3.4.1. Watch TV… On Your TV
THE ANNOYANCE: I'd like to hook up my Windows Media Center Edition (MCE) machine to a TV so I can watch broadcasts, recordings, and even DVDs on the big screen. But when I try this, all I see is black. Does my PC have something against Bruce Campbell movies?
THE FIX: It's nothing personal, and it's probably easy to fix.
When you connect a TV to your computer, you should see your entire desktop, Start menu and all. If you see nothing at all, your PC's TV-out port may be disabled. If you're using a laptop, you may have to press a special keystroke combination to "activate" the TV-out and external VGA ports. On some Dell laptops, for instance, hold the Fn key while pressing F8 to switch between the internal display, the external display, and both; consult your computer's documentation for details. Press these keys repeatedly until you see a picture.
If you see a picture for everything except the video, you have a video overlay problem. See "Shed Light on Blank Videos," earlier in this chapter, for a number of workarounds.
Naturally, make sure you're using the right cable. Your PC's TV-out port might use a standard S-Video plug, or it might require a proprietary connector (at extra cost, of course). If your computer lacks a TV-out port, you'll need to get an adapter cable that can connect the PC's external VGA port to your TV. If your TV has a VGA port, you can make the link with a standard VGA cable. If not, you can get a VGA-to-RCA or VGA-to-S-Video adapter cheaply from eBay or conveniently from your local electronics store.
3.4.2. Mimic Media Center
THE ANNOYANCE: Windows MCE is really pretty, but I only have the plain (non-MCE) version of Windows XP. How can I copy MCE's spiffy look and feel?
THE FIX: Get the Royale Windows XP theme from http://www.microsoft.com/nz/windowsxp/downloads/bliss/newbliss.mspx. As a special treat for you Windows users in New Zealand, you can get special Kiwi versions of the Bliss background wallpaper from http://www.microsoft.com/nz/windowsxp/downloads/nzbliss.aspx!
3.4.3. Fix Broken TV Listings
THE ANNOYANCE: My television listings are wrong. How do I get the right ones for the channels I receive?
THE FIX: First, make sure your PC's clock is set correctly: open Date and Time Properties in the Control Panel and set the time and date. Click Apply, and then choose the Internet Time tab and make sure the "Automatically synchronize with an Internet Time Server" box is checked, so that your clock is always correct.
Next, your Zip Code in MCE might be wrong, which could cause you to get program data for a different region. Or you may be using an antenna, yet downloading programming data intended for cable or satellite broadcasts. From the main Media Center menu, choose Settings General Media Center Setup Set Up TV Signal, and follow the prompts. When asked whether you'd like to configure your TV signal automatically, choose "I will manually configure my TV signal." On the following page, choose whether your signal comes from cable, satellite, or antenna (terrestrial broadcast), after which you'll be prompted to set up your TV Program Guide. When prompted, type your Zip Code, and then click Next to confirm your choices and download the programming data for your area.
Of course, it's possible that all your settings are correct. If only a single program or a single channel is off, it could be a temporary glitch or last-minute programming change. Try manually downloading the latest programming data to iron out any such discrepancies. From the main Media Center menu, choose Settings TV Guide Get Latest Guide Listings.
If all your program data is off, you'll have to be a bit sneaky about it. The simplest solution is to spoof a different location by entering a Zip Code adjacent to your own; you may have to try a few different codes to find the one that delivers the data you need.
Note: Many HDTVs have only a single digital (HDMI or DVI) input, which may already be occupied (if you're lucky) by a DVD player with a digital output. If you don't want to settle for an analog connection between your PC and TV, you'll need an HDMI or DVI switch, the best examples of which can be found in some high-end digital home theater receivers.
3.4.4. Send a Digital Signal to Your HDTV
THE ANNOYANCE: I just spent all this money on a high-definition (HD) television, but the video I feed it from my Windows MCE PC looks terrible. What can I do?
THE FIX: The ports on your PC and the available connectors on the back of your TV limit your options. Ideally you want an all-digital connection, so avoid any analog plugs, such as your PC's TV-out/S-Video port or 15-pin VGA connector. Instead, use a Digital Video Interface (DVI) cable to connect the DVI port on your PC with the matching plug on your TV.
