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Recording and Watching TV

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3/16/2011 6:01:24 PM
For playing music, videos, and DVDs and viewing pictures, Media Center provides an alternative interface to Windows Media Player, but its feature set is essentially the same. What makes Media Center really shine is its unique ability to play back live TV, record individual TV shows or series, and allow you to manage a collection of recorded programs from a comfy chair with nothing more than a remote control.

Before you can begin recording TV, you need to have the right hardware. The most important ingredient, of course, is a TV tuner. Tuners can be internal cards or external devices (typically connected through a USB port). After installing a tuner, you next have to provide a television signal (from an over-the-air antenna, a cable TV connection, or a satellite converter box). You'll need a Media Center remote control and its infrared receiver (which can be built into the computer or attached to a USB port on the PC). And you'll need disk space, lots of it.

1. Setting Up One or More TV Tuners

Windows Media Center can recognize and use analog, digital, and CableCARD TV tuners. In the United States, all over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts are in digital format; connecting an antenna to one or more digital tuners allows you to record high-definition TV (HDTV) signals. You can connect an analog tuner directly to a cable input if your cable provider supports this configuration. To record digital output from a cable or satellite connection, you must connect the output of a converter box to the tuner; in this configuration, your recordings will be in standard definition only. In Windows 7, you can install up to four tuners of each type.

Setting up a TV tuner or two requires that you install drivers for the tuner hardware. If you've selected a popular, well-supported device, the drivers should be installed automatically and updated by Windows Update. If no Windows 7 drivers are available, try drivers listed as compatible with Windows Vista.

After you connect a video source (antenna, cable box, or satellite converter), you need to configure the TV signal. If you haven't yet set up your hardware, you can do so by choosing Live TV Setup from the TV strip on the Start menu. Or choose Settings from the Tasks strip, choose TV, and then select Set Up TV Signal. In this procedure, you need to identify your signal provider, enter a ZIP Code so that you can receive the correct program guide listings, and specify which physical connections your tuner is using. We recommend that you allow Media Center to perform an automatic setup first; if the results aren't satisfactory, you can repeat the setup and choose manual options instead.

Finally, you need to configure the program guide. For large digital cable and satellite networks, the most important step in this process is removing access to channels you never watch. To customize the guide, open Settings, choose TV, and then choose Guide. If you choose Edit Channels, you're taken to a screen where you can select or clear the check box next to a channel listing to add it to or remove it from the guide. You can also change the order of channels and sort them by name instead of number.

Windows 7 also offers the capability to edit settings for individual channels. You can do this from the overall Edit Channels screen (just select a single channel's entry and press OK) or by selecting a channel in the Program Guide and then pressing More Info. Either option takes you to a settings page like the one shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Use the settings here to fine-tune the display of a channel and define priority for tuners.

You can change the channel name or number, but the real payoff comes for Media Center users with multiple TV tuners who want to specify which sources get preference when recording from a channel. Let's say you have a digital cable tuner and an over-the-air tuner both capable of receiving the same channel. In the guide, the channel appears as 13.1 for the OTA tuner and 213 for the cable tuner. Using the Edit Listings option, you can combine the two channels under a single number. Then, using the Edit Sources option, you can specify that you want the non-copy-protected OTA tuner to have first shot at recording anything on that channel, with the digital cable tuner kicking in only if the other tuner is occupied.

Finally, you can create Favorite Lineups, which are subsets of the program guide that you create based on your interests and preferences. You might want to create a Favorite Lineup called Movies, for example, containing only channels that specialize in movies. To create a Favorite Lineup, right-click anywhere on the guide and choose Edit Favorites, and then choose Add New.

Setting Up a Digital Cable Tuner

To watch or record high-definition content from premium channels that are available only through a cable subscription, you must have a digital tuner that is capable of decrypting the protected content being delivered by your TV provider. Windows Media Center supports a standard called the Open Cable Unidirectional Receiver (OCUR), also known as a digital cable tuner (DCT). These devices can be sold only by a PC maker that has signed an agreement with CableLabs, the technical trade association that represents the cable-TV industry in North America, and only with a new PC that is specifically built for use with an OCUR device.

