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Windows 7 : The WMC Functions (part 1) - TV

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2/14/2014 12:29:33 AM
As mentioned earlier in this chapter, WMC is simply a program that runs as a shell on top of Windows 7. The program path is %SystemRoot%\ehome\ehshell.exe.

Note

The “eh” means “electronic home,” which is an overarching Microsoft initiative for developing the networked home of the future, based on Microsoft technology.


The shell has a large-print GUI that at first suggests it is designed for people with vision disabilities. It is certainly a boon to the visually impaired, but the thinking behind the interface was to make it easier to read on a TV screen. If you’ve ever used WebTV, you know what I mean—reading normal computer-sized text on a TV set can send you running to the optometrist for a checkup.

When you boot a WMC-enabled computer, it comes up looking like any normal Windows PC. Nothing notable happens until you run the WMC program. Your desktop and Start menu sport a little green icon that launches the WMC interface. Then, you see the WMC Start screen. When it appears, maximize the window; it then looks like the screen shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. A typical WMC Start screen.

The number of options on the Start screen varies depending on the hardware in your computer. If you don’t have an FM radio function on your TV card, for example, you won’t see any radio functions (as is the case here).

The following sections discuss the central features of WMC, but with emphasis on a few tricks for each one instead of telling you how to use them. Their use is actually straightforward, and you really don’t need me to explain it to you. Suffice it to say, you engage each function of WMC by scrolling vertically to select the main function, or horizontally to select a subfunction, and then simply clicking the name (or alternatively using the remote control’s up and down arrows to highlight the name) and pressing the Select button.

No Video in WMC

If the device driver is loaded and functioning properly and you are still unable to see live or recorded video in WMC, it is time to look at signal-related issues. First, be sure the cables are connected properly. If you have another device, such as a portable TV, you can use to verify that the cables are connected properly and carrying a valid TV signal, do so. That way, you know that the cabling is not an issue. You may also find that the signal is not properly formatted for your TV tuner by using an external device.

If you get a good video signal and you still can’t see any video in WMC, perhaps WMC is not properly configured. The best way to test and verify your signal setup is to go to the Start page, select Tasks, Settings, TV, Set Up TV Signal, and then manually configure your TV signal. When you get to the TV Signal Setup dialog box, click the Next button to proceed to the Select Your TV Signal dialog box and let WMC attempt to automatically detect your signal. Failing this, TV Setup will give you the option to let WMC try again or you can choose Let Me Configur My TV Signal Manually. Verify your settings, or change them, to the correct signal provider. Use Cable for a TV signal from a cable set-top box, Satellite for a signal from a satellite provider (Dish, DirecTV, and so on), or Antenna for a public broadcast antenna or coaxial output from any type of signal provider. Then, move on to the Select a Working TV Signal dialog box. This is where you get the opportunity to select your TV Tuner’s input signal. If you use a public broadcast (coaxial cable) signal, your input should be on channel 2, 3, or 4, with 3 being the most common. S-Video or composite video are more likely to be used by satellite and cable boxes, but some cable boxes also provide a coaxial output. If you use a cable box with a coaxial output, check the back of the box for a switch to set the channel to output the signal on. Usually, it is set to channel 3 with an alternative of channel 4. If you are unsure of your input channel, a simple test is to just try each input choice one at a time and see whether you get a signal in the preview window. After you obtain a signal, click Next and work your way through the rest of the dialog boxes until you complete the video setup.

For example, my TV tuner has coaxial and composite TV signal inputs. My signal provider is a DirectTV HD DVR with HDMI, composite, and YbPbR outputs. It is designed to provide HD signals to HD devices, but my TV tuner is an SDTV device. When I first connected it using the composite inputs, I could not figure out why I was not getting a picture. I was fairly confident that the cables were okay because I was getting sound. Then it dawned on me that I had my DVR set to provide an HD picture to my HDTV at 1080i. HDTV signals are output only on the HDMI and YbPbR outputs. To get a video signal output on the composite video outputs, I had to reconfigure the DVR to SDTV 480i mode.


Movies

Windows 7 separates the Movies and TV categories in WMC. The Movies library now contains its own subcategories, such as Title, Genre, Year, Parental Rating, Type, and Date Added. Little has changed visually for the Movies library, but it is capable of sharing content from other computers on the network. Out-of-box support for H.264 in Windows 7 includes Media Center Extenders (both stand-alone and integrated implementations) and the XBox 360 in extender mode.

Playback options include the ability to continuously play all videos in a specific gallery. Like slideshows, you can have a nonstop panorama of your favorite memorable moments caught on camera—such as a collection of your favorite vacation videos. Both Movies and TV have the ability to resume playback wherever you previously left off—no more seeking to the place where you were interrupted last time.

TV

Although it’s novel that you can use your computer to watch TV, who cares? Personally, I never thought there was much worth watching on the tube anyway. Then again, I never have made a science out of TV program selection the way some people have. So, I end up channel surfing when I have some downtime, missing the beginning of a show I would have liked to see. Or maybe a friend tells me about an excellent program after the fact, when it’s too late.

The electronic TV Guide in WMC has made a friend out of TV again and changed my watching habits. The Guide is your online TV programming guide, so you can see what is on TV and perform searches for programs you might want to see, prearrange recordings of upcoming programs, and so forth.

Using the Guide, I’m finding that there are some amazing shows from time to time—excellent documentaries, music programs, and old movies, for example. I can cull through two weeks’ worth of upcoming programs using keyword searches and hone in on something I’d like to see. For example, recently I ran a keyword search on “music” and landed on a documentary about Joni Mitchell. I also set the DVR to record some weekly series, such as PBS’s Nova and the daily broadcast of the BBC news. They stack up on my hard drive, and I can watch them whenever I get around to it.

