Windows Media Center remains one of Vista's most underrated features, offering a slick, couch-friendly interface for watching TV shows and movies, listening to music, enjoying photo slideshows, and more.
But it's also a hacker's delight, able to perform all kinds of nifty tricks with a tweak here or a download there. Let's take a look at seven free and easy things you never imagined Windows Media Center could do.
1. Copy recorded TV shows to your iPod
Why buy the iTunes cow when you can get the Windows Media Center milk free? In other words, instead of paying Apple for TV shows you've already recorded on your PC, copy those shows to your iPod for on-the-go viewing. Normally this is tricky: WMC saves video in the DVR-MS format, which neither iTunes nor iPods can recognize. But freeware utility iPodifier makes simple work of converting DVR-MS files to an iPod-friendly format.
After you install the program, a wizard walks you through the steps of setting up your video source: namely, the Recorded TV folder. Choose the desired output format (iPod or iPhone/iPod touch) and a folder for the converted files, click the Enable transcoding button, and sit back while iPodifier works its magic. There's even an option that adds converted shows to your iTunes library automatically, so they'll be ready for your next iPod sync.
2. Play YouTube and other Web videos
Want to surf YouTube from the couch? Maybe watch some movie trailers or South Park episodes? Yougle Vista, a free Windows Media Center plug-in, brings you all that and more—although it's not without its problems. Here's how to set up Yougle:
1. Download and run the Yougle Vista installer.
2. Start Windows Media Center, then scroll down to the newly added Yougle menu.
3. Click it, and then click Get More Sources. Choose the one(s) you want to add.
4. Do the same for Yougle's other categories: audio, pictures, and animations.
Now for the bad news: I had considerable trouble getting Yougle to play certain kinds of videos. Your mileage may vary, but for now this looks like a cool tool that's not yet ready for prime time.
3. Show Netflix videos
Those lucky TiVo and Xbox 360 owners: They can stream movies from Netflix's Watch Now service straight to their TVs. Fortunately, so can Windows Media Center users.
Once installed, the tool appears in Online Media | Program Library—click it for full access to your Netflix account. You can browse new releases, view your queue, add movies to your queue, and so on. Even better, you can browse Netflix's Watch Now movie and TV libraries and add them to your Instant Queue or start watching on the spot. Best add-on ever? For Netflix subscribers, definitely.
4. View Flickr and Picasa photo albums
Windows Media Center displays lovely, Ken Burns–style slideshows of the photos stored on your PC, but it can't tap into your online photos. For that, turn to mcePicasa, a free plug-in that fetches photos from your Google Picasa and Flickr accounts. After installing it, head to Online Media | Program Library, then choose the service you want and enter your username.
In a flash you'll see photos from all your public albums (alas, mcePicasa doesn't currently support private ones). From there you can view individual pictures or watch a slideshow.
5. Show and record high-def TV shows without an antenna
One of Windows Media Center's celebrated features is that it can record high-definition TV shows broadcast over the air: All you need is an ATSC (digital) tuner for your PC and an antenna. However, the latter can be problematic if you live in an area that has weak digital signals—and who wants to look at an ugly set of rabbit ears anyway?
Fortunately, it's now possible to watch and record local networks' HD broadcasts without an antenna. What you need is a tuner that supports QAM, meaning it can receive unencrypted digital channels via cable without a cable box. (Obviously you need to be a cable subscriber for this to work.) Most of the latest tuners from AverMedia, Hauppauge, and Pinnacle support QAM signals. However, Windows Media Center doesn't, at least not in its current incarnation, so look for a tuner that offers QAM integration with WMC. (The AverMedia AVerTV Hybrid Volar Max and SiliconDust HDHomeRun are among those that do.)
6. Show every episode of Arrested Development
Whether you've never seen the show or you just want to rekindle your love affair with the Bluth family, you can watch all 53 episodes of Arrested Development (not to mention plenty of other shows) free of charge. In the TV + Movies section, scroll to the right until you get to Internet TV. Click it, then scroll sideways to TV and down to Arrested Development. Choose the season and episode you want and presto: It starts playing (with only a few commercials sprinkled in).
Alas, this enviable option is available only in the Vista versions of Windows Media Center. Everyone else will have to get their Bluth fix at Hulu.
7. Change the quick-skip and instant-replay intervals
Most commercial breaks last about 3 minutes, so wouldn't it be nice if Windows Media Center's quick-skip button skipped 3 minutes instead of 30 seconds? Or perhaps you'd like to bump the instant-replay interval to 10 seconds (the default is 7). You can configure these settings however you like, but you'll have to venture into the Registry to do it. Here's how:
1. Click Start |Run, type Regedit, and press Enter.
2. Click Edit | Find, and type InstantReplayInterval or SkipAheadInterval.
3. Right-click the key and choose Modify.
4. Click the Decimal button, then enter a new value. Both quick-skip and instant replay rely on milliseconds, so make sure to multiply the number of seconds by 1,000. For example, for a 10-second instant replay, the value would be 10,000.
5. Click OK, exit Registry Editor, and then restart Windows Media Center.