The PC must have a BIOS that has support for a DCT, and you must have a second product key that is used to activate support for the digital tuners. Your cable company provides the CableCARD, which uses the PC Card form factor and is designed to slide into a slot on the DCT. Most cable companies require that this component be delivered and activated by their installer. If you set up a DCT and attach the incoming cable feed without inserting a CableCARD, it functions as a "clear QAM" digital tuner and allows you to receive any unprotected channels (both standard and high definition) that are available over your digital cable connection.

After your CableCARD device is successfully "paired" with a tuner and then activated on your account, it cannot be moved. If you try to swap CableCARD devices between tuners, you'll end up losing all access to the programming you've paid for.

DCTs can be tricky to install, at least initially. If you're having trouble getting digital cable to work, you'll need to start the troubleshooting with your cable company. (You might need to escalate your request a level or two before you find someone who understands the nuances of CableCARD support in Windows.)

2. Recording TV Programs and Series

The biggest advantage of using Media Center for TV recording is that program listings are free and updated regularly. To see what's on TV right now or at any time until approximately two weeks into the future, choose Guide from the Start page or press the Guide button on the remote control. In the guide, a red dot next to a listing means it's set to record. A red dot with a shadow denotes a series recording.

Use the Channel Up and Channel Down buttons on the remote control (or the Page Up and Page Down keys on the keyboard) to move up or down a screen at a time. To jump to a particular channel, enter its number on the numeric keypad. Virtually everything in the guide can be selected for interaction. If you press OK after selecting the thin Categories bar on the left side, for instance, it expands to show a list of available categories, which you can use to filter the guide's contents.

Inside Out: Use the Search box

Search capabilities aren't available directly from the TV program guide, but you can search current listings by going to the Start page and choosing Search from the TV strip. You can search by title, keyword, categories, movie actor, or movie director. The same Search box is available from the Add Recording menu.

To record an individual upcoming program, highlight its entry in the program guide and press the Record button on the remote control, or press OK to display more details and then choose Record from the menu on the Details page. TV programs that are part of a series offer a text description, with options to record individual episodes or an entire series. Movies offer a richer details page that includes art and an option to read reviews and see additional cast information, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Movies, unlike programs and series, include ratings, reviews, and cast details drawn from an online database.

The Record button on the remote cycles through three settings. Press Record a second time to add the current selection as a series recording using default settings. Press Record a third time to cancel the recording.


The Other Showings option is useful when you want to record an upcoming program that's on at the same time as one you've already chosen to record. Rather than cancel the original recording, choose Other Showings to see a list of alternate times and dates. If you're lucky enough to find an additional showing at a more convenient time, you can choose one of those dates and avoid the conflict.

To record a series, start with any listing in that series. Press OK to see the details for that show and then choose one of the following options:

  • Record Series Use this option if you want to add the recording to your series list using all the current default settings. (To view and adjust these settings, choose TV, choose Recorder, and finally select Recording Defaults.)

  • Advanced Record Select this option from the Actions pane if you want the series recordings to always start a minute (or two or three) early or end a little later. You can also choose how many copies of the series to keep on hand at any given time. For a series recording of a nightly news show, for example, you might want to keep only one show, discarding yesterday's news as soon as today's news begins recording.

To see all upcoming recordings, go to the Start page, select Recorded TV, and choose View Scheduled. On this list, you can choose Series to see all series recordings you've set up. This list allows you to rank series to determine which one should be recorded in the event that two programs from different series are on at the same time. (If you have two or more tuners, this sort of conflict is less likely to be a problem, but the rules still come into play if you have three shows on at the same time.)

The clean, mostly uncluttered Media Center interface sometimes leads to options appearing in unlikely places. A good example is the History option, which shows you all the programs you've recorded, which ones failed to record because of a conflict or a hardware or signal problem, and those that were deleted either automatically or manually. This option is found, in unintuitive fashion, on the View Scheduled page. Options here allow you to sort by date or by status (if you start seeing Bad Tuner messages, it's time to do some troubleshooting). You can also clear the history.

