Jan 13 2009

Review - Life With A Plugin Episode 16: Photato (Facebook Photos)

I normally like to wait until an application has been released before doing a review on it, but the few times I come across an app that my girlfriend loves I have to break that rule and take a closer look. Such is the case with Photato's innovative design and creative interface into Facebook's photos.


In simple terms, Photato for Media Center is really just a way to view you and your friends' Facebook photos via your remote control. But there's much more to it as you can see from even this early beta release. I am a real fan of developers who can take their own creativity with the power that MCML allows, and Photato definitely delivers that.

photato4-thumb.JPG photato8-thumb.JPG
Simple but creative starting page
Unique layout to your photos.
Dec 08 2008

Review - Unboxing: SageTV HD Theater (HD200)

There has been quite some speculation on the SageTV forums about what the next gen SageTV HD extender would encompass since it's existence was "leaked" in late September.  Everything from an onboard Blu-Ray player, external IR sensor, to a significant reduction in cost was mentioned.  In the end when the HD200 was revealed, what we got was a more compact device, without buttons on the front panel, and a couple extra features for the same price.

HD200 - Front
HD200 - Front
Dec 07 2008

Review - HD-PVR

Each new technology the crosses path with the rabid HTPC enthusiast seems to be the holy grail. Last year it was QAM tuning and CableCard. With the distaste of these two technologies in our mouth are we ready for a new idol that will be the object of our daily HTPC prayers? Hauppauge has decided the time is right and to much fan fare they have launched the HD-PVR. On paper, this HD-component capturing device certainly sounds good, lets see if it is worthy of our eager desires.

Nov 25 2008

Review - QNAP TS-209 Pro II



QNAP TS-209 Pro II

If you find yourself in the market for a NAS, today we are reviewing something that might just fit the bill.  Read on to see if the QNAP TS-209 Pro II will fit your needs. 


Now that you have your HTPC working the way you want it and you're starting to build up a collection of good shows, what do you do when you start running out of space?  One option is to put together a media server to hold it all.  Another option is to start looking for a an external hard drive setup, such as a NAS.  It's this second option that brings about today's review.  On the bench today, we have for you QNAP's TS-209 Pro II NAS.  Read on to see if this is the unit that you're looking for.

Nov 24 2008

Review - MythTV vs. SageTV Smackdown: Part I

Those of you that have followed my articles in the past know that I'm a Linux fan.  I appreciate it's flexibility and potential.  I also enjoy a challenge and I don't mind doing a little digging to solve a problem.  When it came time to hatch a HTPC system for the home, I naturally went with MythTV.  In fact, I've been using MythTV for almost 5 years now.  In that time the system has grown to include several clients, multiple tuners, gigabit ethernet, and several generations of hard drives.  It has also weathered the transition from fuzzy SD to crisp HD.  You can pretty much say that I have run into just about every HTPC obsticle and have come out victorious (knock on wood).

So, why would someone who has "mastered" MythTV ever consider moving on to a different platform?  I've asked myself this question many times now, so being the Engineering type, I decided to break down the benefits and downfalls of each system to help me decide my fate.  Read on to see how things shake out.

MythTV Vs. SageTV
Oct 01 2008

Review - The Battle of the Windows Home Server Systems

Since the first day Microsoft announced Windows Home Server (WHS) was going to be available through OEM Installation Kits, not just strictly by the OEMs, we geeks could not wait to build our own. The hardware requirements were modest enough to where any respectable geek easily could assemble a functional WHS box barely having to buy parts--besides the installation disc, of course. That being said, HP's MediaSmart Server has easily become the most popular selection for even the techiest people who could build their own, but not as attractive or small. To counter those arguments, several chassis manufacturers have also released "Windows Home Server" specific chassis to jump on the smaller form factor WHS-box bandwagon. But which solution is right for you--a frankenstein home built with leftover parts, custom built with WHS-specific parts or HP's pre-built MediaSmart Server? Let's find out!



Home Brewed Frankenstein


Custom Built WHS


HP MediaSmart Server



Sep 10 2008

Review - Life With A Plugin Episode 15: Movie Collectorz

One of the absolutely huge benefits for using a media center is having the ability to catalog your DVD library digitally and have access to them anywhere in the house. The old stalwart of the Media Center world, MyMovies, is looking a little long in the tooth when you look at the sexy Media Portal skins, or even Apple's Cover Flow. Movie Collectorz is an option -- albeit a commercial one, that will help you organize your DVD collection, present it in a nice MCML program in Vista and even allow you to stream DVDs to your extenders.


MCE_1_cover view_thumb.png
Easy on the eyes navigation screen Thumbnail viewing navigation screen


Aug 26 2008

Review - nMedia HTPCKB Keyboard


nMedia HTPC Keyboad

nMedia HTPCKB Keyboard and Remote

Everyone runs into a time eventually when a remote just isn't enough to control your HTPC, but you don't want to clutter things up with mouse and keyboard cables.  Read on to see if nMediaPC's most recent innovation will fit your needs. 


nMedia was founded in 2004 with a goal to "create future home entertainment PC systems that are optimal for today's consumer electronic gear" and to "transform the total home theater experience by intelligently converging digital entertainment AV functions, computer and networking technologies." This vision of convergence of entertainment AV functions closely match the philosophy of an HTPC.  They create necessary devices that blend in well with todays lifestyles. Today, they have brought us the nMedia HTPCKB keyboard and remote combination for review.

Aug 19 2008

Review - AVerMedia Bravo Hybrid TV Tuner

TV tuner evolution has finally crept to the point where we have combo cards that can tune unencrypted QAM and analog cable at the same time. So why would AVerMedia introduce a hybrid software encoding TV card onto the market? Let's see if this card, associated features, and price point make sense for the HTPC market of today.



Aug 05 2008

Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 14: SageTV - Netflix for SageMC

Today, Life With a Plugin is going down a slightly different path and we're looking at a plugin for SageTV. In particular this plugin works only with the popular SageMC STV for SageTV. Since Mike looked at every Netflix plugin possible for VMC, I thought that I should take a quick look at installing and living with the Netflix addon available for SageTV. I am currently running CenterSage as my SageMC skin which slightly alters the look of the plugin. The menus should look the same for you, only with a different background if you are using one of the many other skins for SageMC.


The Netflix for SageMC plugin has been around for a few months, but Morgan keeps putting work into it and making it better all the time. This past week version 2.05 was released with some great new features making this the perfect time to try out the plugin. The Netfilx for SageMC plugin has the following major features:

  • Browse DVDs by genre or search by title
  • Browse Watch Now DVDs by genre
  • View movie trailers, descriptions, ratings, cover art and more
  • Manipulate items in your queue (add, remove, ordering, etc...)
  • Launch Watch Now movies including on an extender
  • Download movies and watch them later
Netflix Button
Main Menu
Netflix for SageMC added to my menu. I decided to place it at the highest level so that it would be easy to access. The main menu of Netflix for SageMC

Now if only Netflix would start streaming HD, I'd be just about the happiest guy around. 


Aug 02 2008

Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 13: TVTonic Olympics

Ok, so I know that I just recently covered TVTonic , but then they went ahead and released probably the coolest and well implemented plugin in all of Media Center--Olympics!! If you haven't already noticed, Vista Media Center (U.S. only, sorry international folks) now has under it's Online Spotlight, a central icon for the Olympics. Clicking on that link entered me into the most seamless plugin installation ever for Media Center! Just as a teaser, I was able to install the plugin with just my remote!


If you read my review on TVTonic, then you will probably find some of these screenshots redundant, as it shares the similar controls and UI of the regular TVTonic. Additionally, by installing the Olympics plugin, you are automatically given the latest TVTonic package as well, whether you want it or not.

olympics9-thumb.JPG olympics10-thumb.JPG
Your Channels hold all your sports
Browse and Add your favorite Events

For years, people have been clammoring for a plugin which offers enticing material, at a price that's reasonable. Well, welcome to TVTonic's Olympics, because they aim to bring you actual Olympic event footage for whatever event you are interested in (oddly enough, Wrestling was not yet available). Add the sport of interest to your "Channels" just like you would an Vidcast, and voila, it will automatically download the events for your convenience....without needing a TV Tuner! 


Above & Beyond

TVTonic continues to impress me, but it's not even the actual Olympic Events that have me excited (this is where the geek in me takes over the jock). What really had me floored and smiling ear-to-ear, was the INSTALLATION!! Yes, I said installation. For years I have been BEGGING Microsoft and all its developers, to make installing plugins EASIER, and 10 Foot--meaning, let users install plugins without having to get out their keyboard and mouse.
olympics2-thumb.JPG olympics4-thumb.JPG
Finally! An easy install 10' Option!
Remote can still control the popups

As you can see from the screenshots, they are still not on the same level as Meedio had regarding the gorgeous 10' installations of applications but, considering that NO other plugin I have ever installed has even come close to this, I was still floored. I was able to complete the entire installation, from start to finish, with just my remote! So now even your grandparents will have no excuse to not have the plugin installed and be able to watch as much trampolining as they want.

