Since Windows Media center is a perfect compliment to WHS in as much as they mesh together perfectly, I immediately fell in love with the concept of being able to play my movies on a PC and be able to display it on a large screen HDTV. I could always play various movies on my PC but I really wanted the 10 ft experience. As time went on I grew increasingly frustrated by the lack of complete solutions. WMC has a slick user interface but could not play all the content I wanted as MS has yet provide to direct support for Blu Ray playback and third party apps that did work well, did not integrate into WMC.
My goal was to be able to play my entire DVD movie collection as well being able to playback my Blu Ray movies in their native video and audio formats including the ability to pass through lossless audio to my AV receiver. It goes without saying I wanted to do this without ever leaving the 10 ft experience of WMC or without the use of a keyboard.
Suffice it to say that reaching my goal was not as easy as it should have been and that most of the products targeted to do this do not work as you would expect them to requiring additional add-ons and workarounds. To set the baseline reference, my expectation was to use software suitable for the mass market that was easy to install, easy to use, played my Blu Ray content with lossless audio, and do it all without leaving the media center interface. Sounds simple enough...
Staying true to my objective, I first started with the latest version of PowerDVD 9 Ultra which makes claims of Media Center integration, Blu Ray playback, and lossless audio pass-through via HDMI 1.3 support with a compatible sound card. First problem I ran into is the trial version did not support Blu Ray playback at all so I was forced to buy the software to properly test it. It did not take very long to figure out that PowerDVD was not going to work as it has one blaring issue that I could not live with and that it would not play any of my Blu Ray rips that where stored on WHS or any hard drive for that matter. It forced you to have a Blu Ray player or to use a work around such as Daemon Tools or Slysoft virtual drive and mount an ISO which I did not want to do as I was looking for a solution that was more flexible and did not force me into additional third party software. The same problem existed with WinDVD 2010 but it was far more problematic and found it to be somewhat unstable. It was prone to crash easily so I quickly tossed that one out as well. Neither of these programs impressed me with their WMC integration but where decent as a PC based player, however that was not what I was looking for. As a last ditch effort for the ultimate solution I decided to try Arcsoft's Total Media Theatre 3 as I had read some reviews and heard good things about it.
Before I get into how well TMT 3 really works, let me talk about the type media I want to play, the formats, and a little about the hardware I use. Since WMC plays DVD's natively as well as "most" media files, the first and most important to me was Blu Ray playback. I use BD folders not ISO’s (using TsMuxer and AnyDVD HD) as well as single file MT2S and periodically MKV files (more on ripping in a future update as that is a post all by itself). All of my BR rips contain only the core movie (all trailers and menus removed) and only the lossless audio track (TrueHD and DTS-HD) with all the other sound tracks removed. I run two HTPC's (see configuration below for reference) one has an HDMI Asus pass-through audio card which is attached to an AV receiver and the other feeds a sound bar setup using a TOSLINK optical cable.
Installing TMT 3 was quick and painless with no real surprises. After a quick reboot I was prompted there was an update and installed it and again another reboot. I went to my movie listing in WMC where both DVD and Blu Ray movies appeared in one listing and selected a Blu Ray film to see if TMT would live up to my expectations. The minute I clicked the remote, I saw a TMT3 screen for about 3 seconds and then the Blu Ray movie began to play.
All the controls worked via my HTPC remote including chapter skip/back. Playback was smooth (providing you use hardware acceleration), however I noticed that the color of the output seemed a bit dark for my taste. This was noticeable on both ATI cards and nVidia based card I used for testing (GT 240, and ATI 5750). I found that by default the video driver on both these cards is set to let the video player handle the settings but for some reason the default settings appear dark on TMT 3. I am sure that TMT 3 is set to a truer theatrical setting that has been tuned for more of a dim lit/dark room. However for my environment and taste it was simply too dark. When I changed the setting to "manual" in my video card setup I was able to tune it perfectly for my needs and the settings had no effect on any other function in WMC including standard DVD playback.
The next thing I noticed is that TMT3 by default was down mixing the sound track and I was not getting the TrueHD and DTS-HD that I wanted to my receiver despite having all the recommended and supported hardware. I checked the sound settings in TMT 3's plug in and found the default settings to be incorrect for my configuration and changed the audio setting to HDMI pass through. I went back to the movie to try out the setting and finally saw the words I wanted to see on my AV receiver "DTS-HD". Once it was setup correctly, every movie I have tossed at it has played perfectly and both TrueHD and DTS-HD have all worked with a hitch whether they were native 5.1 or 7.1.
After spending the last few months with TMT 3 I find this is a pretty awesome program and is the only 100% solution that I have found that plays BR movies directly from your WHS without any additional software or workarounds as well as supporting both types lossless audio. Once you set it up for your HDTV and tune your video settings to your liking, you will not have to hit the keyboard again while sitting on your couch and you will be able to play your Blu Ray movies (providing they are in a "Blu Ray Folder" configuration so that they show in WMC listing) from within WMC. MKV, M2TS and other single file formats play in the PC player (See note below). However only a BD structure shows up properly in windows media center and provides for full menu and chapter support. I realize that everyone has their own way or ripping, has their preference of formats/containers, and may use numerous add-ons/workarounds to play their HD content. I have tried most of those and to me having a straightforward playback solution which which pulls movies from my WHS without the use of a media server and integrates cleanly into Windows Media Center is the only way to go. In my opinion there simply isn't a better solution out there that supports the latest hardware all in one package. They offer a trial version so anyone looking for a great solution for Blu Ray playback can give it a try.
Although TMT 3 normally supports MKV formats in PC playback, the latest update temporarily broke MKV compatibility. Arcsoft is aware of the issue and there is a beta patch that addresses the issue. Also, they added support for ATI 57XX series cards as well as Clarkdale and Ironlake motherboards. I have not tested these features but will update when I do. If you have TMT3 you can find the beta at the link below.
Power DVD 9
Arcsoft Total Media Theatre 3
Core 2 6400
EVGA GTS 240 with HDMI to Sony 50 inch Plasma
2 Gigs of DDR2
60 Gig OCZ Agility SSD
Lite-On Blu Ray Reader
Asus HDAV Slim
Windows 7 Home (Media Center)
Core 2 6400
EVGA 9600 with DVI
3 Gigs of DDR2
500 Gig Western Digital
Lite-On Blu Ray Reader
Windows 7 Home (Media Center)