Thursday, July 7, 2011

Windows Media Center – Making the PC Cool Again

Windows Media Center is one of those programs that has been around for a while but doesn’t seem to get much notice. Built into most version of Windows since Vista, but often neglected by a large segment of the computing public. In this Tech Tip, we hope to open your eyes and look at some of the cool things that you can do with Windows Media Center. While this will not be all inclusive (for that, you can always visit the official Media Center website), it is meant to give an overview of some of the cooler aspects. Please note that we’ll be concentrating on the version of Media Center found in Windows Vista and Windows 7.

Out of the Box

If you have a laptop computer with HDMI the first thing you can do is plug in your PC into your TV since Windows Media Center is optimized for these behemoths. Not sure how to do that? Then take a look at our previous Tech Tip on watching your tv on a pc. Also, if you don’t already have one, pick yourself up a cheap Media Center remote control. They usually consist of a remote and a USB infrared receiver. The nice thing about them (besides being incredibly cheap) is that they are usually plug-and-play and can be used across platforms (for example, an HP remote control can easily be used on a Dell). If you don’t have a remote and are not into plugging the laptop into the TV – that’s fine, you can just as happily turn your PC into a TV all on its own!
Now launch Windows Media Center – either simply click on start and in the “Search Programs and Files” box type in “Windows Media Center” (be sure to launch Media Center and not Media Player) or if you have a Media Center remote control press the green “Media Center” button on it.
TIP: If you have Windows 7, you may wish to also permanently pin it to the taskbar for quicker desktop launching in the future. The first time you launch it, some of the options mentioned in this Tech Tip may seem to be missing. Once Media Center is fully (automatically) updated however, these should appear.
If you have a laptop, you may want to close the lid and do all your navigating with the remote control. To accomplish this, you need to tell your computer to not “go to sleep” (the default setting) when closing your lid. Click on the battery in the task tray, and then click on “More Power Options.” Once the Power Options box is open, on the left hand side click on “choose what closing the lid does” and in the drop down box choose “Do nothing.” Now close your lid, use the remote to navigate the menus and let the adventure begin!

Internet TV

OK, we all (hopefully) know by now that we can watch various television shows on different websites. Windows Media Center cheerfully aggregates many of them into one convenient place. Slide the menu down to TV , choose “Internet TV” and voila! You literally have dozens of shows at your fingertips. Not sure what to watch – why not go to the Guide submenu (also under TV) to see what is available. You can also search as well – though you’d need to either break out a keyboard for that (why not also pick up aninexpensive wireless keyboard when you pick up the remote?) or use the built-in virtual keyboard by clicking “OK” on the remote control. A back button can always take you to a previous menu if you get lost.
TIP: If you have a TV tuner card in your PC, you can also watch live TV as well.


One of the nicer aspects of Windows Media Center is using it to access your Netflix account and their streaming movie library. Once logged on, you can easily check your Netflix “instant queue” or easily search for titles you may want to see. If you’re more the DVD type of person, you also have a Play DVD submenu option available in the Movie menu. Not to be overlooked is the ability to also watch any videos that may be on your PC (though that is under the Pictures + Videos menu).


Of course Windows Media Center will pick up the music that is on your PC as well. If you have music stored in other places (perhaps on your home network) you can also use the Settings submenu located under the Tasks menu to add additional libraries (tasks>settings>media libraries, choose music and then “add additional libraries”).
Perhaps you may want to listen to some tunes using Internet radio. It may be a little counter-intuitive, but all you need to do is go to Extras menu (not the Music >Radio menu, as all that does is look for an FM tuner until you “add” Internet Radio.) From there, choose the “extras gallery” submenu, and looking at the top, you’ll see some choices - choose “music + radio”. Here you have a link to and their collection of thousands of stations. Click on the button marked “Add to My Radio” and will place this into your Music>Radio submenu.

Adding it up

Windows Media Center is one of those cool programs built into Windows that people just either under-utilize or never use at all. Here’s a callout to all of you Geeks and Geekettes out there! At your next party, why not use Windows Media Center and your TV to be the multimedia guru of the night. And if you’re already a hip-slicken cool Windows Media Center geek, drop us a comment and let us know of some of your favorite Media Center features; tips and tricks; or other innovative ways that you use Windows Media Center!


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