Falling Short

Not really falling short since it is really light years ahead of other plugins, but to do the installation, the Media Center screen was changed to half screen. Once the installation was over, you can resize the Media Center screen to full screen by clicking the Green Button twice.

olympics3-thumb.JPG olympics4a-thumb.JPG
Doh! Not exactly 10' still, but so close!
Monitor the install

Grade: Approved for Everyday Use

If you have even a mild interest in the Olympics, you have to install the TVTonic Olympics plugin! It's arguably the biggest leap Microsoft has taken to make a wildly appealing application exclusively for Vista Media Center, and best of all, for FREE! I hope the installation process catches on to future plugins, as I honestly believe that 10' Installs will dramatically increase usage strictly for the ease of use factor.

olympics11-thumb.JPG olympics12-thumb.JPG
Allocate hard drive space sport by sport
Nothing yet, but events soon to come!

In addition to the very refined and easy to use TVTonic channels and guides, the list of sporting events you can download for free is impressive. I already added Basketball, Boxing and Swimming, and will keep my eye out hoping for Wrestling. Adding sports is one button, and you are able to view the exact event for the exact sport that you want. Might sound "duh-worthy", but if you have not lived through an Olympics with Media Center before, you will learn that NBC televises events in 4 hour blocks (at least), and then mentions ALL of the events covered. So if you just want one track race, you need to record the entire 4 hours!! 

The Olympics plugin will not only make sure you don't miss a single event, but also will save you hard drive space as well. Picture quality was very acceptable as well. While of course it won't be as high as a high definition feed through your digital tuner, for anyone that might forget to record, or is traveling, or simply doesn't get TV reception, then this is a MUST HAVE!

Overall, this is easily approved for Everyday Use, so enjoy it while it lasts. Remember, the Olympics start on 8/8/08 and won't be going forever, so take advantage of this fantastic plugin for Media Center while you can!

Product Vitals


Creator: Wavexpress, Inc

Price: Free! 

Jul 31 2008

Review - D-Link DSM-330 DivX Connected Extender

DivX made its name as the first truly popular way to compressed movies over your computer. It caused tons of hassles for those of us who had built lower powered HTPC's, only to have lip sync or stuttering problems as our poor left over 400MHz CPU's could not handle it. My how times have changed... DivX is arguably the defacto video compression codec used around the world. For those unaware, DivX compresses a video file into a much smaller file (think what MP3 is to those huge WAV files).

The D-Link DivX DSM-330 is the first hardware venture from the company as they try to join the constantly growing number of set top box devices aiming to hold a place on your entertainment shelf. The idea is simple--deliver not just your DivX video content, but most multimedia content, from your loud media server wirelessly (or wired) to this low powered, silent and small device connected in your home theater. So how does it fare against the more well known and established Windows Media Center Extenders hitting the market with a similar price tag? This $250 device clearly has it's work cut out for DivX, so let's see how it does!




Jul 23 2008

Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 12: TVTonic - The Internet Channel

Video podcasts within your Media Center simply make SENSE! It makes so much sense, that even Microsoft developed their own application to let you enjoy some online programming, for free--Internet TV Beta. That being said, Internet TV really is more of a "push" technology, with very little customization. As opposed to TVTonic, which is geared entirely around full user control of their content.


TVTonic has been around since the original Windows XP Media Center days. I recall playing around with it back then, but had not touched it for several years, until I was informed by its developer that they have a very nice MCML interface! And you know me and my love for MCML interfaces!

So a brief overview. First, as I'm sure some of you are asking: "What is a Video Podcast??" Per Wikipedia,

"Video podcast (sometimes shortened to vidcast or vodcast) is a term used for the online delivery of video on demand video clip content via Atom or RSS enclosures. The term is an evolution specialized for video, coming from the generally audio-based podcast and referring to the distribution of video where the RSS feed is used as a non-linear TV channel to which consumers can subscribe using a PC, TV, set-top box, media center or mobile multimedia device."

To put it simply: it is a bunch of TV shows which are broadcast over the Internet, and you can stream them to your system on demand. TVTonic is designed to allow you to have the download of your favorite podcasts automated so that you can view the shows whenever you choose, from the convenience of your remote control.

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Playback of HD Vidcasts Overlays with Show Descriptions
Jul 08 2008

Review - ArcSoft TotalMedia Theatre

arcsoft_logo.jpgArcSoft has had the buzz for the last few months in the HTPC Blu-ray player world. Out of the nether regions of photo slide show software, a lesser known company, ArcSoft has developed their own Blu-ray and HD DVD playback solution called TotalMedia Theatre. It includes all the features a player should have and some features only ArcSoft has implemented.

Click on for the full review...

The basics:

  • Full support to play
    • Blu-ray (BDMV, BDAV, BD-Java) [Profile 1.1 and 2.0 support in newest builds],
    • High definition interactive content, including HDi and BD-Java 
    • High definition multimedia files: QuickTime, RealPlayer, DVR-MS, WMV HD, DivX HD, H.264 HD 
  • Advanced video decoding
    • MPEG-1
    • MPEG-2
    • MPEG-4 
    • VC1 (SMPTE 421M) 
    • H.264
  • Support for advanced audio decoding
    • Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD
    • DTS, DTS-HD High Resolution, DTS-HD Master Audio [DTS-HD MA in latest builds]
  • Support for music playback: CDs, MP3 CDs, and other music discs
  • Region code setting
  • AACS support for HD DVD and Blu-ray
  • Parental control
  • Smart Stretch
  • Time Stretch
  • Auto Enhance
  • Screen capture (DVD only)
  • Auto-resume play
  • Playlist creation
  • Easy to use: pop-up menu, shortcut keys for playback actions
  • The system requirements:

    For TotalMedia Theatre with Blu-ray and HD DVD playback:

    • Windows XP SP2/Vista 32
    • Intel Pentium EE 3.2 GHz, Intel Core Duo, or equivalent; AMD Athlon 64 or equivalent
    • 120 MB free hard disk space
    • 512 MB RAM (1 GB recommended)
    • Blu-ray or HD DVD drive
    • NVIDIA GeForce 8400 and above, or AMD(ATI) HD2400 and above.
      Notes: AMD(ATI) graphic cards are only supported on Windows Vista 32 at this time. Please contact AMD for updated drivers.
    • 256 MB graphics card or above
    • HDCP compliant display for digital output (HDMI connection); TV or VGA monitor for analog output

    A Look at the Program

    The ArcSoft player has two faces...

    One is a rather typical desktop video player application interface.

    Stock desktop interface

    And then there is what really makes ArcSoft's solution stand out...

    10 foot Media Center-like user interface for remote/couch use 

    ArcSoft's main claim to fame is that it installs a special Media Center mode. During installation TotalMedia Theatre (or "TMT" for short) is registered with Media Center, and for Vista Media Center the autoplay handler for HD DVD and Blu-ray is correctly registered, so inserting a disc from either format automatically launches the remote controllable 10' version of TMT.

    Windows Media Center Integration

    Media Center 2005 integration

    The special remote navigable version that launches when called from inside Windows Media Center (both MCE 2005 and Vista versions) is an industry first for PC high definition players. Not only does it launch properly from inside Media Center upon installation, but it responds to the Media Center remote commands just how you think it should.

    The DVD Menu key calls up the HD DVD or Blu-ray discs' popup menu, not the legacy DVD Root command that other applications trigger which results in going to the main menu and not using the advanced interactive pop-up menus of Blu-ray or HD DVD.

    Next, it responds to the number pad on the MCE remote for direct chapter skipping. Other programs have rudimentary support for the common media commands (Play, Pause, Stop) of the MCE remote, but do not have proper number pad support.

    Vista Media Center integration

    To get back to Windows Media Center the user simply presses the Back button on the MCE remote. For those of us who are used to the Back arrow being a harmless way to step back a menu in Media Center you have to stop being so "back button happy" because it quits TotalMedia Theatre. Remember that while ArcSoft's integration is nice, it is still really just a well coded face on a separate application so it has to have a command to quit itself and return to Media Center. However, unlike other products, TMT is Media Center aware and correctly restores the Media Center GUI from its minimized status upon exit, making things nearly seamless.

    The "i" Information button of the MCE remote opens the TMT main menu which can be used to jump audio tracks, select subtitles, show the current audio/video format & bitrate information, or trigger the setup. The setup menu is a subset of the full configuration options in the desktop GUI. The options menu is 10 foot friendly and exposes all the important settings.

    The main menu

    The 10' Setup Menu

    Testing and Usage Notes

    As many of our community members know, both Alan and I have had TotalMedia Theatre around through various builds for some time now, and we've come to really like ArcSoft's player for HD DVD and Blu-ray material.

    I've done brief testing on MCE 2005, but our main HTPC rigs are Windows Vista 32-bit based. Alan has a Dell CableCARD box with an ATI Radeon HD 2600XT while mine is a more modest dual-core system with an NVIDIA GeForce 8600GT, this way we can test both ATI and NVIDIA video card compatibilty and performance. Our pertinent testing system specs are listed below. The majority of our testing was done with a pre-release build of version .113.