About File Formats and Copy Protection

Media Center saves recorded TV programs in the Windows Recorded TV Show format, which uses the file name extension WTV. This file format replaces the Microsoft Recorded TV Show format (DVR-MS), which was used in previous Windows versions. Both are container formats that use the MPEG-2 standard for video encoding and MPEG-1 Layer II or Dolby Digital AC-3 for audio. WTV files include metadata about the content and any digital rights management (DRM) applied to it.

Like its predecessor, the WTV format consumes a large amount of space. An hour-long, standard-definition TV program can consume well over 3 GB of disk space at the highest quality supported by Media Center. High-definition content uses even more space: we've seen two-hour programs use as much as 16 GB of disk space. That makes it difficult to record a movie and then burn it to a standard DVD, which has a maximum capacity of roughly 4.5 GB. (If you select the Burn DVD option for one of these large files, Media Center offers to burn it at a "lower quality" but gives you no way to know just how much lower the quality will be, nor can you adjust the quality level manually.)

Over the past few years, a number of third-party tools have appeared that support converting DVR-MS files to less demanding formats. The version of Windows Movie Maker included with Windows Vista offered this capability but, alas, is not included with Windows 7. Eventually, those conversion tools will support WTV files, although at the time of this writing we have yet to see any. As a short-term solution, you can convert any WTV file to DVR-MS format by opening the Recorded TV folder in Windows Explorer, right-clicking the file you want to convert, and clicking Convert To Dvr-ms Format from the shortcut menu. After the conversion is complete, you can open the file.

The Windows Recorded TV format, like its predecessor, also honors copy protection applied to recordings by the content provider. You can copy a protected program—such as a movie from a premium channel such as Home Box Office—and play it back on the same system on which it was recorded or on a Media Center Extender connected to that PC. But you can't play it back on another PC using Windows Media Player or Media Center (if you try, you'll see an error message). Unprotected files can be freely moved from one PC to another.

You can identify a copy-protected recording fairly easily from within Media Center. Select the program from the Recorded TV library and choose More Info. At the bottom of the Synopsis pane in the Details window, you'll see a Copy Protected label.

Windows 7 incorporates a new DRM technology called PlayReady. If you run into a DRM-protected program you might be prompted to install or upgrade PlayReady. The theoretical benefit of the PlayReady technology is that it allows sharing of content by multiple devices within a single domain (such as a home network) and makes it possible to synchronize protected content between devices. Only time will tell whether those theoretical advantages will become real.

3. Watching and Managing Recorded TV

To watch programs you've previously recorded, go to the Start page and choose Recorded TV from the TV strip (or use the shortcut button on the remote control). Every recorded item in the list has a name and a thumbnail image (the thumbnail is generated using an algorithm that is uncanny in its ability to find an image that fits, usually a face). Figure 3 shows a large collection of all current recordings in List format. Click More Info and choose View Large from the shortcut menu to see much larger thumbnails for each program in a list that scrolls horizontally.

Figure 3. This list view of all recorded programs is more efficient than the default Large view—but it's somewhat harder to read.

Select any program from the list and press OK to see the Details window for that program. Options in the Actions pane allow you to change when the program is automatically deleted or burn it to a CD or DVD for archival purposes (if the program isn't copy protected, of course).

Inside Out: The fastest way to delete a recording

From Recorded TV, you can delete any program with no intermediate steps and only a single confirmation. Select the entry in the list, and push the Clear button (usually found below the numeric keypad, in the lower left corner of the remote control). This brings up an "Are you sure?" dialog box with Yes conveniently selected. Press OK and the program is gone. And when we say "gone," we mean it. Recordings you delete from Media Center do not go to the Recycle Bin and cannot be recovered using any supported tools in Windows or Media Center.

Sooner or later—usually sooner—you'll run out of disk space, at which point Media Center begins throwing out old recordings to make way for new ones. You can check on available disk space at any time: start by choosing Settings from the Tasks strip on the Start menu, then choose TV, then Recorder, and finally Recorder Storage. If you want to make sure that you reserve some space on your primary disk for documents and other data files, adjust Maximum TV Limit.

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