’t really care. In many ways, it was liberating. It had become something of a limitation to pass every service through its increasingly dated, blue interface. As my Media Center accessories gradually stopped working, I replaced them with newer wireless keyboards that had built-in trackpads, which offered far more versatility in navigation. Windows’ new Start screen full of live tiles and its full-screened modern interface were exceptionally well-suited to the functions I performed with my HTPCs. Suddenly, it was like the entire PC was available to me, and I started branching out to other apps, such as Plex and VLC to manage playback of my media.
Behold, my media center…minus Media Center
Things kind of went off the rails for a bit. I had my new house wired for gigabit Ethernet to get better streaming for my HTPCs. I bought webcams to perch atop every TV in the house, so my family could easily Skype (we almost never Skype). Windows Home Server eventually evolved into Windows Server 2012. And then 2012 R2. I was actually running a Windows domain in the upstairs closet of my house. Like it was the most normal thing ever. Let that sink in for a minute.
Apparently, there are people who still think this is a good idea
But new, online services encouraged me to rethink how I groomed and nurtured my personal media collection on my precious server. I embraced OneDrive in a big way, moving all of my family pictures and videos over to the cloud. Xbox Music matched the tracks in my music library (which was connected to my server, naturally), and Xbox Music Pass filled in the gaps. When my wife and I wanted to rent a movie, we could grab it pretty easily from Xbox Video. I didn’t have to bother installing a bunch of codec packs to play my ripped movies, because VLC could handle just about anything I could throw at it. My kids could launch Netflix directly from the Start screen and navigate to their favorite movies and shows. The Netflix app soon outpaced the old Media Center add-in with better organization and support for multiple profiles. My wife preferred Media Center, though, and she still used it pretty regularly, but eventually she abandoned the PC altogether for iHeartRadio on her iPhone and Netflix on our smart TV, because it was just more convenient. When we occasionally sat down together to watch a downloaded movie, generally it was me who dug into the server and assumed the role of projectionist.
The disk on the home server started sputtering a few months ago, and I finally conceded that expecting my family to log into a Windows domain was probably a bit of overkill. Plus, Carbonite decided that since I was using it on a server, I should be paying SMB prices. So, the server was retired and replaced with a nifty little 3 TB Western Digital My Cloud that just worked. It’s the size of a book. It gobbled up all of the media we were still keeping in house, and it seems to have a never-ending thirst for more.
Pencils and hourglasses for scale
When Windows 10 debuted publicly last week (of course, I’d been testing it since the first Insider builds), I found myself with 3 active HTPCs, a shared family laptop, a tablet, and three phones. I had already overcome my Media Center dependence, but I still had one heck of a convoluted setup, like some bastard Frankenstein’s Monster that just wouldn’t die (and that occasionally terrorized the countryside). Each of those devices had to be migrated to the new OS (hey, it’s free!), and I still have to maintain multiple user accounts on multiple devices, making sure that everyone has access to their own content as well as the shared stuff. You know what’s really fun after being IT support at work all day? Coming home to manage your own home network. Install Windows updates x 3. Reboot the cable modem. Find that episode of Teen Titans. Frankly, it’s exhausting.
Which brings me to my point (and I do have one). A few months ago, I picked up a Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter. It’s this HDMI dongle that you might easily mistake for a Chromecast, but it turned out to be so much more.
It uses a relatively new technology called Miracast, which is the PC-world analog to Apple AirPlay, used to wirelessly stream video and audio to other devices. But unlike AirPlay, it works on anything with an HDMI port, and unlike Chromecast, you’re not limited to awkwardly sharing everything through Chrome. If you’ve ever connected a second monitor to a Windows PC, then you already know enough to use it. There’s virtually no setup; just plug the adapter into an HDMI port and a powered USB port (most new TVs have them), and you’re good to go.
They thought about making it more complicated but decided against it
I originally bought it to connect my tablet to an extra monitor at work, which wasn’t nearly as handy as I thought it would be. It sort of worked under Windows 8.1, but honestly I found it a bit too glitchy and unreliable to be much more than a curiosity. Video would freeze or drop the connection at odd intervals. So, it had ended up in the back of my tech drawer. But after upgrading my Dell tablet to Windows 10, I decided to give it another shot. And it’s like I’m seeing the world through new eyes.
This thing rocks. In Windows 10, you just open the Action Center and tap Connect. Choose the Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter, and a few seconds later, it’s solidly mirroring your desktop to a second display. So simple. Now, instead of a clunky wireless keyboard pinging a hot, noisy, complicated monster of a shared family HTPC running behind the door of the entertainment cabinet, I have a svelte, little, personal Windows tablet that just throws whatever I happen to be watching to a bigger screen and better speakers.
For the record, not my tablet, not my hands, not my kids (and I don’t even know those bears)
And anyone in the family can connect their own device whenever they want to use it. No more need to keep everyone’s profiles up-to-date and synched across the living room PC, bonus room PC, and bedroom PC. Fewer devices. Less overhead. More personal. Finally, the TV screen is just a wireless display, a shared appliance in the room. The guts are the tablet or your phone, which you take with you. This makes so much sense, it’s kind of ridiculous how I’ve been doing it all these years. And all for about $60 (or less, they’re all over eBay) per TV.
By the way, Windows 10 provides a gorgeous interface. It carries forward all of the Windows 8 goodness, but very little of the weirdness. I can use the full-screen Start menu (yeah, I’m using tablet mode), or I can talk to Cortana to launch apps, which can be dragged around or maximized to fill the screen.
Am I the only one who thinks live tiles are kind of awesome?
With a touch, Windows fades into the background, and now I’m simply enjoying a show on Netflix, listening to Groove Music, or watching a movie stored on the My Cloud that’s quietly perched on the shelf beside the router where my home server used to be. The tablet itself is the remote control, keyboard, mouse, camera, and mic all rolled into one. If I want to Skype, then I’m using the tablet in my hand to do it, instead of a PC across the room. Next track? Simply touch the volume rocker on the tablet to bring up the Now Playing charm and tap the icon. If I want to read my email while watching Netflix, it’s trivial to change the connection to Extend, and now I have two independent displays – one my hand and one across the room. In fact, I’m writing this from the new Word mobile app using a spare Bluetooth keyboard, while some relaxing background music plays on the TV in the living room. My Dell Venue 8 Pro tablet is just the little dynamo that’s pulling it all together wirelessly. And the Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter is now a permanent part of my family’s home entertainment solution.
I was so impressed that here I am writing a blog post about my experience, like it’s the most normal thing ever.