       Alan's Dell XPS 420  Matt's Modest HTPC
    Memory  3GB  1GB
    CPU  Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600  AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+
    Video Card  ATI Radeon HD 2600XT  NVIDIA GeForce 8600GT


    After a rough start for Alan due to an ATI driver change breaking things for ArcSoft in Catalyst 8.3, we both generally found TotalMedia Theatre to be responsive, and compatible with a variety of HD DVD and Blu-ray titles.

    We found TotalMedia Theatre to be quite a bit better to use then Cyberlink's PowerDVD Ultra 7.3. I have to say the compatibility of PowerDVD Ultra has been less then stellar. The 7.3 build has issues with Universal HD DVD titles playing properly (it was such a simple, yet odd, issue that was never addressed by Cyberlink, so good ol' Slysoft integrated a workaround into AnyDVD HD for PowerDVD users). ArcSoft's solution has no such issues. TMT can properly use all the "U-Control" picture-in-picture and interactive trivia features of demanding titles like The Bourne Ultimatum; something PowerDVD failed to do properly (it would often quit or just not enable the PiP feature).

    We also both tested it with a handful of Blu-ray discs with little problem. The Blu-ray support is snappy -- BD-Java heavy titles seem to load quickly (certainly much better then any set-top player).


    From my informal feelings in day-to-day usage I feel like TMT uses slightly more resources then PowerDVD Ultra, however the difference is negligible and shouldn't be a concern for anyone running a more modern system. I think this has more to do with running only 1GB of RAM under Windows Vista then anything specific to ArcSoft's software. Alan with his new Dell, for example, reported no such feeling.

    Standard DVD Support: 

    Ahh... the Achilles Heel of an otherwise great product... sadly for now the standard DVD playback is quite poor: it doesn't deinterlace anything, it just bobs all fields. The Hardware Acceleration checkbox is grayed out in DVD mode, which means none of the advanced deinterlacing or decode acceleration is available. Speaking with ArcSoft, they made it clear that this will be remedied, but the current focus is on being an HD player. Really, this is not much of an issue when you consider that Media Center plays DVDs all on its own just fine, and the product is aimed at HD DVD and Blu-ray users.


    ArcSoft has come into the HD player arena against industry heavy weights and made a name for themselves. Their support representatives are usually quick to respond on their website forums. ArcSoft is also actively working with system vendors to test and improve their product, the same can't be said for their competitors... TotalMedia Theatre is the choice of nearly all custom Media Center PC vendors (Vidabox, S1Digital, PC Alchemy, etc).

    Also most recently they have been working with ASUS to provide proper protected path unrestricted high resolution audio over HDMI for the new ASUS Xonar HDAV1.3 sound card.

    Integrates with Media Center!
    Properly supports the Media Center remote control
    Every Blu-ray certification you could want ...from DTS-HD Master Audio to BonusView to BD-Live
    Hasn't dropped HD DVD support from the code base, unlike other players
    Less expensive then competition ($89.99 versus $99.99)

    Not a replacement/alternative decoder for standard DVD playing, yet
    No Vista 64-bit support, yet, but it has been confirmed as coming very soon.

    Review Update 7/10/2008: Version .119 has preliminary 64-bit support!


    Jul 07 2008

    Review - HP's MediaSmart Connect Extender

    HP has always been involved in Media Center, since the early days of their z-line of PC's which really wanted to be placed into the living room. Times have changed, and things are different at HP, but with the introduction of the Media Smart line of products they have shifted gears in how they attack the market. HP initially released their Media Smart Connect services only as a part of their LCD HDTVs, ranging from 37"-47". The feedback was fairly positive, and HP decided to pull the brains of that MediaSmart TV into an Extender device that could be sold for less than the $1500 of the TV, which is how we got to the MediaSmart Connect which I'll be covering.

    Click on for more.






    Features Overview

    The MediaSmart Connect has an awful lot of features, so let's see what HP has to say about it. As you can see from the chart below, there's not much missing.

    Model x280n
    Features Play your music, photos, and video from any Windows-based PC in your house on your HDTV
    Direct access to OnLine Media Services
    Integrated Windows Media Center Extender functionality
    HP Pocket Media Drive bay
    Built-in wired and wireless networking - IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n
    HDMI, Component video, and digital audio outputs
    Media playback from USB-based portable storage media
    Specifications Video Output: 720p (60 Hz) 1080i
    Video Formats: MPEG-1, MPEG-2 MP@ML, MPEG-2 MP@HL, MPEG-4 ASP, DivX, WMV, WMV-HD, DVR-MS, H.264 (MP4)
    Photo Formats: JPEG, BMP, GIF, PNG
    Music Formats: MP2, MP3, WMA, WMA-Pro, AAC (m4a), Ogg Vorbis
    Online Services: Snapfish, CinemaNow, Live365, and others
    Media Servers: WMP11 or UPnP and DLNA-compliant servers such as HP's Media Vault and MediaSmart servers
    Digital Rights Management: Windows Media, DivX
    Windows Media Center Extender
    Automatic Content Aggregation
    Mass-Storage Media (Read only)
    Color: Piano Black
    Finish: Gloss with "Zen" pattern
    Connectors HDMI Out: 1
    Component Out: 1
    Stereo Analog Audio Out: 1
    Digital Audio Out: 1 (Optical)
    USB Ports: 1 rear, 1 front
    HP Pocket Media Drive Bay: 1
    Wireless: IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n
    Ethernet Adapter: 1 (10/100-Base T)
    Power Requirement Power Supply: 100-240V AC 50/60Hz
    Power Consumption: 22 Watts
    Dimensions 8.5" x 8.5" x 1.8"
    Weight 3.5 lbs.

    Look and Feel


    Hardware Design, Look & Feel

    For the elite price of $350 (MSRP) HP does not skimp on the package. In addition to the MediaSmart Connect Extender you are also given an HDMI cable, Remote Control, 30-day trial to Vongo (versus 14-day if you just signed up) and a $20 gift certificate to CinemaNow. The case of the device is a nice high gloss black, with just the power status light on the front. Very subtle, and definitely conveys a simple yet classy appearance.

    hpc3-thumb.JPG hpc5-thumb.JPG
    Front Panel View with Doors Down
    Rear Connection Ports

    There are two drop-down panels on the front panel. On the left portion there is a single USB port which you can connect any USB device with media content to play directly. Also, there is a button which will allow you to switch between 720p & 1080i. Video output options are high definition only (sorry standard definition fans)--component and HDMI. Sound can be carried through the HDMI cable, however, it can only do a maximum of 2 channel PCM! On the plus side, there's also 2 channel analog as well as digital toslink (S/PDIF) connector which provides the only way to achieve 5.1 surround sound. Multi-room fans will be happy to hear, that all audio outputs work SIMULTANEOUSLY!!

    From what I can tell, the device is basically always on, even when it's in "Sleep." This is probably done to have the quickest bootup possible, as booting from a cold boot took about 50 seconds. Coming out of sleep mode, however, I found that the Connect booted into its MediaSmart interface in ~20 seconds.To get into the the Media Center Extender took ~40 seconds.




    Gorgeous, Reflective Gloss Panels (see my reflection!) Much Smaller than Xbox360

    Before you panic that the device is always drawing electricity, check out the power ratings on this thing: in sleep mode the Connect draws about 5 watts. In full usage mode it got as high as a measly 7 watts. Put this against the Xbox360, which in Media Extender mode draws over 105 WATTS, and you'll need to pick your jaw up off the floor as well. As a reference point, the Linksys DMA-2100 Extender draws roughly the same power figures as the HP Connect.

    The worst part of the device, and I bet 99% of the community will agree with me, was the inclusion of the MediaSmart Drive interface. Instead of including a high definition Blu-ray or even a standard DVD-ROM drive in that bay we get HP's proprietary slot for their branded removable hard drives. With all of the HP Connect's networking features I just can't imagine a demand for hard drive storage inside the device. More importantly, with the lack of a clean way to stream ripped DVDs or Blu-ray discs, this forces the user to either purchase an additional set-top disc player or use a combination of ripping and recompressing to be able to play discs with the Connect. For a device targeted at bedrooms and dens I consider this omission the most glaring, especially at this high a price point.

    MediaSmart Interface


    MediaSmart Interface

    The MediaSmart Interface is HP's proprietary extender-like UI which works separately from the Media Center interface. Unlike the MCX (Media Center Extender protocol) which is driven by the host Media Center PC, the MediaSmart is driven entirely off of the hardware device itself. What that means is that you do not need a single main server PC to be powered on to browse and use the interface. Note, there is a caveat: you will need a host PC with software installed if you choose to download or view content via CinemaNow.

