My adventures with Vista Media Center (VMC) and Windows Home Server (WHS) integration started rather accidentally about 18 months ago. I had read mixed reviews about the earlier versions of Media Center and hadn’t given much thought to using it. One day while looking for something else on my start menu when I noticed Windows Media Center - I hadn’t realized it was included with Vista Premium. After only a few minutes of playing with it, I was pretty excited by the possibilities of what I saw and decided to build a Home Theater PC (HTPC) based on it.
My initial desire was to try to bring together in one place all of my family’s photos, videos, and to be able to share them on a larger screen (crowding around a PC display is no fun). Over time, I began to add other features as I came to better understand the capability of the core product as well as some great add-ins available in the community.
I first started using WHS shortly after its initial release, primarily for the file share/backup capabilities. After some initial growing pains (more on that later) my WHS platform stabilized and I began exploring the myriad of add-ins available. As I began expanding my use of VMC and encountered some difficulties, I started to look at using WHS to compliment the VMC functionality.
As the project evolved, my original objective morphed into using both of these products to develop an integrated environment (the term ecosystem is so overused…) to provide a common repository for all of our digital content along with a consistent and enjoyable user experience for sharing it. I think I have largely achieved that.
While the result is far from perfect, it’s working very well for our family needs (and never fails to impress visitors! ;-) ). I hope you learn something and maybe get some ideas of your own from this article.
Let’s jump right into the gear that I used to build this. Later I’ll share the specific build components I chose (and some of my mistakes) but I thought it would be helpful to start with an overview of the current environment. As you can see, we have a pretty high people: computer ratio in our household.
Figure 1 Overall system schematic
Our home uses wired networking (CAT 5e) as the primary infrastructure. We use wireless more sparingly for convenience and for situations like a temporary installation or in areas without cable pulled to it. We have a primary 801.11N router (Linksys WRT150N) and a secondary access point (TRENDnet TEW637AP) to improve coverage, but still see occasional drop-outs. Because intermittent network problems take away from the overall experience and drops the WAF, I chose to stick with wired for most of the installation. I used the D-Link DGS-2208 gigabit switches – they’re part of their “Green” line which turns off unused ports to save power. They were fairly inexpensive after rebate and have performed very well.
My WHS build
I chose the “Frankenbuild” approach to my WHS for a couple of simple reasons. For me, selecting and assembling the components is half the fun in a project like this. I was also pretty sure that I would outgrow the HP MediaSmart (the only available commercial offering at the time) server’s 4 drives. I was also concerned about the “headless” nature of the HP product. I think its fine for the average consumer who sets it up and leaves it alone (a number of friends have bought them on my recommendation and are very happy). In my case, having a monitor on the box saved me more than once when an install went awry.
My initial build attempt was based on an AMD Sempron configuration. Initially I planned that WHS would primarily be a file share / backup platform and the low end configuration would be fine. However, as I began working with remote media streaming (more on this later) I quickly became CPU limited with the single core Sempron. The other issue I encountered was instability with my HDDs – I would get a drive error every 1-2 days and the server would stop functioning. A lesson learned from this was to make certain that the MB manufacturer provided explicit support for Windows 2003 Server (the Sempron board did not). When I bought a replacement MB I decided to switch to Intel because people seemed to be having better experience with driver support. It also gave me an excuse to upgrade my desktop to a quad core, so my WHS ended up with a fairly beefy processor that has worked very well.
Figure 3 The WHS Innards – 6 internal drives
Another challenge I faced after I outgrew the 4 on-board SATA II ports was finding a controller card that worked reliably. After purchasing several RAID capable controllers which wouldn’t work or were flaky, I finally found the non-RAID Promise. It’s PCI-based so it’s not the highest performance, but its rock solid and has worked well for my setup.
Figure 4 My 6.5 TB Storage Pool
My collection of HDDs was assembled based primarily on cost – the 750GB models were the best bang for the buck for quite a while. Beyond that, I looked at reviews to be certain that the drives were reliable and had decent performance. When I outgrew the internal drive bay capacity, I was able to extend the case using an AMS SATA backplane module which took three 5.25” bays and gave me and additional five 3.5” slots. I also added a supplemental cooling fan in the front of the case for the internal drives which keeps them cool (70-85°F).
