The combination of Windows MCE 2005 and the Xbox 360 has totally transformed my home theater experience over the last year. Bit by bit all the pieces have been falling into place. The first phase was to add some large internal and external drives (1TB total) to my home built, dual tuner, MCE setup and then copy over most of my media. This gave me the ability to stream recorded and live TV wireless to my 360 and projector, as well as all my music, photos, FM radio, home video and a selection of my favorite DVDs ripped to MPEG 2. The second phase was the addition of Divx / Xvid support via the free Transcode 360. That brought the sweet ability to expand my online library to include my large collection of achieved TV shows and movies in Divx format. The third phase Microsoft did on their own, they added the ability to purchase TV shows and rent movies online and download them directly to the 360. Many of these are offered in fullHD! The selection is growing and the prices are on par with iTunes. The forth phase was the addition of the external 360 HD-DVD drive. I'm not going to predict who is going to win the format wars, but in the mean time I'm getting many of my Netflix selections in HD-DVD and they look and sound awesome.
The fifth and current phase has been to expand MCE's TV recording capability to include HDTV content. The goal was to do this with minimal pain and expense. There are several HD tuners on the market that work with MCE. These are what is known as ATSC or 'over the air' tuners, i.e. they work with a special antenna to receive HD broadcasts of your local channels. I really didn't want to put an antenna on my roof however (again, think minimal pain). Another, HD option is to tune the unencrypted QAM versions of your local HD channels that are sent along with your cable TV. The problem here, however, is the MCE 2005 cannot tune QAM. Vista MCE is able to do it, but only with special, cable company approved hardware. Enter the HD Home Run. George turned me on to this little wonder, and boy is it slick. It is an external dual tuner box that can tune both QAM and over the air HD. It then streams these signals over ethernet to any computer on your Lan. It comes with support for most of the popular DVR software like Sage, MediaPortal, MythTV and you guessed it, MCE (2005 and Vista). Its MCE support is rather clever. Since MCE can only tune ATSC (over the air), the HD Home Run software converts the QAM encoded signals to ATSC on the fly. MCE, not realizing it is being tricked, happily tunes and records these signals. The result is crisp HD TV signals (1080i, 720p, 480p) to watch live or record without putting an antenna on the roof.
So far 3 of the 4 shows I regularly watch are available in HD. I recorded and watch my first episode of Lost in HD this week. I was blown away. Lost broadcast in 720p makes even the DVD version of the show look sad.
The Xbox 360 and Media Center integration is an example of something Microsoft got right. It just works, and works well. Out of the box it is a very capable and rich media solution. Add to that a few tricks from the 3rd party community and it becomes a media power house. TheMCE UI is clean and easy to use with a mouse, keyboard or a remote control. Oh, yeah, and I hear the 360 does an OK job of playing games too! The inclusion ofMCE in the higher end Vista versions is a great step in making this solution more main stream. As a bonus the Vista version of MCE has a much cooler interface.
I'm sure this will not be the last phase of my home theater expansion, but I think I've managed to fill all of my current needs. I have the media 'server' hidden away in my office. I stream all my media to the 360 connected to the projector in the living room. I can access all my media shares from any other PC in my house. Lets recap:
* Home built MCE 2005 box built from recycled parts + some new hard drives.
* Nvidia dual tuner card.
* HD Home Run dual HD tuner box.
* Xbox 360 + wifi adapter
* Xbox HD-DVD drive
* Projector, 5.1 receiver, speakers etc.
* Live standard analog TV
* Live HD TV
* Recorded analog TV (2 channels at a time)
* Recorded HD TV (2 channels at a time)
* Progressive scan DVD playback
* HD-DVD playback
* Downloadable TV shows (standard and HD)
* Downloadable movies (standard and HD)
* Streamed Photos
* Streamed MP3 Music (with album art)
* Streamed FM radio
* Streamed MPEG2 and WMV Video (with box art)
* Streamed / transcoded Divx / Xvid video (with box art / folder art)
* Oh, and some pretty good games too!
360 + MCE = Home Theater Bliss