    The device is UPnP and DLNA compliant, which allows it to interface with pretty much any of media servers you may have in your house: Windows Vista or XP with WMP 11 installed, many NAS solutions, Windows Home Server, and TwonkyVision are just a few of the compliant platforms which the MediaSmart will automatically detect on your network and add the shared media to its library of content to play. If you're not careful, the device will scan around and find some files you might not have wanted showing up in your thumbnail library. Embarassed


    While the idea is great, In an environment with a large collection of files or several computers sharing files I found the media navigation performance to be far too sluggish to use on a consistent basis. Navigating even in the List view became a chore. The interface allows for both list and thumbnail view, and while List view was the quicker of the two, when browsing Videos in thumbnail view it took over a minute. Hopefully this is something that can be optimized in time, as the quicker bootup time versus the Media Center Extender mode makes MediaSmart mode very attractive, especially when I'll only be in a room for a short period of time and just want to play something quickly.

    In regard to the interface itself I must admit to being impressed. I have always been a skeptic of the "included" media browser interface that hardware companies have been integrating into their devices. They tend to feel cheap, sloppy, and without much thought put into them--no doubt feeling that customers will simply be purchasing the unit as an Extender, but then still being able to promote additional, albeit typically useless features. HP apparently took notice of others failures and clearly focused as much on the MediaSmart interface as they did the rest of the device.


    The UI design is simple--a rotational 3D-like interface which you scroll to the right or to the left to navigate through the various options of Videos, Music, Photos, Online Media, and of course, Media Center Extender. Clicking on an icon takes you to a selection where you can browse how you wish to view your content. By default the "All Videos" selection, for example, will show you all the video files the Connect finds on your network. My favorite feature is a Folder view, which lets you select a specific server and then browse the folder to access the exact file you are looking for. There's also a "Search" feature as well. As I mentioned before, if you have a large collection -- stay away from the Thumbnail view, it's simply too slow to be effective. If Music and Photos are more your forte, then the MediaSmart interface works just fine. I found browsing to be simple once I got the hang of the controls, and the various ways of filtering allowed me to get where I wanted to as fast as possible.

    The bread and butter of MediaSmart is in their Online Media Services. The three services included at launch are Live365, Snapfish, and CinemaNow. With a free or premium Live365 account, you can queue up any of the music available. It was quick, and I found the quality equivalent to what I was accustomed to. Snapfish--also free--allows you to view your uploaded photo albums on your TV. CinemaNow is the only offering which requires money, but included with the Connect is a $20 gift certificate, so you can try it and see if the service is for you. The CinemaNow interface was very simple, with none of the fancy trailers and animations that are available through the Media Center version, but it was easy to browse and very quick to make a purchase.


    In my opinion, the most basic yet revolutionary feature of the Online Services is the singular login! Rather than having to login to each separate service with the remote (UGH!!), you simply create an account at the HP website which then asks you for your login (or to sign up) for the aforementioned services sites. Once completed, you login through the MediaSmart with the HP login, and it automatically recognizes your other accounts! If this sounds trivial to you, you probably have never had to use the multitude of Media Center plugins which each require logins from a remote.

    My only complaint with the Services area is the loading bar!! Yes, it's trivial, but for an interface as clean and smooth, I expect more from HP than a bar at the bottom reminiscent of a 1995 browser window. That aside, the combined service offerings, along with proposed future additions, and most importantly the one-time central login, show a step in the right direction, and one I hope Microsoft pays attention to!!

    Extender Interface


    Media Center Extender (MCX) Interface I know this is probably the part you care about most, so I'll get right to the question on everyone's mind -- No, the animations/user interface of the Media Center Extender session is NOT as good/smooth as the Xbox360. As mentioned before, as long as these Extenders utilize the graphics power of the host Media Center server to render the interface--unlike the 360 which renders it on the super powerful device itself--then I don't see them getting to the fully accelerated eye candy level unless there are serious hardware upgrades, but of course that will make them draw more power, which means more heat and likely more noise as well.

    That being said, I can vouch that the animations (navigating the Start Menu) of the HP Connect are the best outside of the Xbox360. I've used both the D-Link and Linksys extenders, and while those appear like lower resolution static images moving akwardly through the menus, the Connect gives much more of an animated look and feel...not perfection, but much better. If those smooth animations are your number one requirement in an extender, and you don't care about noise or power consumption, the Xbox360 is really your only answer.

    Animations aside, the MCX interface is very quick. Unlike the MediaSmart interface which runs off of the Extender hardware itself, the MCX session leverages the power of the Server, thus navigating around large collections of files is much faster. For those unfamiliar with the MCX session: you can only pair the Connect device to one Vista Media Center, which must always be powered on to access the interface.

    Once you get past the animations, there's little to complain about. While you sacrifice an ounce of animation, you also gain a plethora of video and audio codecs. Most popular are DivX and XviD videos. Similar to the D-Link and Linksys Extenders, but unlike the Xbox360 (which has Divx/Xvid support, but only in the Xbox Blades, not the MCX session), I was able to seamlessly play a selection of those files from within the Media Center Extender interface, both from MyMovies as well as the native Video Library.

    One other note on video playback I thought to mention is that DVD files (.VOB files) still need to be renamed to .MPG to be able to view them in your library, once renamed, I was pleased and surprised to see subtitle controls. Using the HP remote's subtitle button I was able to scroll through all the languages available from the original VOB file. If this is possible in Media Center itself I was never aware.

    Testing plugins was a breeze: I tested a few weather applets, as well as the always popular vmcNetflix and was able to start streaming a movie in a matter of moments. From a performance standpoint, I would rate this at an equivalent level to the Xbox 360 (as it should be, since most of the resources are taken from the Server hardware, not the Extender hardware).

    Besides animation, the only other complaint I have with the MCX interface --and this is more directed at Microsoft, since EVERY Extender shares this problem-- is the length of time it takes to boot into MCX. Unlike your TV or Stereo, which you turn right on and can use immediately, or even my Media Center (which is always on), the Connect, and all other Extenders, take a fair amount of time to get into the Media Center interface. Surely in this world of caches and OS tweaks, there HAS to be a faster way to get straight into the MCX session. This is especially so with a device like the HP Connect which is essentially always at the ready without causing a strain on your electricity bill!

    Remote Control


    Remote Control

    As with any remote control, you either will love it or hate it. I remember when I first used the Linksys DMA-2100 remote and could not believe how cheap that felt. You will be happy to hear that the HP remote is very well built. The buttons were separated and seemed of good quality which is important in a device you'll be pressing frequently throughout the day.

    Slightly bigger than Harmony 890
    Close Up

    The remote is backlit, which is a REQUIREMENT as this thing has a LOT of buttons. Geeks will probably love that part, but it scared my girlfriend at first. HP integrates both the MediaSmart controls as well as the Media Center Extender controls, and then throws in the benefit of being able to control multiple devices (TV, Cable box, DVD, Aux) as well. So the goal is definitely for this remote to be your all-in-one replacement. You may not use it for anything but your TV and the Extender but it's nice to have those features, especially at this price point.

    I found the button layout to be OK -- nothing to brag about, but nothing that shouted absurd either. The arrow buttons are right where your thumb will be, and there are direct button shortcuts around it, such as LiveTV, Guide, Info, etc. A small issue with the remote is that with all the buttons on this thing there was apparently no space to include shortcuts to Music or Photos, which is a disappointment as I'd imagine a lot of people use Extenders for music. I think the remote would have benefited from a more hybrid design --rather than have a button used in only 1 of the interfaces, why not make it a hybrid button that applies to both interfaces and save some space?

    hpc13-thumb.JPG hpc11-thumb.JPG
    Similar Thickness to the Harmony
    Slightly thicker than a quarter

    If you have smaller hands you might not be a fan, as the remote was longer than any other remote I had in my possession. Something else to note is that the remote does NOT use the same IR code as the standard Media Center remotes. I consider this both a good and bad thing. It's great if you have the device in nearby rooms and do not want it to accidentally control your server as well. It's terrible if you lose the HP remote, as you can't just go to the store and buy a generic MCE remote for it to work with. A minor quibble, but worth noting.

    Based on the remote offerings I've seen from other Extenders and similar media sharing devices, overall I was very pleased with the remote. It has the look and feel of a high quality remote, with a nice blue backlight, and reasonable layout. I sometimes wish a traditional company like HP would take some cues from the likes of Apple, and try to NOT throw the kitchen sink onto the remote. It makes it very intimidating and forces the remote to be longer than necessary. 

    Questions and Answers


    Questions & Answers

    I took the liberty of pinging our community for any specific questions which users had. While I couldn't get to all of them, here are a few specific ones I wanted to isolate that may not have been pointed out in the review:

    Q: Can you stream direct DVD rips, Blu-rips (.mts) or .mkv rips etc?

    A: First, the bad news, you cannot playback ripped Blu-ray content. DVD content, however, can be played back with some tweaking. As with any other Extender device you can rename the .VOB files to .MPG and they will be visible in both the Extender and MediaSmart interface. The nice part about the MediaSmart interface is you can skip from file to file while playing, versus MCX, which you need to go back to the Video Library to select the next one.