Figure 5 The WHS Front Panel – 5 additional drives
With the new 2TB drives now hitting the market, I can almost double the current capacity of my server using the remaining 3 open slots. After that, I guess I’ll have to start swapping out the 750GB drives.
Media Center build
Again, I took at home-build approach to my VMC as I wanted control over the individual components to optimize price, performance and noise. I chose this MB for its on-board video to minimize heat and noise (as the PC sits in my home theater room). Eventually, I had to upgrade to a separate, more powerful video card. The Asus is nice in that it has decent performance, built in HDMI (no adapters), and is passively cooled. While I’m currently running at stock speeds, the Black Edition CPU and the efficient cooler give me the option to overclock later if needed.
The Sapphire TV tuner cards each have dual tuners – one for OTA DTV/FM, the other for SD TV. I have a roof mount antenna which catches the local HD feeds as well as FM radio. I have a separate DirecTV tuner box dedicated to each of the tuners. The boxes are controlled using IR emitters from the PC and send S-Video and stereo audio. Since I have no ability to record HD programming from DirecTV, I have a 3rd DirecTV receiver connected to my HT projector through the AV receiver for watching HD content (you haven’t lived until you see HD football on a 126” screen!).
Figure 7 Three DirecTV STBs and the AV Receiver
The VMC PC outputs both audio and video through HDMI to drive a Panasonic AE3000U 1080P projector via an Onkyo SR875 AV receiver and a 7.1 channel sound system. I’ve used HDMI wherever possible (other inputs are the third DirecTV box, the PS3, and a HD Camcorder) which has significantly reduced the cable clutter. The video is projected on a 126” diagonal Carada screen.
Figure 8 Home Theater Projection Screen
I currently use both the Linksys 2100 extenders as well as an Xbox 360. One of the Linksys units is in a bedroom, where silence was the most important criteria. It is connected to a 720P LCD via HDMI. The other drives a SD TV in the workout room and using a wireless connection. Both of these extenders have performed very well, however the one which is connected wirelessly occasionally loses its settings and has to be reconfigured from the VMC PC – I’ll probably switch this one to wired Ethernet shortly as these outages drag down the WAF.
I also use a 360 as an extender in the kid’s game room. It’s driving a 65” RPTV via component output and has performed very well both as a gaming platform and as an extender. The fan noise isn’t really an issue in this room.
A couple of other components which complete the system are universal remotes and a PS3. I’m using Logitech Harmony 890 and 880 remotes to control all of the various components including the VMC PC. The Logitech’s can be programmed to perform common activities (“watch TV” or “watch Movies”) by turning on the right components and setting the right inputs. Having the same type of remotes in different rooms supports the common user experience. The 890 also has RF capability which can be used in conjunction with home automation systems (more on that later).
The PS3 is an interim component used primarily for Blu-ray playback. While I’ve incorporated Blu-ray into the home entertainment system, it’s still a “work in progress” with a few bugs to work out. Once that is stabilized, the PS3 will probably migrate into the game room.
Figure 9 The VMC PC
Integration and use of the system
Let’s start with the base features of VMC and how I’ve chosen to use them. First, all of the digital media content (with the exception of recorded TV) is housed on the WHS. I chose to do this as it’s easier to maintain (add, delete and backup) on WHS and I also can easily share the content I choose with remote friends and family.
• Music: All of our family’s music (~11,000 songs) is ripped into MP3 format and stored on a share in WHS which is available to all the PCs and TVs.
• Photos: All of our family photos back to the dawn of time (~12,000) have been digitized and organized by year and are available on a share. These photos are also shared remotely via a generic family log-in.
• Videos: I have also digitized all of our family videos, including some really old Super 8mm films (anybody remember those?). Most of the video was captured in AVI files which are big (~10GB/hr) and don’t work on extenders. After much trial and error with different formats for re-encoding the video, I settled on WMV as the best compromise. It’s reasonably compact, decent quality, and works well on the extenders and for streaming remotely. For most of the re-encoding work I used the free Microsoft Media Encoder and was able to re-encode the content down from 425GB to a more manageable 65GB. More recently, I’ve started using Sony’s Vegas Movie Studio to edit and re-encode video from our HD camcorder with success.
