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Product Article: Is Vista Media Center Ready for Multiroom Installations? (4/6/2007)

(Note: Lewis Home Theatre has now ceased trading)

By John Turner, COMPUTERLINKS

Microsoft Windows Media Center Edition (MCE) provides a simple user interface to digital media such as photos, music, video and TV. Controlled by an intuitive infrared remote, it runs on PCs preferably connected to modern LCD or plasma television screens. Now in its third generation, MCE has formed the basis of many custom solutions with numerous additional software packages designed to utilise its simple interface. These range from DVD back-up/library systems to full home automation packages. Installers are choosing MCE for multiroom applications mostly due to the cost-effective way MCE-based systems compete head-on with higher-cost proprietary solutions.

Vista, the latest version of Microsoft's Windows operating system, began shipping earlier this year and promised wide-scale improvements over its predecessor, XP. Unlike with Windows XP however, there is no specific Media Center edition of Vista. The Vista Media Center interface is incorporated into both the Home Premium and the Ultimate versions of the operation system, but to many observers, it has taken a step backwards from the intuitiveness of the 2005 version.

Many notebook and desktop PC manufacturers have moved to Vista as their operating system of choice for consumer models, while business models remain mostly XP Professional. Vendors of higher-end and multiroom Media Centers however, continue to ship Windows Media Centre Edition 2005 (MCE 2005). What are the reasons for this, and which should you install?

Vista versus Media Center Edition 2005

Media Center offers a simple TV interface into the digital media within a home. A multiroom solution based around Media Center requires a high-speed stable IP network (Gigabit suggested for HD distribution), a secure server (RAID 5 or 6 suggested for peace of mind), and user interfaces via either multiroom modules or wireless tablets.

The current lack of support for the best audio and visual systems within Vista limit its appeal within the custom install market where customers expect equal or better quality to that of traditional solutions. Indeed two custom Media Center vendors, namely Clever Technologies and Lewis Home Theatre, remain staunch MCE 2005 supporters for multiroom system installs (although Clever Technologies does produce the Clever 3000 Vista model 4 x digital TV tuner).


The Lewis Home Theatre multiroom module

Both companies have developed the familiar single-room Microsoft Media Center into multiroom distribution of audio visual content in a stable, user-friendly, cost-effective way. These multiroom systems have been developed over the past three years, and the concern is that moving such stable products too quickly to Vista will present many issues relating to software driver support.

The Clever Technologies Clever Media Control (CMC) system uses wireless tablets (UPMCs) such as the Samsung Q1, to control a multiroom audio solution. It uses Global Cache GC100 IP network interfaces to control multiroom amplifiers from either NuVo or Russound, and allows up to six separate music streams to be selected from a Media Center server and played into separate rooms around a house.


CMC wireless tablet for selecting music and videos from the library

The Lewis Home Theatre system is the first HD DVD multiroom server based around Media Center. It uses a central server to supply multiple rooms with access to recorded TV, movies, music and photos. Indeed up to 50 simultaneous streams can be supported when using standard DVD quality. Each custom-designed multiroom module has a powerful dual-core processor and HDMI output, and no hard disk drive to further reduce noise, making it better-suited to living areas.


Cabling configuration for Media Centre used in multiple rooms and being fed media from a Lewis Home Theatre MS4800 server and the Internet via Gigabit Ethernet

Media storage

Media Centre-based systems encourage the storage of large media libraries comprising backup DVD movies, music and images. As the user's library grows, it is essential that it is stored securely.

Large RAID storage drives are ideal for storing entire media libraries. The Lewis MS9000 HD DVD server for example, allows the client's movie library to be securely backed up. Its 12 X 750GB disk drives will safely store 300 uncompressed HD DVD-quality movies, 1250 uncompressed DVD-quality movies or 15,000 lossless CDs, or any combination thereof using the following guidelines: 30GB per HD DVD, 7GB per DVD, and 600MB per CD.


The Lewis Home Theatre Server

The MS9000 HD DVD Server Series uses RAID-6 which means that a movie library, or indeed all data, would survive even if two hard drives were to fail. This would prove invaluable given the many hours it takes to back up a movie library, given that each HD movie takes over an hour. Once stored within the server, the content is unlikely to be further backed up due to the terabytes of storage required, so the more secure the better.

Since this system can accommodate the failure of two drives without affecting the media collection, it provides ultimate security and peace of mind. A failed drive can be replaced without even interrupting viewing, and saves the huge amount of time that the re-backing up of a collection would take.

A system such as this requires a stable home network as its backbone, and where HD is to be distributed to multiple rooms, 10/1000 Gigabit Ethernet is required to ensure stable playback.

Conclusion

Although a custom install product requiring networking skills, a multiroom Media Center system is not difficult to install provided the network it sits upon is sound. In fact to setup and use these systems is simple and familiar using the MCE 2005 interface, whereas prematurely using Vista could add unnecessary complications.

The new Lewis multiroom HD module is now available and initial installs have been problem-free once the network infrastructure itself has been made sound. Indeed specifying stable and fully-developed Media Centre Edition 2005-based systems provides the best user experience, the simplest installation and most likely basis for a strong customer relationship.

John Turner is Head of Multimedia Networking for COMPUTERLINKS, a trade distributor supplying IP networking-based products and solutions for E-Security, E-Business and Multimedia to resellers and installers.

www.computerlinks.co.uk/multimedia

 

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