    For a full list of formats that play in both the Connect and Extender interfaces, check out Chris Lanier's writeup of the device.

    Q: Any plugin issues with the extenders? Does Netflix work?

    A: No issues with any plugins I tried. vmcNetflix worked great, as did the included CinemaNow application. For you movie fans, MyMovies worked as well without problems, and played the DivX & XviD files without having to stream (yeah!!!)

    Q: Can you customize the interface?

    A: No. Neither the MediaSmart interface nor the MCX interface offer support for tweaking the interface.

    Q: Does it support screenshots or thumbnail pictures when browsing for something to watch?

    A: Yes. When you browse through folders using the MediaSmart browser you have the option of List View (default) or Thumbnail. Fair note though, if you have a large collection, stay away from the Thumbnail view within there, as it takes a bit to load.

    Q: Any heat related issues with the device?

    A: None whatsoever. I've had the device running for several days now in a warm room and the device is remarkably cool to the touch.

    Q: I heard there was a fan in the Extender?

    A: Yes, there is a small fan behind the hard drive bay, but relax, it's 100% silent. In fact, the only way I could even hear the fan was by placing my ear against the device. This could be the main reason for how the unit stays so unbelievably cool.

    Q: Is HP's media aggregation service incorporated into MC interface or do you have to log out of MC and go into another service?

    A: All of the formats I was able to test played just as smooth within the MCX interface as the MediaSmart. Different than the Xbox360 which you need to leave the MCX interface to play DivX and other filetypes.

    Q: Does it support HDMI 1.3 & high definition audio bitstream formats?

    A: No. The highest quality sound you can get out is 5.1 Sound over S/PDIF. There is a 2-channel analog connection as well.

    Final Words


    Final Words

    After including their extender technology strictly with their HP branded flat panel televisions, it's nice to see that HP has put some effort into the Media Center world with the creation of the Media Center Connect device. It is by far the most attractive and refined Extender on the market, including both Media Center Extenders and other media streamers, which helps to justify the hefty $350 price tag. However, there are more than a few benefits included with that price and unfortunately there is not another refined extender on the market (Niveus EDGE not included as that is $1500).

    I was surprised to see a total lack of advanced HDMI capabilities, given the industry buzz of the HP Connect. However seeing as how no other Extender is doing advanced HDMI audio, I'd imagine it's a limitation of the current chipsets being used. The fact that the HP Connect uses nearly identical chipsets to the Linksys and D-Link makes the HP model more impressive. HP is the first to get even remotely close to the smooth 3D accelerated display of the powerful Xbox360's Extender session. While still not to the same level, it's by far the best non-360 Extender experience on the market--probably reason enough for some eyecandy lovers to justify the purchase. Combine that with the well refined non-MCX MediaSmart interface, as well as the bundle of extras included in the box, and it puts this Extender right at the top of my list. [...add a Blu-ray drive, and you'll win my heart forever HP]


    • Silent
    • Can run without a host server connected (MediaSmart mode)
    • Nicest animations from a non-Xbox360 Media Center Extender Interface
    • Full array of wireless networking support without ugly external antennas
    • $20 of free rentals with CinemaNow (Hey, free is free)
    • Low power draw -- uses less than 10 watts!
    • Multi-function remote control


    • Steep Price - $350 is getting close to building your own basic PC 
    • No 1080p Support
    • No Blu-ray support, not even DVD support!
    • No 3rd party remote control ability
    • No standard definition video output
    • HDMI audio is crippled to 2-channel PCM
    Jun 26 2008

    Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 11: Queensberry Fight Network

    It was recently announced, that the Media Center world has been lucky enough to gain a few new online spotlight programs, including the Olympics & the Queensberry Fight Network. Being a large fight fan, I was excited to see what the Fight Network had to offer, so that's why I'll be covering it first. Having never heard of it, I was anxious to see what it had to offer.


    The idea behind the Queensberry Fight Network Media Center plugin is very simple--bring live & older boxing matches to your home theater without having to leave the 10' interface. Sorry Mixed Martial Arts fans, but when they say "fight," they just mean boxing.

    The Network was started in part by Frank Warren, a Hall of Fame boxing promoter from the UK, and the content is primarily focused on boxing matches from England. All the content, however, comes at a cost. While a brief preview of the file is free, to purchase the content costs $2.99, and that's only for permission to view it for 24 hours.

    Fight7-thumb.JPG Fight10-thumb.JPG
    Main, Gorgeous Interface Reminder you have to pay to watch

    Above & Beyond

    As you can see from the screenshots, the interface is designed beautifully. It is extremely responsive and everything loaded quite promptly, which is a must for a streaming video portal. Also, besides the initial installation (I miss meedio) being 2', the rest of the app is completely 10', even for registering an account & paying for a fight.

    In addition to the beautiful design, one can admire what Queensberry Network is trying to achieve with their streaming of LIVE pay-per-view events. Of course, also coming at a cost, but for people around the country who may not have access to view a US PPV event, it could be an ideal situation.

    Fight12-thumb.JPG Fight14-thumb.JPG
    Simple to view purchase
    Conditions to your

    Falling Short

    Ok, so the one thing I know everyone will harp on, is that this site is not Free at all. And to be fair, I'm not opposed to a commercial portal with content you want. However, it would have been nice to have at least a small selection of some free fights to wet someone's appetite. Speaking on behalf of US fight fans, you'd be hard pressed to name fighters other than Amir Kahn or Ricky Hatton, so maybe some free exposure would help for the fighter, as well as for the channel.

    Also a big dissapointment is the DRM restriction--and by restriction, I mean absolute control. Everything costs $2.99, and everything will only last for 24 hours. In this day & age, with so much content able to be copied, burned, shared, or at least kept, it's a big shortcoming that not only do you need to re-purchase fights to watch them, but there's no "buy" option to own it.

    Finally, the picture quality leaves much to be desired. Seems like just standard 480p from the ones I checked out. I'd imagine in time, this would progress to HD quality, but for now, be prepared for some lackluster quality. Again, not a huge deal, but it's amplified when you are required to pay for it.

    Grade: Once A Year

    British boxing fans might disagree, but for folks in the United States with ESPN Classics, we're able to watch classic boxing matches for free, everyday. Having to pay $2.99 for a 24-hour permission to watch a boxing match is frustrating with all the DRM arguments going on. Although, I can appreciate that at least the payment is with US Dollars instead of EUROS.

    The site in general is slick, and I think a great example of the power that lies with the MCML abilities of Media Center. And for fans of British boxing, there does seem to be a healthy amount of fights. If you're in the US but with limited television opportunities, then the ability to stream a live Pay-per-view event could make a weekend wonderful.

    I've said since the beginning, that the key to the Online Portal succeeding is to get large partners, with very compelling content. To be fair to our readers, I'm just not sure a British Boxing portal is going to boost Online Spotlight..well...into the spotlight. I think what it will do, and something I can appreciate, is show other companies the RIGHT way to do things, and hopefully give others the idea to how to reach you, the Media Center community.

    Product Vitals


    Creator: Miomni

    Price: Free to sign up, but $2.99 for basically everything else.


    Jun 02 2008

    Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 10: MC Menu Customiser

    One of the biggest complaints I've heard throughout the years about Windows Media Center is that everything is locked down. Changing the background or appearance usually takes some sort of odd registry edit, and who wants to do that? Well, fortunately, there's some great developers out there who feel your pain & design apps to help you out. 


    MC Menu Customiser is a 2' Application (meaning it's meant to be used with a keyboard and mouse) designed for Vista's Media Center. The goal is simple--allow users to rearrange 3rd party application shortcuts from the Media Center start menu. Before getting started, just understand there are inherent limits overall with the flexibility of the interface. If you want total control of your Media Center appearance, there are some great apps such as MythTV, SageTV or BeyondTV, just to name a few, which allow a LOT more control of the appearance.

    But for those of us committed to Vista's MCE offering, Customiser is here to allow us to add at least a bit of a personal flavor. You launch the app, and then drag & drop the tiles you want. You can also rename the two custom rows to anything you want.

    mcc1th.JPG mcc4th.JPG
    Basic Interface
    Using almost every space available!
    May 23 2008

    Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 9: BigScreen Headlines 2

    BigScreenGlobal is one of the premier Media Center plugin companies in the world. You'd be hard pressed to find another development company which does as much customization with the MCML abilities, while still keeping things simple & easy enough to use. The expectations are a bit different than a lot of apps, however, since all BigScreenGlobal apps are commercial & cost some money. 

    headlines1_th.JPG headlines2_th.JPG
    Browse Favorite Feeds
    Check out your subscribed Feeds of course
    May 14 2008

    Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 9: MCEfm

    Many people use Media Center to combine their music collections into one. But more & more people are learning the joy of websites like Slacker, Pandora, and the one for this plugin, These sites basically bring all sorts of music to you, based on particular artists that you like to listen to. Best of all, these services are free & legal--the songs are streamed across the internet, not downloaded to your system.

    mcefm2th.JPG mcefm3th.JPG
    Easy to find on the start menu Nothing fancy here...
    May 12 2008

    Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 8: Netflix Plugins Head-to-Head-to-Head

    Netflix & Media Center users must be excited these days. With Netflix allowing for streaming of movies to your computer, it was inevitable for some fantastic developer to create an MCE plugin which would bring that to your home theater PC with the convenience of your remote control & from your sofa.