The other nice feature that makes WHS ideal for media storage is the drive pooling. I don’t have to worry about filling up a drive and have to split media across multiple physical drives – I let WHS sort it out and simply drop another drive into the pool when needed. WHS also provides a lot of flexibility on back up strategies. With irreplaceable content like home video and pictures, I can use both the file duplication as well as off site backup. With more replaceable items, file duplication may be enough.
From a user experience, the VMC PC is configured to automatically log into its primary user account and automatically start media center. As the machine is normally left on, this is not normally an issue. In the event something happens when tech support isn’t home, a quick push of the reset button and a short wait brings you back to the familiar menu system.
For the other Vista PCs in the house, each of them monitor the same media libraries on the WHS shares and provide the same user experience via the VMC interface. The couple of XP PCs we have can still access the content but must do so using Windows Media player.
Next I’d like to cover some ideas I added after my initial deployment
Over the years, I’ve accumulated a fairly extensive DVD library (>300 discs) which were stored in a cabinet in the HT room. While they started out in alphabetical order, over time they fell into disarray and finding any specific title became an adventure. As often as not, when you finally found the case it was empty or contained the wrong disc (doh!).
I began to look at ways to solve this problem. Again, I wanted to have a similar user experience across the board so ripping ISO images wasn’t a good solution since they won’t stream to the extenders. In the end I recognized that the vast majority of time we only watched the main movie so I opted to only digitize that from the discs. On the rare occasions we wanted to see the special features, we still have the discs tucked away in the basement.
The next decision was which format to use. Again, looking for efficiency and a common experience on extenders, I chose the DVR-MS format which is how VMC records TV. It’s an MPEG-2 format which plays nicely on the extenders and allows pausing, rewinding, and fast forwarding. To perform the backups, I purchased the VideoRedo TV Suite Package which is very fast (~10-15 min per movie) and includes DD 5.1 support. One minor limitation of the package is the inability to include subtitles. This is an issue with foreign language films – if they don’t have a dubbed sound track (e.g. Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) and rely on subtitles, then you’re out of luck. In my case it was only a couple of titles, so I left those discs on the shelf.
The final piece of this was how to organize the library and provide a good interface. I tried the DVD library feature native to VMC but wasn’t happy with it, so I looked into add-ins and finally selected My Movies. This free application developed by Brian Binnerup is extremely well done and provides a great user experience on both PCs and extenders.
Figure 10 The My Movies Interface
My Movies is a client/server app which gives you a great deal of flexibility on how you deploy it. Initially I had the server resident on the VMC PC but when the WHS add-in came out, I migrated it there. All of the media itself is also stored on the WHS. The large volume of data (currently ~1.5TB) again made the pooled drives very attractive. When I initially moved the collection there, I had the file duplication turned off because of the size and because I still had the original discs. After spending countless hours ripping the discs, I decided the extra cost of the drive to support file duplication was worth it and turned it on.
Blu-ray playback is a more recent addition to my setup. Here I was forced to make some compromises as there doesn’t appear to be a good technical solution for streaming full resolution Blu-ray to extenders. My solution was therefore limited to the VMC PC connected directly to my home theater.
Since VMC doesn’t have native Blu-ray support I looked at the third party solutions. I chose TotalMedia Theater (TMT) over the Cyberlink product (they appear to be the only two options on the market) because of good reviews and its support of ripped ISO images. My solution consists of ripping the ISO image of the Blu-ray disc, storing it on another WHS share, and mounting the image as a virtual drive using Virtual CloneDrive. I can include these virtual drives in the My Movies library – when I select watch, it simply kicks off the TMT player.
I mentioned earlier that this was still a work in progress. While the solution mostly works, I still have some glitches with the movie halting in the middle of the movie and popping back to the My Movies screen (as if the movie were over). Until I have solved this, we continue to use the PS3 as our primary Blu-Ray playback device.
In addition to the various standard streaming features in VMC, I’ve added a couple of add-ins. For NetFlix Watch Now movies I’ve been using the vmcNetFlix add-in which works relatively well, although I have not been able to get it functioning on the extenders yet (yet another project…). While the streaming works fine, the picture quality doesn’t hold up well on my home theater’s 126” screen. All the more reason to get the extender support working.
Figure 11 Netflix streaming via vmnNetFlix
Home automation (HA) is another hobby of mine. I’ve tinkered with it for years but was usually limited in what I could do by the software and simple controllers which were available. Previously, unless you wanted to leave your desktop PC on 24x7 you were limited to very simple controllers with limited memory and capabilities. Having a server already running 24x7 opened up some new opportunities.
