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Why one should use Windows Media Center? The answer is simple: because Music, Pictures and Videos are more than just files!
To explain things better, I will start by briefly describing a typical scenario: you take 200 photos on a weekend trip, you download all of your favorite music and videos and you collect huge numbers of mp3 files. What happens to them? They all end up in folders, on a partition of your hard drive and most of the times you can't remember where they were. Windows Media Center can help you find them. In this article I will present the most important features and issues of Windows Media Center, which is intended to be an important Windows Vista tool for organizing and accessing media files.
For the moment, I will resume the presentation only to the Local Media features, like the Pictures, Videos and Music Libraries. The other features (TV and Movies, Sports and Online Media) will be presented in a forthcoming article.
The First Time / Setup Windows Media Center
Windows Media Center can be found in the Start Menu, directly in the list of All Programs. When you run it for the first time, you will be prompted by a Welcome Screen that will ask you to select a setup option. You may choose the Express or Custom setup, but either way, all the configurations will still be available afterwards so you don't have to worry that you will miss something when setting up.
The main setup wizards that you will need to run, not necessarily all from the first time are the following: Internet Connection, TV Signal, Speakers, TV or Monitor and Wireless Network, if you are using any. You may skip all of these wizards (if you don't use a TV tuner or you don't want Windows Media Center to use the Internet Connection), but I would recommend setting up the Speakers, as it is useful to have the proper configuration for audio playback. Here you only need to test the speakers and specify if you are using built in speakers or a surround system.
If you change your mind about the media content that is displayed in the Local Media Libraries and want to reconfigure the application, you have to go to Tasks -> Settings -> General ->Windows Media Center Setup and select Run Setup Again. Here you will need to confirm that you are willing to lose all the current preferences and settings. Choose Yes and you will start the Setup Wizard again.
Media Only - or how to run completely in Full Screen Mode
When opened, Windows Media Center starts in Full Screen. But like on any regular Windows application, on the top right side of the screen you will see the window control buttons: Minimize, Resize and Close window. To make your survey among media files more independent from other applications that are opened on your computer, you may activate a Media Only option, that will allow you to disable these buttons and use Windows Media Center like an individual platform. To do this, go to the main screen, select Tasks ->Media Only and you will have to confirm that you want to enter the Media Only mode. The buttons will not be visible anymore.
To undo this action, just go back to the same menu, select Exit Media Only and the buttons will appear again on the top right side of the window.
Tip: If you close Windows Media Center while reduced to a smaller window size, at the next run it will open with the same size and in the same location on your desktop. The same, if closed in full screen, the next time it will open in full screen as well.
How to configure more advanced features of Windows Media Center
In the Tasks menu you can access some of the practical functions that Windows Media Center provides, like: Shut Down, Burn CD/DVD, Synchronize and Add Extender. Also, as I mentioned earlier, this is the place from where you can activate the Media Only option. However, the main thing that you can access from the Tasks menu is the panel with all the Settings.
There are two Settings categories that you will need to customize: the General settings and some particular ones. I will try to give you more details about the General ones, as I find them more necessary to acknowledge for someone who's new to Windows Media Center.
The Startup and Window behavior settings allow you to enable or disable the 'always on top' option, the taskbar notifications or the start of Windows Media Center at the Windows Vista startup. You can click Save, or just go Back if you haven't done any changes.
In the Visual and Sound Effects settings menu you may enable the transition animations used when navigating through Windows Media Center and you may also activate navigation sounds. You should disable the animations if your computer doesn't have a strong configuration, as it will slow down the application's response speed. The Color Scheme can be changed, and apart from the Windows Media Center Standard scheme you may change the appearance into Black or White High Contrast schemes. Finally, you may also choose here the background color for videos.
The Windows Media Center Setup menu takes you back to the setup wizard steps, so whenever you will need to reconfigure something, you will have to return to this point.
In the Program Library Options you may add shortcuts for frequently used programs that you want to be accessed directly from the Windows Media Center interface. By default, the available applications are the CD/DVD burning tool and some of Windows Vista's standard games.
There are also Parental Control, Automatic Downloads, Optimization and Privacy settings available. The particular settings refer to more specific configurations regarding TV and DVD playing/recording, Pictures and Music customization, and, the most important of all, the Library Setup.