    Nobody could have predicted however, that there would not be one, or two...but THREE different Netflix plugins for MCE. So, since we're here to help, we've decided to do a special 10th edition of our Life With a Plugin series, matching up the 3 Netflix Plugins to see which is worth your time--MyNetflix, vmcNetFlix & NetflixMC.

    Due to the nature of this review, I'll be doing things a bit different, but hopefully keep things short & clear who the winner(s) are.  Click the title for the full article.

    vmcnetflix2th.JPG vmcnetflix3th.JPG
    vmcNetflix's Smooth Interface Various Play options within vmcNetflix
    Apr 02 2008

    Review - Life With a Plugin Episode 6.1 - Yougle 0.4.0 d

    Ignorance Is Bliss has been hard at work for our HTPC community and has recently released an update to his Yougle plugin. Of course, that means we need to provide an update to our "Life With A Plugin" series! As mentioned in my previous episode, Yougle takes information typically found on a webpage and presents it in a 10' UI for your remote viewing pleasure.


    What's New

    The same great plugin you know and love still exists. Media from You Tube, ICanHasCheezburger and Flickr is still available. His major tweaks to the plugin include some navigational tweaks, a few setting changes, and for the risque an adult source or two.

    yougleburger_thumb.jpg youglevideos_thumb.jpg

    As you can see, Yougle now has a look and feel that is closer to your traditional VMC plugins. This is a pretty large improvement in the usability of this plugin. Kudos to IIB for listening to the community and making these great changes.

    The default plugin comes installed with only a few sources.  However, by clicking on the plus sign at the end of each source, you can choose other sources.


    Above & Beyond

    He has made a lot of little tweaks in this release and I am very satisfied with the navigational changes he has made. Of course, my previous sentiments about his great programming skills still prove true.

    yougle settings_thumb.jpg youglevideos_thumb.jpg 


    Falling Short

    No real major complaints. Currently Yahoo music is not working, but that is due to website changes rather than his programming skills. That is the only real downside of scraper plugins such as this. As time goes on, I expect the community to help fill this void and keep sources current.



    I do want to mention that this is a great plugin that provides a nice framework for great possibilities. So let's get in there and start developing. No selfish motive there :).

    Grade: Approved for Everyday Use

    Absolutely! Small navigational complaints aside, this is a great plugin that I spend time with everyday. Hey, even I don't mind looking at lolcats every once in a while :). I think this is a no brainer and hope to see more development in the future. 

    This is a freeware plugin. If you do download it, I encourage you to donate to the project.


    Product Vitals


    Creator: Push-A-Button

    Price: Free


    Feb 28 2008

    Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 7: Remote Scheduling

    Remote Scheduling allows you to view your TV guide listings & modify your Media Center recordings from anywhere in the world. Currently, there's only two real players in this category. One is Microsoft's Remote Record, and the other (Webguide), bought out by Microsoft. Both are useful in their own way, and I've found a happy medium in using both at the same time.


    The first & probably the most well-known plugin for scheduling recordings is Webguide4, a do-it-all plugin that lets you schedule your shows, manage your recordings, and even stream them! I've done a complete review of the application, which hasn't changed much since. 

    webguide-0012.jpg webguide-0014.jpg
    Main screen interface
    View & Use the Guide listings


    On the other spectrum lies MSN's Remote Record, a much more minimalistic approach to TV Scheduling. While Webguide4 was built from the ground to revolve around Media Center, Remote Record is much more of an app designed around the website. The website that controls it all is . It's a simple URL to remember, and the interface has improved in time.

    That being said, it really is a love or hate relationship with that website. It's very busy, and wastes an awful lot of bandwidth with TV show promotion banners streaming all across it. Once you get to the guide things are nice and clean, but it's not nearly as clean & uncluttered as Webguide. Regarding speed, it depends on your connection - Users with fast internet at home will see a very speedy response with Webguide...but if you're on the slower end of the spectrum, you will appreciate leveraging Microsoft's bandwidth and efficiency.


    Webguide easily goes above & beyond. The designer behind it spent years developing and improving it, and did not stop with being the most popular TV scheduling app. He added complete control of your Media Center & recordings, and then even threw in some streaming abilities for good measure.

    Remote record does little extra. It's a TV scheduling application, and that's all it does. Nothing more, nothing less. This isn't necessarily a knock on the plugin as it does what it does, well.

    EDIT 2/28:

    Unlike previous versions of Remote Record, the current implementation DOES SUPPORT HD Channels. So if you're used to recording ESPN-HD on channel 724 (as in the Bay Area), then that channel is available to record via Remote Record. Kudos to them for fixing that! 


    Webguide, in the current condition, is an amazing plugin. The only fault with it, is that it does try to do a lot, which is intimidating to new users. In addition to that, if you don't have access to your firewall/router, then you will not be able to use it from outside your home, like you CAN with Remote Record (That's actually why I use both...Webguide for when I'm on my LAN, and Remote Record when I'm at work).

    MSN Remote Record fails in it's lack of integration with Media Center. I think this is due to the fact that it wasn't designed at all by the Media Center team, and it showed in the years it's taken for the plugin to actually become reliable enough to recommend. Initial users were left with a very bad taste in their mouth as the application was very unreliable and would frequently not be able to connect to the servers. Time has improved both the service & the guide speed...but first impressions are hard to forget...and heck, it's still HIDDEN in the website (Sign in > TV Listings > Small box on the right side)

    tvmsn1.JPG tvmsn2-thumb.JPG
    Guide TV Listings View Series/Show Information

    GRADE: Approved for Everyday Use

    Bottom line with both of these applications--If you frequently forget to schedule shows, or people at your work are always telling you of great shows you should be watching...or your significant other forgets that Tom Cruise is on Oprah today--then either of these applications will be required.

    As I mentioned earlier, both are Free, so there's really no reason why you can't use both, and I actually recommend it. In case something happens with your internet at home, Remote Record will continue pinging the network until your system comes back online...a valuable tool in the event that you try to connect during a power outage. That way, you don't have to remember to record.

    The flexibility of giving you control over your recordings from everywhere makes either MSN Remote Record or Webguide4 easily given the rating of "Approved for Everyday use!"

    Product(s) Vitals

    Websites: &

    Creator: Microsoft & Doug Berrett

    Price: Free & Free! 

    Feb 25 2008

    Review - Life With a Plugin Episode 6: Yougle Vista

    The future of Media Center no doubt lies in its ability to present online media from the 10' UI. While the Media Center group has done some work with extras such as Internet TV and the Fox Sports collaboration; there remains a lot of media we want to see. Yougle steps into fill some of this void.


    Yougle allows you to watch video and other media from several sites including You Tube, Google Video, ICanHasCheezburger and Flickr. The product is constantly in development and are always adding new sources for your entertainment needs.

    Yougle - Video Selection
    Yougle - Video Selection

    Above & Beyond

    The first thing you'll notice is the developer really knows his way around MCML. All the animations are done extremely well and fit right in with the Media Center look and feel.

    The biggy for me is including Yahoo Music videos :).  I am a bit of a music video buff and this add-in makes it extremely easy to see any of the Top 100 music videos.  

    There is also an SDK available if users wish to try their hand at adding their own sources. 

    Yougle - Inside Yahoo Music

    I can haz Yougle?

    Falling Short

    The navigation is a bit unusual.  You use the plus signs and arrows to navigate around the program which is quite a bit different that having your sort menu above your media like most other plugins.  Once you realize the navigation scheme, it is no big deal, but having the sort menu up top would eliminate a lot of the confusion.

    Keeping in mind this program is in alpha state, I do hope to see more sources in the future. Perhaps even a way to add your own podcast feeds? or daily comics?

    Grade: Approved for Everyday Use

    Absolutely! Small navigational complaints aside, this is a great plugin that I spend time with everyday. Hey, even I don't mind looking at lolcats every once in a while :). I think this is a no brainer and hope to see more development in the future. 

    This is a freeware plugin. If you do download it, I encourage your to donate to the project :).

    Product Vitals


    Creator: Push-A-Button

    Price: Free 

    Feb 10 2008

    Review - Antec Fusion Black 430

    The search for a great frontend has met its match today in the Antec Fusion Black.  Sporting a black front panel, LCD with integrated IR receiver and a quiet design, what more could you need?  Read on to find out.




    Antec is a name that most have heard before.  They have a number of great computer cases and power supplies, as well as many other products.  Here is what they have to say about themselves.

