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Getting the Most Out of Windows Media Center

Vista's Windows Media Center has come a long way. But you'll find that there are some features that duplicate the features of Windows Media Player and Photo Gallery. To get the most out of the Windows Media Center, you need to understand what Media Center does best.

Neither Vista Home Basic nor Vista’s Business versions include the Media Center.

Media Center is most useful in the following situations.

  • Xbox hooked up to TV: Microsoft’s game box, the Xbox 360, hooks up to a TV for playing games. But when hooked up to a network, the Xbox 360 can connect to Media Center, sharing its libraries of music, photos, and movies.

  • PC hooked up to TV: If your PC serves as part of your home theater, Media Center provides a nice command center.

  • TV tuner: A PC’s TV tuner can extract channels the same way a TV set does. You can connect the cable that plugs into your TV set into your PC’s TV tuner. Or, if you’re desperate, you can attach a “rabbit ears” antenna to the tuner, but the picture won’t look nearly as good.

    Your PC doesn’t need a TV set to view or record TV shows. It needs its own built-in TV tuner: special circuitry that lets you view TV on a monitor and change channels. Big bonus points go to TV tuners that come with remote controls.

  • Video with TV-Out port: TV shows look fine on your computer monitor. But to watch those shows on a real TV, your PC’s tuner needs a spot to plug in your TV set. Most tuners offer a combination of S-Video, composite, and occasionally coax connectors, the three connectors used by most TV sets.

  • Ease of access: Media Center’s large and simple menus won’t satisfy control freaks. But if you’re looking for easy-to-read menus for handling simple chores, you may prefer Media Center to Media Player.

When it comes to playing your music, you’ll probably find Media Player’s familiar controls more convenient. The Windows Media Center interface doesn't give you as much control over locating and playing your songs, particularly if you have a large library. However, if you're already in the Media Center and don't plan to get too fancy with your musical selections, Media Center does just fine.

When run on a properly equipped PC, Media Center should find everything — the tuner, the signal, and the monitor. If Media Center doesn’t find those things, you probably need a new Vista-compatible driver for your tuner card, a piece of software downloadable from the tuner manufacturer’s Web site.

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