WMC has three advantages over and above a competing service such as TiVo:

  • I don’t have to pay a monthly subscription charge (or lifetime charge) to access a TV programming guide.

  • Nobody is keeping tabs on my viewing habits. (TiVo reports what you watch, and this data is used as input for various marketing databases.) Even if you can opt out of the data collection and the collection is anonymous, many people don’t bother. In essence, many TiVo watchers’ habits are being studied en masse.

  • I don’t need to rent or purchase another piece of hardware. I already have my computer, and it’s a multifunction machine. It does a lot more than just tune in and play back TV shows.

On the downside, though, TiVo has some features that are more advanced than those offered by WMC. For example, if you have both satellite and cable feeds, TiVo can combine both program guides into a single onscreen grid. And, because TiVo is a simple machine, it’s not likely to go haywire just when the Super Bowl is about to begin. A TiVo also has the advantage of being a dedicated device. For example, if your WMC machine is recording the latest episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos, you’re probably not going to be able to effectively play World of Warcraft.

Setting Up the Guide

Before you can benefit from the Guide, you have to configure some settings. Go to the Start page and click Tasks, Settings, TV, Guide.

The Guide downloads new data at a time you choose on the Settings screen, keeping the listings up-to-date. It does this in the background while you’re doing other work. Your computer has to be on, however.

Tip

To program WMC to record an upcoming show, highlight the show in the Guide and press the Record button on the remote or on the keyboard. One press records the individual show. Press it again to record the series.


The Guide displays channel and network information, titles and times of shows, and information about each show. You can drill down to check out an upcoming show to determine whether it’s one you’ve seen, for example. You select a show and then click More Info/Details to do this.

When you’re watching live TV, the DVR is at work in the background, even if you’re not recording a previously scheduled show. It records what you are watching live, so you can press the Pause button (onscreen, on your keyboard, or on the remote) and go grab a snack. While you’re gone, the recording continues, although the playback is paused. This way, when you return, you just press the Play button and you’re back in the groove, right where you left off, without missing any of the action. This is possible only because a WMC computer is fast enough to enable the DVR to record one thing and play back another simultaneously. Thus, it’s writing to the hard drive and reading from it more or less at the same time.

Tip

If you want to record (and save) a program you’re watching live, press the Record button on the remote or keyboard. Otherwise, the program isn’t saved to disk.


Tip

We all hate commercials, and DVRs let you skip them quite easily. If your WMC computer has a keyboard, it probably has a Skip Ahead key. So does your remote. This key jumps the playback ahead 29 seconds per press. Because commercials are typically 30 or 60 seconds long, one or two presses skips a commercial. I’ve gotten good at guessing the right number of presses to skip a spate of commercials in just a couple of seconds. If you get too aggressive, you’ll need to back up. Each press of the Replay key on the remote backs you up 7 seconds.


WMC interleaves the hard disk reads and writes so intelligently that no recorded or played-back frames are dropped. Caching of video data in separate RAM buffers helps make this possible. If you’re not taxing the system heavily by doing other highly disk- or CPU-intensive computing in the background, this works flawlessly. WMC is given high priority by the OS by default, and I haven’t noticed dropped data, even with a large number of other tasks running.

Owing to this same sleight of hand, you can also record a live show in the background and view a previously recorded one—a nice feature that other DVRs can perform. You cannot, however, watch one live show while recording another live show unless you have multiple TV tuners installed. This is because a TV tuner can tune to only one channel at a given time.

Heavy Disk Consumption in Live TV

Unfortunately, the file format Microsoft originally used for the Vista and XP WMC DVR (DVR-MS) is not very efficient, especially if you use the highest-quality settings. The files appear to be equivalent in size to the digital video files you would import from a DV camcorder. Figure about 3GB for a one-hour show. A half-hour show consumes about 1.5GB. Windows 7 uses a new WTV format (using the .wtv extension), which will not play on Vista and XP machines—but DVR-MS will play in the new WMC. WTV replaces DVR-MS for recorded TV shows for playback on Vista Media Center with TVPack2008 and Windows 7 computers. There’s simply no way to utilize WTV files on unsupported machines, and copy protected WTV files can be played only on the machine where they are originally recorded. WTV recordings can also access digital video broadcasting (DVB) subtitles for playback and records all audio streams (that is, audio descriptions), unlike the DVR-MS format.

Microsoft’s decision not to use a more compressed file format such as WMV or DivX isn’t sensible, in our opinion. Now Microsoft has decided to employ another format that doesn’t work outside WMC, WMP, and so on. You can, however, view WTV recordings in Windows Vista’s Media Center (and related extenders) with the additional TV Pack.

One hour of Xvid or DivX consumes roughly 350MB—almost a factor of 10 difference! Even normal DVD data is smaller (about 2GB per hour). There are ways to convert Microsoft’s format and store it as Xvid or DivX, but the couple of programs that are out there are still in beta stages as of this writing (for example, tvshowexport).

Tip

You can lower the quality level as a global default but still set the quality to a higher level for individual programs you intend to record. Use the Advanced Record settings for the program in question.


This flaw seriously limits the number of shows you can keep on the hard disk at any one time, especially at the highest-quality setting. You can choose a lower-quality setting as the default for all recordings, but you might not like the results. The four levels of record quality are fair, good, better, and best.

Table 1 shows the amount of hard disk space used for recording video, as well as the data rate used.

Table 1. Hard Disk Consumed Per Hour of Recording
QualityPer MinutePer HourData Rate
Fair20.48MB1.2GB2796Kbps
Good24.06MB1.41GB3284Kbps
Better34.82MB2.04GB4754Kbps
Best45.57MB2.67GB6221Kbps

 
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