    Antec, Inc., is the leading global brand of high-performance computer components and accessories for the gaming, PC upgrade and Do-It-Yourself (DIY) markets. Founded in 1986, Antec is recognized as a pioneer in these industries and has maintained its position as a worldwide market leader and international provider of efficient, quiet, and reliable products. Antec has also achieved great success in the distribution channel, meeting the demands of quality-conscious system builders, VARs and integrators.

    Antec’s offering of enclosures includes a large range of cases, such as its technically advanced Performance One Series, cost-effective New Solution Series and server grade cases designed for the needs of all workstation and server markets. Antec’s products also include front line power supplies such as its TruePower Trio series, Quattro series, and EarthWatts, the most environmentally friendly power supplies available. PC gamers are an increasingly significant consumer of performance components, and many Antec products are geared toward the gaming demographic, like the Nine Hundred, the premier gamer enclosure. Antec also offers a computing accessories line comprised of many original products, including its patented LED Fans and Notebook Cooling solutions.

    Antec is headquartered in Fremont, California, with additional offices in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. The company’s products are sold in more than 30 countries throughout the world.

     So let's go check out one of their newest offerings, the Antec Fusion Black 430.


    Today on the bench, I am going to explore the Antec Fusion 430.  Part of the newly renamed Veris family, it is the newest of the Fusion series.  Here are the specs from Antec:

    • Aluminum plate front bezel with Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) and Volume Control to work with media center applications.
    • Windows MCE & VISTA® compatible IR receiver included for use with remote control
    • Triple chamber structure to separate heat and noise of power supply, hard drives and motherboard for cooler and quieter operation
    • Quiet high-efficiency 430 Watt ATX12V v2.0 power supply with universal input and active PFC
    • Removable HDD brackets with extra soft silicone grommets to reduce vibrational noise
    • Advanced cooling system:
      - 2 x sidemounted 120mm TriCool 3-speed fans
    • Low profile desktop height to fit in any environment
    • 3 Drive Bays
      - Front Accessible: 1 x 5.25"
      - Internal 2 x 3.5"
    • 4 Expansion Slots
    • Motherboard: Micro ATX form factor (9.6" x 9.6")
    • Front-mounted ports for easy multimedia connections
      - 2 x USB 2.0
      - 1 x IEEE 1394 (FireWire® i.Link®
      - Audio In and Out
    • Durable 0.8mm cold rolled steel construction
    • Unit dimensions:
      - 5.5"(H) x 17.5"(W) x 16.3"(D)
      - 13.97cm(H) x 44.5cm(W) x 41.4cm(D)
    • Net weight:
      - 18.7 lb
      - 8.5 kg

    So you might be asking how this one is different from the previous offerings such as the original Fusion and NSK2400 cases.  Here's a nice little table for you:

      NSK2400 Fusion Fusion 430 Fusion Black 430
    Front Case Color Silver Black/Silver Silver Black
    IR None None
    Volume Knob None Integrated Integrated

    So let's get on to the fun part.


    The box from Antec came in nice sturdy packaging.  The delivery man tried his best to ding it for me but failed miserably.  The shipping box is a very think cardboard that took a little bit of damage, but the box for the case itself wasn't even dented.  The front of the inner box has a nice glossy picture of the front of the Fusion case, while the back of the box tells you about the main features in three different languages.   Inside the box, the case was well packed in foam and even the volume knob had a block around it to ensure that it did not get damaged during shipping.  Antec gets very good marks here.

    tn_fusion_shipping_box.jpg tn_fusion_box_front.jpg
    Fusion shipping box Fusion case box front
    tn_fusion_box_back.jpg tn_fusion_packaging.jpg
    Fusion case box back

    Fusion packaging

    Next is the outside of the case itself.  The Antec Fusion Black 430 is an all black HTPC case as the name indicates.  On the front of the case, from left to right, you will find an LCD screen with an integrated IR receiver (more detail about these later), a Firewire port, two USB ports, headphones in, Mic in, reset and power buttons, and a volume knob.  Mostly this layout is the same as the previous Fusion, the main difference here being that the VFD was replaced with an LCD screen with integrated IR receiver. 

    As you can see in the photos below, there are a few changes since the original case in this series, the NSK2400.  First is the addition of the LCD screen/IR receiver and volume knob.  Also added was a firewire port, and the stealthed optical drive bay.  Plus the color was changed from black and silver to all black.

    tn_fusion_front_top.jpg tn_fusion_front.jpg
    Antec Fusion  Fusion front
    tn_fusion_nsk2400_front.jpg tn_fusion_knob.jpg

    Fusion and NSK2400 fronts

     Fusion knob

    On the back you will find the rear I/O panel, four expansion slots with air vents, and the power supply.  The PSU mount has extra holes so that you can mount the PSU "right-side-up" or "up-side-down".  Note that the power supply included with the Fusion Black 430 has an 80mm fan on the back and no 120mm fan on either side, so it doesn't really matter which way it is mounted.  As you can see from the second shot below, the rear of the Fusion hasn't changed much since the original NSK2400 case.

    tn_fusion_back.jpg tn_fusion_nsk2400_back.jpg

     Fusion back

     Fusion and NSK2400 backs

    On the right side of the case is where you will find the main cooling, two 120mm fans.  I will go into more detail on the cooling scheme later, but for now I will say that both fan locations came populated with Antec TriCool fans that work well.  The left side of the case has some ventilation holes for the PSU chamber which will be described later.  The top has venting where a video card would sit.  The bottom has venting for the hard drive chamber.  Also of note on the bottom are the two silver feet with black rubber tips in the front of the case that are visible from the front looking very stylish, and the two white rubber feet in the back that help reduce vibration noise.  One more thing that I will point out on the bottom that will be discussed later are the rubber grommets for mounting the hard drives.

    tn_fusion_fans.jpg tn_fusion_side.jpg
    Fusion right side
    Fusion left side
    tn_fusion_top.jpg tn_fusion_bottom.jpg
     Fusion top
    Fusion bottom 


    The inside of the case is arranged very well using three chambers to optimize cooling performance.  The main chamber is just large enough for the motherboard and the two side fans with openings into the PSU and hard drive chambers for cable routing.  Towards the front of the main chamber are two cable tie wraps that help with cable routing.  As mentioned previously, to one side of the main chamber are two 120mm fans.  If both fans are not needed for system cooling, there is also an included plate that can cover one of the fan openings.  On the rear wall of the main chamber are four expansion slot covers with openings, a mesh opening for the airflow, and a baffle to route air over the CPU area.  The baffle comes in four parts allowing you to use only as many pieces as needed to reach the heatsink on your CPU.  On the wall between the main chamber and the PSU chamber is a panel that opens to allow cable routing and closes to seal the chambers from each other for more efficient airflow.

    System chambers
    tn_fusion_in_front.jpg tn_fusion_in_back.jpg
    Fusion inside looking to the front Fusion inside looking to the back
    tn_fusion_psu_cable_open.jpg tn_fusion_psu_cable_close.jpg
     PSU chamber open PSU chamber closed
    Front panel cables 

    In the front of the case is the hard drive chamber.  Antec put a lot of energy in designing the hard drive mounting.  The hard drive sits in a well padded holder.  It is padded on every side.  The drive is attached with rubber grommets that isolate vibration noise from the rest of the case.  To fully secure the hard drives in the case, a second piece is attached to the top of the drive with rubber grommeted screw holes, which is then itself fastened to the case with four screws.  In order to add or remove a drive, eight screws need to be removed from the top of the case, and if used, four screws need to be removed from the bottom of the case, assuming both drives are used.  The problem with this setup is that in order to remove the screws from the bottom of the drive attachment, you need to have access to the bottom of the case.  This can be an issue if using the case in an entertainment center.  Fortunately, the drive sits securely without the screws in the bottom.

    The optical drive bay is removable.  The top bay can be used for mounting something internally but is not accessible externally due to the LCD screen.  The lower bay is used for mounting an optical drive.  The bay is stealthed on the outside with a door that drops down when the drive is opened.  There is a fixed point for mounting an optical drive in the lower bay that ensures that the drive lines up flush with the front of the case so that the eject button works properly.

    tn_fusion_hdd_mount.jpg tn_fusion_dvd_bay.jpg
    Fusion HDD mounting area
    Fusion optical bay

    The PSU used in the Antec Fusion is a 430W model built by Antec.  The power rail specs on the PSU are as follows:

      Max Min
    5v 25A 0.3A
    12v1 16A 1A
    12v2 16A 1A
    3.3v 25A 0.5A
    -12v 0.8A 0A
    5v SB 2A 0A








    The power supply chamber consists of the optical drive bay and the PSU.  Air moves in from the side of the chamber and out the rear via the 80mm fan inside the power supply.  The PSU sits on top of four rubber feet that dampen vibrations.  There are another two rubber feet located on top of the optical bay that also dampen vibrations.

