Media Centre or not?

The issue of streaming media (TV, Music, Photos) across a network really zeros in on the reason for having a home network.

For those of you who read this blog, you’ll know that I’ve been trying out SageTv for Windows Home Server. And it works great, if you set aside the EPG issues. Recorded TV is of high quality, crisp and clear; and watching from a SageTv Client is only slightly spotty (mainly due to the server being busy and the wireless connection).

My problem is two fold. One WHS is actually a server and is busy all the time and only has a Celeron D.

Two, SageTV shows only play in SageTv itself or in Real Player. Requiring re-encoding to watch via WMP11 or for use in Movie Maker. Which is a pain since a 27 minute show comes out at 650MB at Normal quality and takes about 4 and a half hours for Windows Media Encoder to process.

The EPG issue that I’m encountering means that the Program Guide only has info for about 4 channels out of 24. It is irritating in the extreme since identifying shows requires that you watch them. UK EPG support is quite spotty the forums tell me.

The solution to all of this is, I think, a Media Centre PC. A dedicated hardware device. The whole point of dedicated hardware is to share the load. My broadband connection goes though a router instead of a PC. A GPU handles 3D graphics instead of a normal, general purpose processor. In this case, WHS can stick to the business of serving files and taking backups and let the Media Centre take the load.

I’ve only heard positive reviews for Media Centre Edition (XP) and it seems pretty good. On top of that, Microsoft has a good strategy as far as extenders are concerned such as the Xbox 360 and so on. Also it should slip seamlessly into an all-Microsoft network.

I’d be using WHS for Storage, and WMP11 to watch the content on a PC. It also makes the purchase of a 360 more likely (I’ve been sitting on the fence lately and can’t decide either way).

To actually build the hardware, I’d use the same method that I did for my Windows Home Server. Order the shell (Chassis, power supply, motherboard, processor(s), hard drive) from Dell and then order the rest of the kit from Amazon.

The thing is, how much juice do you need in a Media Centre? SageTV uses about 15% CPU at record time and not much RAM.

Dual Quad Core 2 might be pushing it a little far. A single Core Duo 2 might cut it, but then again, you don’t want “might” to be anywhere near your Media Center. Specially since after-market upgrading can be extremely expensive for hardware like this.

RAM is dependant on whether Vista Media Centre is 64-bit. I’d say that 2 or 4 GB is safe enough.

The next thing is required for this is, well, a network. Streaming media over wireless is Ok if its small enough and you are close enough to the Access Point to get the and excellent signal ( In my house that practically means sitting right next to it). For real media streaming, you need Gigabit Ethernet. More on that to come.