If your PC doesn't have a DVI port, you'll need to replace your video card with one that has DVI support; if you're using a laptop, you'll need to add a PCMCIA DVI card. (Tired of acronyms yet?)
If your HDTV doesn't have a DVI port, it probably has a newer High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) plug, which is essentially the same thing (albeit with audio); you can get HDMI-to-DVI adapters readily on eBay, and still achieve an all-digital connection. If your TV has no digital video inputsor they're already being usedyour next-best option is to use a DVI-to-composite adapter (also available on eBay); although your TV's composite inputs are analog (not digital), they do support progressive-scan video, which will still look a lot better than S-Video or (gasp) RCA connectors.
Once you've got the cabling in order, the next step is to set the resolution on your PC to optimize the picture quality, as described in "Sharpen Blurry Text" in Chapter 1. Set it too low, and it'll look pixelated; set it too high, and you might have overscanning problems (where the video runs off the screen). Try a few standard resolutions until you find one that looks good (1024x768 usually works pretty well). If you still have trouble, use PowerStrip (a free trial is available at http://entechtaiwan.net/util/ps.shtm) to find the optimal resolution and timing settings for your TV.
Of course, no matter what you do, the standard-definition TV tuner in your PC will never provide the same quality, clarity, and color as a true HDTV tuner card. See the next annoyance for more information.
3.4.5. Capture HDTV Programming
THE ANNOYANCE: I'd like to watch HDTV broadcasts on my computer, but I only seem to be able to get standard-definition (SD) programming. What gives?
THE FIX: You can only receive high-definition programming with a true HDTV tuner. In North America, you'll need an ATSC tuner card for your PC; in Europe and other parts of the world, you'll need a DVB tuner. HD tuners will receive terrestrial broadcasts, but not necessarily cable or satellite broadcasts. For that, you'll likely need an HD tuner with a cable card slot; contact your cable/satellite provider for details.
While the tuner is the most important component, there are other pieces of the HD puzzle. For instance, HD broadcasts use a lot more data, which means you'll need a PC with at least a 2.4-GHz processor for simultaneous capture and playback (required for basic timeshifting of HD programming). You'll need a larger hard disk, too; while an hour of SD programming typically consumes 1 GB of disk space, an hour of HD programming will eat up about 10 times as much space. Thus, even a shiny new 300-GB hard disk will only net you about 2530 hours of HD storage.
Finally, you'll need HD programming data. If only SD data is available for your area, you may have to use different software (see "Alternatives to Media Center") that gets its data elsewhere.
3.4.6. Fix HDTV Timeshifting Problems
THE ANNOYANCE: MCE can timeshift record all standard-definition television broadcasts, but only some HDTV programming. With some HD broadcasts, MCE simply stops recording.
THE FIX: This is probably due to the broadcast flag, a copy-protection scheme instigated in North America in 2005. All HD tuners that pay attention to the broadcast flag will refuse to record any protected HD programming. The only way around this is to use an older HD tuner sold before the broadcast flag took effect (sometimes available on eBay); these tuners will ignore the broadcast flag and record all HD programming without restriction.
3.4.7. Tidy Up Your Remote Control Receiver
THE ANNOYANCE: To use an infrared remote control, I have to plug this silly external receiver box into my PC. It's ugly, and my cat keeps knocking it over.
THE FIX: Despite the growing popularity of home-theater PCs, fewer computers today have built-in infrared ports than those sold 10 years ago.
If your PC has at least one USB port on the front, you can replace your infrared receiver box with an ultra-small USB infrared dongle, which is scarcely larger than the tip of your thumb. Although it'll stick out about an inch, it's an easy and inexpensive way to do away with the messy cables. To find an infrared dongle compatible with Windows XP, search Google and eBay for "USB IRDA."
A tidier, albeit more radical (and expensive) solution is to replace your PC's case with one that has a built-in infrared receiver, such as a VFD-enabled SilverStone enclosure (http://silverstonetek.com). Just connect the internal cable to the USB plug on your motherboard, and you're good to go.
As for your cat, perhaps a nice ball of yarn will entertain him (and you) for a little while.
3.4.8. Use Any Remote Control
THE ANNOYANCE: I got this el-cheapo remote control with my TV tuner card. It works, but it's big and poorly laid out. How can I get a spiffy TV remote to work with Windows MCE?