    PSU info PSU cables
    tn_fusion_psu_chamber.jpg tn_fusion_psu_rubber.jpg
    PSU/Optical chamber PSU mounting points


    Antec spent a lot of time designing the cooling aspect of this case and it deserves special mention.  As mentioned earlier, the PSU chamber is fairly simple: in on the sides, out the back of the PSU.  Cooling in the hard drive chamber is also fairly simple.  Air comes up through the holes under the hard drives, over the wall between the chambers and out through the closest fan.  The main chamber is a little bit more involved.  In the CPU area, air comes in from the grid of holes above the rear I/O panel, forced towards the CPU by the plastic bezel and then out the two fans.  If you have a video card installed in the case (represented by the blue block), air comes in via the slotted expansion brackets, around the video card, and then out the fans.  It is all very efficient and all the major components get covered.  The only potential dead zone is up by the LCD/optical drive but that generally doesn't heat up much.

    Airflow in Fusion case



    Here are a few screenshots of the setup of the software that is included with the Antec Fusion 430.  It's fairly a basic setup.  The main thing to point out here is that one of the screens has a slider bar for contrast that I had to play with on my setup because the default "contrast" set the background of the LCD so bright that I couldn't read the text from more than about three inches away.  I don't think I would call this contrast either.  It appeared to control the backlight brightness, not contrast.  It took me a bit of tweaking to find a comfortable setup of enough brightness to be able to read it from any distance but not too much brightness that the background would overpower the text.  Take your time and find something that suits you.  I will also note that there are newer drivers available on the Antec website that have a few more options.

    tn_fusion_lcd-config1.jpg tn_fusion_lcd-config2.jpg
    Common info setup
    Auto mode setup
     Graphic Equalizer setup
    System Information setup
    tn_fusion_lcd-config5.jpg tn_fusion_lcd-config6.jpg
     Media Information setup
    Email setup 
    tn_fusion_lcd-config7.jpg tn_fusion_lcd-config8.jpg
    News setup City Information setup
    tn_fusion_lcd-config9.jpg tn_fusion_lcd-setup1.jpg
    System setup
    Equalizer message

    I will also note that while not officially supported by Antec or Soundgraph, the Linux community has shown some good talent again in reverse engineering the LCD protocol and created some Linux drivers that, while still in development, work very well. 

    One of the features that I really like about the Antec Fusion 430 is the ability to turn on the computer via the remote.  In order to make use of this feature, the power button is fed into the LCD panel, which is then connected to the motherboard with red and black cables (individual connections).  In my case, the connection from the power button to the LCD panel was not already made from the factory, but I have been informed that it will be done in the future.  In fact, in my case, the jumper for the power button was too tall to fit into the LCD housing when it is screwed in so I had to use a knife to cut into it so that it would fit.  Again, this should not be an issue for anyone in the future.

    The LCD panel itself connects to the system via a USB port.  In order to help keep a clean looking system, Antec has included an adapter cable that allows you to connect the LCD screen to an internal USB header.  I tested the panel both onboard and external USB and it worked fine under both conditions.  Another thing to note is that the LCD panel gets power from a three pin connector that connects to a special split off of the main motherboard power cable.  If you plan to change PSUs in the future, you will be required to purchase a special adapter from Antec in order to use the LCD panel with it.


    tn_fusion_lcd_off.jpg tn_fusion_lcd_back.jpg
    LCD screen off
    LCD casing with hole cut for power button
    tn_fusion_lcd_in_front.jpg tn_fusion_front_panel_in.jpg
    LCD panel internals with IR receiver
    Front panel internals
    tn_fusion_lcd_scroll1.jpg tn_fusion_lcd_scroll2.jpg
    LCD before adjusting scroll speed and contrast
    LCD before adjusting scroll speed and contrast
    tn_fusion_lcd_scroll4.jpg tn_fusion_lcd_scroll5.jpg
    LCD after adjusting scroll speed and contrast LCD after adjusting scroll speed and contrast

    The IR receiver is integrated into the LCD panel and runs through the same USB connection (as well as the volume knob) as the LCD.  The IR receiver is setup to recognize RC6 codes which are used with the MCE remotes as well as the IMON PAD remote.  It does not recognize other formats such as the RC5 codes used by my Hauppauge remote.  In order to use my remote with this IR receiver, I needed to reprogram my Harmony 670 to emulate the MCE remote instead. 


    If you're looking for an MATX HTPC case that looks good and is extremely quiet, you should look no further.  While slightly large for some entertainment centers, the Fusion 430 does a very good job creating a quiet HTPC for the livingroom.  The three chamber design makes system cooling very effective.  The included 120mm fans work very well and have switches that can adjust airflow/noise to suit your needs.  The included power supply is very nice.  430W is more than enough for almost any HTPC setup and it is very quiet and efficient as well. Even with my noisy old 5GB hard drive (yes you read that right, 5GB, not 50GB, not 500GB), once everything was installed and the lid was in place it was smooth (quiet) sailing for me. 

    The LCD screen I didn't find to be that useful from more than a few feet away because it was hard to read most of the time.  The display is nice but it's just too small to read from far away (either that or I need a stronger glasses prescription).  It worked very well from up close though once I adjusted the scroll speed and contrast.  And in my personal opinion, I wish that Antec had used something else as the default font because the default clock is kinda ugly, if you ask me.  Once the drivers were setup though, it wasn't really a problem because the font is one of the things that can be changed.

    It would have been nice if the IR receiver supported more than the MCE and IMON PAD remotes.  I got lucky since I could reprogram my Harmony 670 to work with it, but it was still an unnecessary hassle.  However, the ability to be able to turn on your PC with the remote control is a godsend for me.  The volume knob was generally left unused because, although it looks nice, I would much rather adjust the volume with my remote than get up off my couch and turn the dial.


    • Cool-/Quietness
    • Looks
    • LCD/IR
    • Volume knob
    • Included quality power supply
    • Remote power on/off
    • Build quality


    • Size
    • Some reliability issues with LCD panel
    • LCD viewing
    • Limited IR code recognition
    • Bottom hard drive mounting hole access

    While there might be some quirks with the Antec Fusion Black 430, it is definitely a good case overall and one that I would recommend to all of our readers.

    I would like to thank Antec for providing the review sample. 

    Jan 30 2008

    Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 5: MiraWorldTV

    A large buzz has been surrounding Internet TV since you could first hookup your computer with internet into your television. It got so large that even Microsoft couldn't continue to ignore it and actually started shoving it down users throats (don't remember anyone asking you if you wanted that "Internet TV beta" app on your TV+Movies menu, do you?). That being said, there's little to not like about internet TV: It's free, it's free.....and well, with writers strikes, you can never have enough to watch on the tube.

    Mira1-thumb.JPG MCEWeather2-thumb.JPG
    Easy to find on the start menu View thumbs of popular streams


    MiraWorldTV is a small application I came across which provides a very attractive 10' Media Center interface giving you access to a number of internet TV streams across the World. The plugin provides graphical icons and a brief description of channels available online. You can choose to view the available options based on Country, Category, or just create your own group of favorites to watch. There is a large number of channels available, and accessing them is very simple.

    Keep in mind, the resolution on these freebie feeds is average at best, think more along the lines of YouTube quality. But, the interface itself is very attractive, using MCML really makes it feel like a part of the entire Vista Media Center experience. Browsing through the various channels couldn't be easier and the number of channels available is equally impressive.

    Above & Beyond

    So MiraWorldTV does exactly what it sets out to do and gives you a large number of channels across the world to watch. But what if you have a specific TV feed that you'd like access to from the beautiful interface? The folks at thought of that and added a manual add section where you input all the information you want, and then they'll test & add it to their database.

    Additionally, it's nice to see an application actually take advantage of MCML (Media Center Multimedia Layer), and the difference is quite noticeable from apps that use the older API. It's good to see small developers embrace the new layer, as it really makes the plugin feel like a part of the Media Center experience.

    MCEWeather1-thumb.JPG MCEWeather2-thumb.JPG
    Short but sweet channel info Multiple ways to view channels

    Falling Short

    So the idea sounds great, and I think the MiraWebWare guys have done as good as they could given the control limitations with what they're working with. They do not control the streams, so they have little to do with the performance, quality, and even availability. That means, that on any given day, the stream can just stop working, or suddenly change.

    In addition to that, not all the streams are as current as others. I hopped on a few streams that were from a year ago...but on the bright side, I now know what "Sportscentre" in Canada is like. As for quality, it definitely depends on your internet speed, so dial-up users need not apply.


    MCEWeather1-thumb.JPG MCEWeather2-thumb.JPG
    Sort by Countries Add your stream to their database

    Grade: Once a Month is Plenty

    I'm giving this application the 2nd best grade available, for the simple reason that,'s so simple. It's easy to use, and does exactly what it accomplishes. In my testing, the quality & performance was comparable to that of Microsoft's Internet TV beta, but offered a much larger collection of streams from around the world. Being Cuban, I was very impressed to see a Live TV news stream from Cuba. The global reach of this software means that you can travel anywhere in the world, and still stay least somewhat. And of course, the MCML interface is gorgeous & integrated seemlessly.

    Product Vitals


    Creator: Mirawebware

    Price: Free! 

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