Google’s announcement of the $35 Chromecast streaming dongle is rightfully big news this week, but I want to talk about another bridge between the internet and your TV set. This technology should appeal to anyone who’s contemplating cutting the cable cord. Its main strength is a free-subscription DVR for over-the-air (OTA) TV, but it’s also a great tool for streaming Netflix and countless other internet-based entertainment sources. That DVR is any PC with Windows Media Center (WMC). If you’re running Windows, you’ve probably got it already.
Well, there is one gotcha when it comes to that PC – it needs to have an OTA TV antenna connected to a TV input card or USB dongle. If OTA signals don’t reach you, that’s also a problem. Otherwise, the PC just needs to have a modestly fast processor (roughly 1 GHz or faster), at least 1 GB of RAM, at least 16 MB of hard drive space, some kind of internet access, and a video output that your TV can use.
For example, as I type, MicroCenter is selling a number of refurbished desktops that meet these requirements for $99. All they require is a cheap TV input card (here’s one for $20 from an eBay seller) and sometimes a basic video card (here’s more than you need for $26 from another eBay seller). For more advice about how to build your WMC box, this Motherboards.org page is a good start. WMC would also love to organize and serve up your music and photos, but remember that your WMC box is also a computer, so you can use it to run other entertainment apps (such as Hulu Desktop), type emails and do anything else you can do on a computer.
Instead of needing to buy another older computer, it’s just as possible that you’ve already got a hand-me-down or underused Windows computer that you can set up as your WMC box. Microsoft included WMC in a special version of Windows XP, then more editions of Windows Vista (Home Premium and Ultimate) and most editions of Windows 7 (Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate). Windows 8 users have to upgrade to the Pro Pack to get WMC, but the older versions of Windows will work better on the kind of leftover hardware we’re talking about now.
Once you’ve got it set up, WMC works as a DVR and adds a few extra features. As with most DVRs, it keeps a constant buffer so you can go back a few minutes to check something you missed. WMC lets you record programs to your hard drive, and you can set just how much of the hard drive you want it to use. WMC downloads two-week guide data, always for free, that includes all significant OTA subchannels. As shown in the screen capture above, WMC displays all the movies that will be available, making it simple to click and record them. (It does the same for sports, but most events work better live, and few markets have many OTA sports broadcasts these days.)
If you’ve got broadband internet access, then you may appreciate the Netflix plugin for WMC. For all other internet-based entertainment, you’ve already got that computer hooked up to your TV.
If you’re a free-to-air satellite TV fan, thanks for continuing to read this blog. It turns out that WMC supports some FTA satellite input cards as well. The setup process is a little more involved, and I don’t think WMC will drive an FTA motor, but it works okay for stationary dishes with known transponders. In North America, guide data for FTA channels is spotty at best, but we FTA viewers are used to that.
WMC is hardly the only PC-based DVR available. MythTV is one well-regarded open-source alternative. NextPVR is closed source but free for personal use. And there are any number of commercial DVR alternatives. But nobody beats WMC for price, ease of setup, and ease of use. For cord-cutters who want to embrace and explore their local OTA TV signals, WMC is often the best choice.