X10, Z-wave or Insteon?
There are several options for the type of home automation equipment available to non-professional installers. Here’s a quick rundown of the 3 most popular
• The X-10 protocol has been around for many years and primarily works via the electrical lines in your house (by superimposing a higher frequency digital signal on top of the 50/60 Hz AC power). X10 has the advantages of being very inexpensive, having a large variety of devices (sensors, switches etc.) available, and wide support in most HA software packages. The downside is that the signals are susceptible to noise on the power lines which can make things unreliable at times. You’re also somewhat limited on wireless options and mostly simple on/off type modules.
• Z-wave is a newer low power wireless mesh protocol. It has the advantage of being easier to configure and can control more sophisticated devices (e.g. thermostats) than X10. On the downside, they’re much more expensive than X10 and don’t have nearly as many device options.
• Insteon is another newer offering and is a hybrid in that it includes a wireless mesh protocol similar to Z-wave but also includes power line capabilities which are backward compatible with X10 (which allows you to use those modules as well). Insteon also supports control of more sophisticated devices like thermostats. Insteon shares the negatives of Z-wave of higher cost than X-10 and more limited choice of devices.
In my particular setup I have all 3 protocols co-existing. I have predominantly X10 modules which I installed in my home over the course of several years. Most of them are dimmable light switches, with some inputs (doorbell, motion sensors etc.). I purchased a Z-wave interface is it is supported by the Logitech Harmony 890. I didn’t like that as an interface for HA tasks, so I probably won’t continue with Z-wave. Over time, I expect I will end up migrating to Insteon as it will allow me to use both my low cost X10 modules while having the newer features as well.
Home Automation Software
Fortunately there are a lot of great HA software options on the market today. Many of them offer free trial downloads so you can test drive them before buying. I chose the mControl package from Embedded Automation for several reasons. It’s relatively easy to configure, is reasonably priced, has a nice VMC interface and most importantly is well integrated into WHS. My mControl software is installed on the WHS and therefore available 24x7. mControl is a client server application and offers both a web client and VMC client.
Through the VMC interface I can turn individual devices on or off or kick off macros to perform more complex tasks. In practice, I more often will use a wireless keypad to kick perform these tasks.
Figure 12 Wireless keypad for activating devices and macros
Some examples of macros I have created are:
• Movie time: Turns off all lights in the home theater room except 2 side lamps, which dim to 20% power
• Bed time: Turns on a series of lights between the HT and the bedrooms; after 2 minutes dims them all to 50%, then 60 seconds later turns them all off.
The HA software also has a series of automatic macros which is runs continuously from the WHS without intervention. Some examples are:
• Morning lights: On weekdays turns on the under counter lights in the kitchen 10 min before we wake up so you’re not walking into a dark room when you stumble down for caffeine.
• Lights out: Turns off all the lights. This macro fires every weekday 30 min after we normally leave and every night at different times – later on the weekends than the week nights.
• Welcome guests: If it’s night time and motion is detected in the front of the house, turn on the porch lights and leave them on for 5 minutes after motion ceases.
These are just a few examples of the many things you can do with home automation. While much of it is simply for convenience, it also provides safety and energy conservation benefits for a relatively low cost investment.
Figure 13 Motion Sensor on the Front Door
The mControl software has some other nice features which lend it to integration with VMC. For example, there is a capability to trigger VMC actions based on external events. In my example, I have an X10 sensor wired to my doorbell. If we’re watching a movie in the theater (where we can’t hear the doorbell) and someone rings the bell, the movie is automatically paused and a message windows pops up on the screen.
Figure 14 Integrating Media Center with Home Automation Events
There are some other interesting possibilities which I have not (yet) taken advantage of. mControl supports the use of IP cameras which would allow me to pop up a viewing window in my example above and see who’s at the door (so I can ignore it if it’s a pesky salesperson). This could also be incorporated into a home security system. The other interesting possibility is the use of voice recognition to control these functions (yet another future project).
Providing easy but controlled remote access to our media was accomplished using the WebGuide 4 add-in. While WHS offers basic browsing and file download capabilities, it’s not the nicest user experience and doesn’t allow streaming capabilities. HP enhances it in their products but us Frankenbuilders are on our own.
