As more of our media came to be stored on the computer, the vision of a home theater PC (HTPC, for short) slowly started to form. During the mid 2000’s, the HTPC finally became a mainstream reality with Microsoft’s release of Windows XP Media Center edition followed by a strong hardware push of TV tuners, remote controls and even dedicated HTPCs from major manufacturers like HP. Microsoft’s Media Center OS delivered a 10-foot interface that could be comfortably used from the couch and through the use of a TV tuner, could take full control of the TV experience and function as a full-fledged DVR.
Through the years, Windows Media Center has seen several major updates. Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 and Windows Vista are considered to be two of the most significant. Unfortunately since Windows Vista, Media Center has seen little development. According to Microsoft, only a mere two percent of Windows 7 users have ever even launched Media Center once. Even less have used the application for any extended period of time.
Unfortunately Windows 8 hasn’t brought any better news for the few users of Media Center. To start with, Windows Media Center and DVD playback will not be included with Windows 8, it will need to be purchased as a separate add-on. Microsoft has also stated they will not certify any new TV tuners or remote controls to work with the Media Center platform. With these changes and the usage statistics, the future of Media Center far from being a mystery.
There is however a silver lining in an unexpected place. Microsoft’s new and somewhat controversial Modern UI actually has a lot in common with our beloved and ill-fated Media Center. The Modern UI is essentially a full-screen interface with large UI elements and designed for ease of use. Several of the built-in applications also have similar functionality to Media Center, such as Music, Movies and Photos. Video services such as Neflix have also begun to release Windows 8 applications for their services and more are very likely to follow. The only core functionality that is really missing is Media Center’s claim to fame – DVR support.
Since it’s inception, DVR support is something I have always wanted in my HTPC, but as time has gone on, I have started to question the practicality of it. From the days of DirecTV I have been forced to use it with an IR Blaster. The IR Blaster solution is clunky at best, adding a big delay to changing channels and leaving the possibility of the set top box missing a command. The only time DVR functionality really worked for me was when I switched to basic cable with only unencrypted local channels.
For virtually all TV providers, a set-top box is required and this has always been a hurdle for vendor-independent DVRs such as Media Center. The IR Blaster solution is sloppy to put it politely, and support for serial cables is not common. The only feasible way around this problem is through use of a CableCARD, which CableCARD tuners are difficult to come by. Pair these hurdles with the fact that much of the content we watch is shifting to streaming services and it’s easy to see that DVR functionality will become less relevant in the future.
As much as I enjoy Windows Media Center, I would have liked to see Microsoft drop it entirely from Windows 8 and focus on shifting it’s functionality to the Modern UI. The existing Windows Media Center remote controls could have been easily remapped to be more functional in the Modern UI and Microsoft could have created a new remote control standard to take full advantage of the new interface. If they felt so inclined, they could have even retooled Media Center’s DVR functionality into a TV Application designed specifically for the Modern UI.
Although Windows Media Center seems to have reached the end of the line, I think there is still a bright future for the HTPC enthusiasts out there. At least for my purposes, I see the Modern UI as a suitable replacement for Media Center and it’s even an improvement in some ways. Unlike Media Center, the Modern UI will eventually have an enormous library of applications that are designed for it. For the HTPC purists, third party solutions such as XBMC and GameEx will always exist and may even become Windows 8 applications designed for the Modern UI.
The biggest change I see in the future involves hardware. My personal vision of a keyboard-less HTPC doesn’t seem to be real possibility with Windows 8. I could use third party applications to map my old Media Center remote to work with the Modern UI, but the lack of a keyboard would eventually prove too limiting. Third party input devices such as remote controls with built-in micro-keyboards and combination input devices like the Logitech K400, which includes a built-in trackpad, will help to make the Windows 8 experience more enjoyable in the living room.
The fact of the matter is technology is always in a constant state of flux and ever evolving. The HTPC is no exception to this. The HTPC hasn’t died; it has simply evolved and started to merge back with mainstream computing. As the HTPC evolves, perhaps our views of it and it’s functionality need to evolve as well.