For about five years now, my audio visual entertainment has revolved around Windows Media Centre. This week, I’m doing a major upgrade to pretty much everything, and what’s a blog for if not to document this kind of thing in fairly tedious detail?

The process has already been slightly screwed up however. The impetus to improve my broadcast TV and DVD picture quality was motivated by the decision to get a new TV set, and this, which we got for £399 in the bank holiday sale, was due to be delivered by Currys yesterday. Currys being Currys it seems they simply forgot. It’s now not coming until next Wednesday. Meanwhile more components are arriving in the next few days, none of which are going to live up to the hype on the old TV. Anyway.

So, before all of these new bits-and-pieces get installed, I thought I’d write about what I’ve got at the moment and where I’m starting from. But before I do any of that, let me just review what I’m trying to achieve.

So, here’s what I want to happen at this end of my living room.

  • Watching broadcast TV
  • Recording broadcast TV and watching those recordings
  • Watching DVDs
  • Watching downloaded movies and TV shows (all legal, of course)
  • Access to my music collection and photos

Now, a cheap PC hooked up to a flat screen TV and running Windows Media Centre software (which is free with Windows 7 Home Premium or better) means I can do all of these things very easily, and has two other advantages to boot. One is that I can hook up a very cheap-and-cheerful set of PC speakers to said computer and get 5.1 surround sound for a fraction of the usual cost and without having to screw around with complicated AV receivers. The other is I can do everything with one remote control, because everything goes through the Media Centre software.

So, here’s my setup. I have a computer which I’ve build myself out of various bits-and-pieces and which gets upgraded as needed. About three months ago, it got a new motherboard and processor because like a clumsy idiot I managed to bust the old (very old) processor while trying to change the fan for a quieter model. Last week, it got a new graphics card because the on-board graphics were struggling with HD content.

This gets a wired connection to my router, which in turn gets a wired connection to a 1Tb Network Attached Storage Device – a big hard drive which holds all my (perfectly legal) downloaded movies and TV shows, my music, my pictures and so on. A good-old-fashioned VGA cable goes into the DVI connection on the back of my 26” TV and bingo, I can check off the bottom two items on my list. Sound, as mentioned, is provided by these PC speakers and since there’s a DVD drive in the PC, and the Media Centre Software handles DVDs just fine, that’s the third element too.

Here’s where it gets a little complicated.

From my point of view, if you want to watch broadcast TV in the United Kingdom, you really want Sky. Virgin and BT’s offerings have improved in recent years but Sky is still the daddy. If you want to watch the Oscars live, for example, Sky is the only game in town.

Now, if I were content with digital terrestrial TV, my system would work great. I would put a TV tuner into my PC (an internal card or a USB dongle, either works) and this would receive the digital signals through the air, and feed them into my computer for display on the TV. And since the signal is being received digitally into the PC, the Windows Media Centre software can record shows for me, having downloaded a suitable EPG (Electronic Programme Guide), not to mention pausing and rewinding live TV and all those other things that seemed like magic when we first read about Tivo in the United States.

Sky doesn’t make it quite so simple.

Even though Sky broadcasts have been digital for years, the problem is that Sky regards the decryption of its broadcasts as very much its own concern. The little card you shove in the front of your Sky box authorises it to decrypt only the channels you’ve paid for and how it does this is Sky’s business and nobody else’s. So, the only way1 to insert Sky TV broadcasts into the Windows Media Centre environment is as follows. Sky box receives pristine digital signal from dish and decodes it. Sky box outputs audio and video signal via old-fashioned analogue SCART lead. This gets converted to composite video and stereo audio (three RCA or “phono” plugs) and is then fed into the analogue TV tuner in the PC. This takes the analogue signal and redigitises it so that Media Centre can work with it.

The picture doesn’t look quite as bad as you’re maybe imagining. But HD it ain’t.

Changing channels on the Sky box is fun too. Remember, the Sky remote plays no part in this set up. One simple remote control is a big feature of my audio-visual life and using the Sky remote would be hopeless for timed recordings. What’s the Media Centre PC going to do? Pick up the Sky remote and change the channel to BBC1 two minutes before Doctor Who starts? Well, almost.

What actually happens is that when a channel-change is required (either by me pressing a button or because a timed recording is nearing), the Media Centre machine has to send a duplicate of the required infra-red pulses down a wire, to a little “button” which I’ve stuck to the IR receiver of the Sky box. Of course, there’s no feedback from the Sky box to the computer after one of these events, so if – as occasionally happens – the Sky box fails to correctly interpret one of the pulses, the Media Centre computer has no way of knowing and so just records whatever is coming down the SCART lead.

Clearly this is less than perfect. But, you may be saying, Tom, you complete fucking idiot,2 you may be saying, don’t you realise that Sky has their own solution to recording live TV!? It’s called Sky+. Yes, I’m well aware of this. But you know what Sky+ would mean don’t you? Two remotes. Probably three remotes since I’d also need to switch the TV between the Sky+ box (live and recorded TV shows) and the Media Centre PC (everything else). So I’ve strongly resisted the urge to go the Sky+ route for some time.

But while I can get away with this double-conversion of TV pictures on a 26” TV, they aren’t going to cut it on the new 42” beauty, and furthermore, I am increasingly discomfited at not being able to receive the HD broadcasts trumpeted on every station. Then there’s Blu-ray…

So here’s the plan…

  1. Have new TV delivered and nailed to the wall.
  2. Add Blu-ray DVD drive to PC and hope that I can find the necessary software to make it all work properly – Microsoft have been slow to provide proper support for Blu-ray, Xboxes excepted.
  3. While I’m about it, upgrade the onboard audio which has never worked properly on this new motherboard.
  4. Have Sky+ HD installed and regrettably bypass the Media Centre for watching and recording broadcast TV.

This will leave two problems unsolved. One is audio. I want to avoid having to blow £200 or more on a “proper” home theatre audio system, giving me yet another box and yet another remote control to worry about. But if I simply run separate HDMI cables from the Sky box and the PC to the television, I’ll get stereo sound out of the TV speakers when I’m watching TV, but 5.1 sound out of the Media Centre when watching (legally) downloaded movies or DVDs. It would be better to have 5.1 sound for everything.

The second problem is the profusion of remotes. I’ll probably need three – TV, Sky and Media Centre. It may be that the Sky remote can be used to control the TV, or it may be that a universal remote will be required, in which case I think I favour something like this which is fairly inexpensive, can be configured through the computer (nice) and doesn’t need its own docking station to stay powered up.

As mentioned however, Currys sudden attack of amnesia regarding my order means that things are not going to work out exactly like that, so here’s the new revised plan.

  1. Upgrade Media Centre with Blu-ray and decent audio. Listlessly watch Blu-ray discs on old telly’s 1280×768 display.
  2. Have Sky+ HD installed and try to figure out how to connect it to a TV with no HDMI socket.
  3. After Sky engineer has gone, have new TV installed and nailed to the wall and have to connect up Sky box myself.

All of this, and no doubt more will be lovingly documented right here, starting tomorrow with the PC upgrade. See you then.

  1. All right, it’s not the only way, but it’s the only way I regard as being practical.
  2. That’s a bit much, isn’t it?
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