THE FIX: You have a few options. For one, you can get a learning remote from any consumer electronics store, and program it to mimic the remote control that came with your hardware. You can also replace your remote (and accompanying receiver) with another MCE-compatible remote control. To find a compatible remote, search Google and eBay for "MCE remote."
Using special software such as OmniRemote Pro ($24.95, http://www.pacificneotek.com), you can also program your PalmOS handheld computer to act as a remote. Although tapping a screen is rarely as comfortable or intuitive as pressing physical buttons, there is an undeniable cachet to controlling one computer with another.
To use your ordinary TV remote control with your PC, you'll need a programmable infrared receiver. Provided the receiver and accompanying driver are compatible with MCE, you'll be able to map any button on your existing remote to an MCE command.
3.4.9. Alternatives to Media Center
THE ANNOYANCE: I'm fed up with the Windows Media Center software; it's clumsy, hopelessly tied to corporate cross-marketing interests, and totally inflexible. Is there any other software package that can do timeshifting, recording, and scheduling with the hardware I already have?
THE FIX: There are a bunch of alternatives to the Media Center software, and most will work with a wider variety of hardware than MCE supports.
Free PVR software alternatives include GB-PVR (http://www.gbpvr.com) and MediaPortal (http://mediaportal.sourceforge.net). Commercial products, while not necessarily better than their free counterparts, include Meedio Pro (from $44.95, http://www.meedio.com), SnapStream BeyondTV ($69.99, http://www.snapstream.com), and SageTV Media Center ($79.95, http://www.sage.tv/sagetv.html).
Each product has its advantages and disadvantages. When choosing a PVR software package, the most important consideration is an onscreen interface that you like. Aside from that, it should support HD programming and DVD burning, work with a wide variety of remote controls, and accept plug-ins or extensions that add functionality (such as news readers and weather forecasters).
Of course, you don't have to stick with Windows if you want good PVR software. Both MythTV (http://mythtv.org) and Freevo (http://freevo.sourceforge.net) are free and run on the likewise free Linux operating system.
3.4.10. Burn Recorded Programs to DVD
THE ANNOYANCE: I recorded some shows with MCE that I'd like to keep; is there any way to burn them to DVD so that I can free up the hard disk space for more recordings?
THE FIX: As long as you have a DVD writer, archiving your recorded programs to DVD is a snap with MCE.
Insert a blank DVD into your burner. If your burner supports it, use DVD+R or DVD+RW media instead of DVD-R or DVD-RW discs.
Next, press the START button on your remote, select More Programs, and then select Create CD/DVD. Choose the second option, Video DVD, and then enter a name for the disc.
Select one or more programs to include on the DVD. When you're done, select View DVD to see the list of programs queued to go on the disc; at this point, you can rearrange them before you burn. Select Create DVD to burn the disc.
Note: Test the DVD right away in a real DVD player (not in your PC), before you delete the recording from your PC. If it doesn't play properly, see "Fix DVD Playback Problems," later in this chapter.
3.4.11. Build Your Own HTPC
THE ANNOYANCE: I'd like to use Windows MCE on a home-theater PC I built myself, but I can't seem to buy a standalone copy of MCE anywhere!
THE FIX: In typical corporate fashion, Microsoft has only made Windows Media Center Edition available preinstalled on specially outfitted PCs. You could buy a PC with MCE and turn it into a full-blown home-theater PC (HTPC), but most of the time it makes more sense to build your HTPC from scratch and then install one of the available alternatives to MCE. (See "Alternatives to Media Center.") You could also wait for Windows Vista, and use the MCE-like software incorporated into all editions of the new OS.
Note: Your CD or DVD burner may have packet-writing software installed, such as Roxio's DirectCD or Nero's InCD, which lets you write files to CD-R and DVD-R/+R discs a little bit at a time instead of all at once. Unfortunately, discs made in this way aren't easily readable in other CD/DVD players.. The steps in this fix assume that you've disabled any packet-writing software and are using nothing more than the software that's built into Windows XP. Note: if you want to write data to erasable mediasuch as CD-RW or DVD+RW/-RW discsyou'll need third-party CD-burning software (which likely came with your drive), since XP lacks this talent.