Optimise Windows Media Center for TV

Plus: get the benefits of Windows 7 in Vista and XP

Windows 7 was certainly highly anticipated. Vista was never the easiest operating system (OS) to use and, with its many quirky functions and features - not to mention slow booting times - PC users have been crying out for an alternative for years.

Now that Microsoft has finally delivered, we're thoroughly impressed with Windows 7, from its sleek interface to its swift operation.

But if you haven't got the spare cash to buy the new OS, we'll show you some free or cheap apps available online that can speed up boot times for Windows XP and Vista.

Another feature of Windows 7 that has been subtly improved is Windows Media Center. It now offers better playback options and support for more media types. However, it remains most useful if you've got a digital tuner in your PC and use it to record TV shows. You can even watch Sky TV.

Committed telly addicts will find, however, that Media Center recordings munch through storage space at an alarming rate. Thankfully, there are ways to reduce the amount of space assigned to the program. Alternatively, you can expand your storage and record as much as you like.

Here we look at ways to get the best from Media Center in Windows 7 and Vista, as well as exploring ways to enjoy Windows 7 features without going to the expense of upgrading.

Optimise Windows Media Center for TV

Windows Media Center is the must-have software if you have a TV tuner in your PC - you can use it in place of a personal video recorder (PVR), recording television programmes or whole series to watch later.

There's just one problem: it can consume almost your entire hard drive.

For example, suppose you configure Media Center to record 'EastEnders' and 'The X Factor'. By default, the program records an unlimited number of episodes, regardless of whether some are repeats or it's on every day for years. If you leave it a while before sitting down to watch your shows (that's what a PVR is for, after all), you may find your hard drive is full up.

To ensure you've got enough disk space for actual computing, limit the amount of space Media Center can claim. Open Windows Media Center, scroll down to Tasks, Settings and press Enter.

Now choose Recorder, then Recorder Storage. (Note that these options appear only if you have a TV tuner installed and configured.) Use the minus icon next to 'Maximum TV limit' to decrease the storage (in 25GB increments) to the amount you want to allow Media Center. Click Save.

On the other hand, if your PC doubles as your home-entertainment system, then you may want to consider giving your PC more storage capacity. As with any PC that needs more space, there are two basic options.

First, you can replace the existing hard drive with something larger. This is a fairly major job, what with copying everything to the new drive, making the swap and so on.

Alternatively, you can install a second drive that works in tandem with the original. Ideally this would be an internal drive, but you'll need a free bay - the path of least resistance is to plump for an external USB hard drive. The main requirements are that it's quick (at least 5,400rpm) and quiet.

Fortunately, drives such as this are easy to come by and reasonably priced. At sites such as amazon.co.uk and dabs.com you'll find a terabyte (1TB) USB drive costs around £65 inc VAT.

Switching Windows Media Center over to the new drive is literally a plug-and-play affair (in Vista, anyway). After you've plugged it in and verified that it's available to the system, use the same steps as before to access the storage options menu.

Launch Windows Media Center and check you're not currently recording anything. Scroll down to Tasks, then click Settings. Choose Recorder, then Recorder Storage. As before, these options appear only if you have a TV tuner installed and configured.

Use the plus sign next to 'Record on drive' to select your newly added external drive. Click Save to finish the operation.

From now on, all shows will be recorded on the new drive. But you'll still be able to access previously recorded shows, even though they're on the primary drive.

The only thing you can't do is get Media Center to use both drives for recording; it's one or the other. Of course, if the new drive starts to get full, you can always switch back temporarily. Just follow the steps outlined above and choose your C drive.

Windows Media Player in Windows 7

For Windows 7 users the process is pretty much the same. Although it's worth noting that if the Recorder option isn't available in the Settings menu, your PC probably doesn't have a TV tuner. However, USB TV tuners are available pretty cheaply.

There's one final option: you can use an iPhone or Xbox 360 as an extension of your Media Center storage. Xbox controllers even feature a convenient Media Center button.

Windows 7 also includes a new version of Windows Media Player (WMP). WMP 12.0 has a new-look interface with two views: Library view, allowing you to see and manage your media; and a Now Playing view for enjoying podcasts, videos and so on.

It also benefits from the ability to minimise the player into the Taskbar, leaving you with mini-controls and a Jump List.

Simply hover the cursor over the WMP button on the Taskbar after the program is launched and a thumbnail window shows up with options for controlling the app and playing songs. The controls are basic - Previous Track, Play/Pause, Next Track - but having quick access to music from the Taskbar is a nice time-saver.

Microsoft has added support for several media types that WMP 11.0 didn't support, including AAC audio and H.264 video. These are the formats it needs to play unprotected music and movies from Apple's iTunes Store.

Windows XP and Vista users needn't feel disheartened, however. You can get your hands on all of these features without upgrading to Win 7, by downloading WMP 12.0 for free.

What XP and Vista users can't currently access, sadly, is Windows 7's simplified media-sharing facilities. Thanks to Homegroups and Remote Media Sharing, Win 7 lets you stream information over the internet and share media remotely.

Media Streaming Options lets you restrict which specific PCs have access to your media by choosing 'more streaming options' from the WMP 'Stream' menu.

Get the benefits of Windows 7 in Vista and XP

Vista has come in for a lot of criticism - that it boots slowly, for example, or that User Account Control (UAC) is annoying. The software giant addresses many of these complaints in Windows 7, but those who wish to stick with Vista or its predecessor, Windows XP, have several other options, as we explain here.

If slow bootups are an issue, evaluate your RAM allocation. Vista and XP users alike should upgrade to at least 2GB.

Next download the free Startup Delayer. Using this, you can choose which programs should run during startup and which can wait their turn for 10 or 15 mins. This will make the OS boot much faster.

Microsoft provides granular User Account Control (UAC) in Windows 7, which is a better alternative than UAC being either off or on. A slider control lets you select from four security settings that range from maximum protection to nothing. The new OS also lets you insist that UAC notify you only if a program is making changes to any Windows settings but not if you're changing them yourself.

Vista users can't adjust the settings on UAC, so you'll have to put up with it, turn if off completely or rely on a third-party replacement such as Norton User Account Control. This replaces the stock UAC with one that learns from your responses and nags you less often.

Another alternative is UAC Snooze, a system tray utility that puts UAC to sleep for a designated period of time - a helpful arrangement if you plan to do some system tweaking and don't want to be bothered every step of the way.

Windows 7's Taskbar has much larger, clearer icons and has integrated the Quick Launch toolbar. You can also pin the applications of your choice in the Taskbar and launch them from there.

To get similar options in Vista and XP you need to visit the Registry. Click Start, type regedit, and press Enter. Find and click on the value listed at Hkey_Current_User\Control Panel\Desktop\WindowMetrics.

Now, in the right pane, right-click in a blank space and select New, String Value. Name the new string value MinWidth, and set its value to -255. Then exit the Registry Editor and restart your system. To reverse this at any point, return to the Registry and delete the entry.

To give Vista's Taskbar the 'pinnable' function you'll need to make sure the Quick Launch toolbar is displayed. Right-click the Taskbar and choose Toolbars, Quick Launch. Now right-click again and untick the box next to Lock the Taskbar. This operation adds a handle to the right of the Quick Launch toolbar. Drag the handle to the right to make more room.

Finally, right-click the Taskbar and choose View, Large Icons.

Besides adding new icons, you can attach icons for folders and documents to your newly improved Taskbar. Simply drag an icon down and drop it in.

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Carrie-Ann Skinner

PC World (US online)
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