Being a Windows Media Center enthusiast means learning to cope with a fair amount of frustration and disappointment. Media Center is one of Microsoft’s most forward-thinking and innovative applications, but like many of their endeavors, it’s just “that short” of true greatness. You definitely have to be a “roll your own” type to get a kick out of Media Center, and you can’t be afraid to tinker with settings to get it working just the way you want. Thankfully, there’s a great community of dedicated users at sites like www.thegreenbutton.com (named after Media Center’s trademark remote control button) to swap ideas and help resolve problems.
I’ve been using Media Center since it became a viable solution in 2005 (there was an earlier version that debuted back in 2002, but we won’t go there), and overall, it’s been a great tool for my family to catalog our media and really bring it into our home. We have an extensive collection of WMA audio files (all obtained legally, of course), family pictures, movies encoded as DivX and WMV, and of course, recorded TV.
My wife loves being able to stream tunes from our Christmas music collection while watching a slide show of our family pictures, my 2-year old son has The Lion King and Finding Nemo in daily rotation, and I’m thrilled to have a DVR which is (essentially) free. Plus, there’s a Windows Vista-powered PC under the hood, so when I minimize Media Center, I can access the Web on a 42” 1080i LCD and hit everything from Pandora, to Netflix, to Windows Live. Yep, life’s pretty good.
I cobbled together my first Media Center PC using my Dell Dimension 2400 and a collection of spare parts from eBay. For a while, I used an Xbox as an extender, but I wasn’t thrilled with the pale facsimile of the interface that it provided. Now, thanks to a couple of retired Dell OptiPlex GX280 machines I procured for cheap, I have the opportunity to set up an entire fleet of full-fledged Media Center boxes throughout my home.
The question then became how to share content. I have a decent 802.11g network, but there’s no way it’s going to handle that level of traffic on-demand. And I don’t think my wife is going to let me run Cat5e or fiber around the house (believe me, I asked). Besides, Media Center isn’t particularly network friendly (without a lot of registry “tweaks”); I’ve found that it works best when all of the media is stored in the default local Public folder.
So what? How do I shuttle my media libraries between the computers? Am I going to be stuck with a bunch of media “islands” that can’t talk to each other? Not a chance.
Enter Windows Live Sync, fresh out of beta (timing is everything). I installed the WL Sync client on each of my Media Center PCs, set up the public Music, Pictures, Recorded TV, and Videos folders on each to synchronize automatically, and let it brew for a few days. Soon, all of my media will be nicely synchronized and available on any TV in the house. See the figure below to get a better idea of the connection between my bonus room and living room PCs.
Windows Live Sync and my home network
Now my wife and I can listen to our music collection in our living room, while our son simultaneously watches Simba save Pride Rock in the upstairs bonus room. Since each TV is playing media from the local computer that is attached to it, there’s virtually no strain on our home network (other than the initial sync, which takes quite a while). By synchronizing the Recorded TV folder, we can even watch recorded programs on our living room Media Center that were recorded on the bonus room (the PC with the TV tuner). When we’re done with a program, we can delete it from either location, and WL Sync will magically take care of removing it from the other PCs on the network.
Is it a perfect solution? No, but it works surprisingly well, considering the price (free). Other than the initial time required to replicate the content, my only gripe is that WL Sync apparently doesn’t honor the files’ attributes when creating replicas, so I can now see “hidden” files, such as metadata and thumbnail databases used by Media Center, in my Explorer views. But neither concern is a deal-breaker. It’s one of the best experiences I’ve had with Media Center, thanks to Windows Live.