WebGuide is a fantastic application developed by Doug Berrett and available in both VMC and WHS versions. I use the VMC version only for managing recorded TV on the VMC PC. It allows me to connect from the office to schedule a recording I forgot or to stream recorded shows if I’m travelling and nothing good is on in the hotel.
Figure 15 Remote management of recorded TV via WebGuide
I also use WebGuide on WHS for sharing personal content with family and friends. Its interface is much nicer than the standard WHS remote interface, which is OK for basic downloading but not so good for browsing. WebGuide also allows you to stream video at different bandwidths to meet your needs. This is particularly nice for relatives who live far away to keep up with the latest without large downloads.
Figure 16 Remote Browsing with WebGuide
Figure 17 Remote browsing with the WHS Interface
The other application which lends itself well to remote use is the mControl HA software. It allows you to come in remotely and turn devices on/off or to change thermostat settings or anything else you might want to do. Again, in the future it might be useful in conjunction with cameras and security systems.
Figure 18 Accessing mControl Remotely
Figure 19 mControl from the Remote Console
There are several schools of thought on whether AV software is necessary on WHS. I’d rather be safe than sorry given the amount and type of data I have stored on mine. I looked at most of the commercial packages last year and only a couple (at the time) had WHS versions. I was hoping for something that was well integrated with the WHS console and would allow me to centrally manage all of the PCS in the house. These are by no means full blown reviews, but I’ll share my limited experiences.
Initially I purchased the BitDefender product as it was very highly rated. My initial installation was problematic as it blocked all ports including those needed for remote desktop connection and halted on a dialog box waiting for user input. I was forced to go downstairs and connect a monitor and keyboard to my box to sort out the install. I’ve read of a number of HP customers who weren’t so lucky with their headless boxes.
In operation, I wasn’t particularly happy with BitDefender from a performance or stability perspective. With BitDefender installed and running, my file transfer rate slowed to about 1/3 normal. I also experienced numerous errors where the BitDefender services halting and requiring a reboot (on WHS, Vista, and XP). The WHS console interface was nice but didn’t work consistently – PCs would sometimes disappear without cause.
I recently switched to Avast and have had (so far) a much better experience. Although the Avast offering isn’t as full featured as BitDefender, it does not appear to have a perceptible impact on file transfer performance to/from the WHS. The console interface seems to work much more consistently. The product just works unobtrusively and reliably.
Figure 20 The Avast Interface
One of the great things about WHS and VMC is the number of community developed add-ins which have been developed. I’ve talked about a number of them already that I rely on heavily. Here’s a short list of the others I use most.
WHS - Disk Management: Helps me keep my physical drives straight as they weren’t installed in any specific order –pulling out the right drive if it fails is important.
WHS - Media Connect Controller: Enables sharing of non-default media folders to devices.
WHS – Advanced Admin Control: Great for troubleshooting back home when you’re travelling.
VMC – MC menu mender: useful for cleaning up and rearranging the menu strips.
One of the things which I’ve had to balance as I assembled this system was adding more “bells and whistles” versus system stability. On the WHS side I’m usually cautious in terms of only installing add-ins I truly need and to install them one at a time and only after they’ve been out in the community a while. On the VMC side I have the added insurance that’s provided by the daily backups to WHS. More than once I’ve been able to restore the system from backup to a stable state after something went wrong.
Looking forward, from my experience with the Windows7 beta it appears like there will be some marginal improvements I can incorporate into my system. The use of HomeGroups and better capabilities for sharing recorded TV seem promising. A concern is that W7 might break some of the add-ins I rely on without replacing the functionality in kind. For example, WebGuide and Media Connect were both developed by people who are now employed by Microsoft and as a result are no longer developing the add-ins.
The biggest drawback of my current system design is the inability to record and share HD programming from my primary provider, DirecTV. I hope we’re able to get the DRM mess sorted out to allow for a more rational approach to HD recording and distribution.
In summary, my family and I have been very pleased with the capabilities I’ve been able to assemble using off the shelf components and software. We now take for granted that we can access all of our digital content with a relatively consistent experience from anywhere in the house. Our friends and family also have the ability to share that same content remotely.
I hope this article was helpful in some way – whether helping you to avoid some of my mistakes or to spark some ideas on what you can do with WHS and VMC. Good luck!