How to setup and work with the Library.
First, I will shortly explain the Library setup process. As for the pictures and music settings you can read details in the next paragraphs.
You may access the Library Setup at any time by right-clicking on each of the Windows Media Center main menus and selecting Settings -> Library Setup. There is a very simple, but yet not satisfactory method of managing the media content of the Library. The first step in doing this is choosing if you want to Add or Remove media. You can only manage entire folders, so you need to select if you want to Add Folders to Watch or if you want to Stop Watching some folders.
Then you will be prompted to browse your local or shared partitions and folders and check the ones that you want to add to or remove from the Library. Depending on the size of the folder to be added, the process may last longer or shorter. Meanwhile, you can continue using Windows Media Center as it will perform in background the update of the Library.
Pictures, Videos and Music Library
If not long ago I was saying that Windows Photo Gallery is a nice tool for picture management in Windows Vista, now I have to admit that Windows Media Center can do this job a bit better.
When first opening Picture Library, the default content will be the Windows Vista Sample Pictures folder. You may start building the Library by right-clicking anywhere on the Picture Library main window and then select Library Setup. From here you will start adding folders or entire partitions to the Library. As seen in the image below, you may quickly burn the images onto a CD/DVD and you may also choose to see smaller thumbnails with more pictures to fit on the screen.
Below you can see how the thumbnails are displayed; you can navigate horizontally by scrolling to left or right. When moving the mouse towards the sides of the main window some arrows will appear and they will guide you to the end of the pictures list. Double clicking a picture will enlarge it on full screen, and then you will be able to navigate through the pictures list by simply using the arrow keys.
The same happens to the video files, but in this case, you might encounter some difficulties in actually seeing the videos. Windows Media Center doesn't seam to recognize some video formats. So even if they have been accepted in the Video Library as available media, they will be unplayable unless you install an additional codec pack such as K-Lite Mega Codec.
You can identify this issue simply when you look at the thumbnails. If they don't show any frame from the video, this means they will not be playable. The solution to this is either to install some extra video codec packs, or to use another software. Otherwise, you will keep receiving this message: 'Cannot Play Video. One or more codecs required to open this content could not be found'.
Tip: Notice in the image below that on the bottom-left corner there is a thumbnail of a video playing. Windows Media Center allows simultaneous display of both pictures and video or music files. If the video has been started before entering the Picture Library, then it will continue to play in background. You are able to bring it to full screen just by clicking on the thumbnail, and then you can click Back and return again to the Picture Library. Of course, video or audio control buttons will be active on the main Picture Library window and you may play, stop or pause the media on the same place in which you see the pictures.
Very few of the videos that I've added to the Video Library during my test have been playable with Windows Media Center.
Windows Media Center allows you not only to visualize picture folders, but it also provides some basic tools for quick image editing. If you right-click on a picture thumbnail and select Picture Details, you can rotate, print or delete the file, while being able to navigate through the rest of the pictures and also to see details like title, date taken and size. The Touch Up option opens a new window where you can adjust the picture's aspect. You may adjust Red Eyes and Contrast, and you may also Crop a certain selection of the picture.
There are a lot of settings you can configure for the Picture Library. You may customize: the order or the structure of the pictures to be shown in a slide show, the transition type and time, the slide show background color or whether the song information to be displayed during the slide show or not. In order to do all this, you have to right-click again on one image, or on the main window of Picture Library and then select Settings -> Pictures.
Tip: Another option that you have for a picture is Delete. But different from other Media Libraries that you might know, Windows Media Center doesn't only delete the file's reference from the Library, but it deletes the file physically from the hard drive. Luckily there is a confirmation prompt that appears when doing this!
The Music Library works the same as the Pictures and Videos Library. The thumbnails that are shown here are the album cover arts. You may play all the music that is in the Library or you may sort it by Artists, Genres, Songs, Playlists, Composers, Years etc.
When right-clicking on an album cover, you may choose to play the album, to add it to Queue or to edit its information. The same as with the pictures, you can burn a selected album on a CD/DVD and you may also enter the Library Setup or the Settings menus.
The Settings for the Music Library are not that much related to the music itself, but more to Visualization options. Again, right click somewhere in the Music Library window and select Settings -> Music. Here you can check what type of Visualization to be applied on the music that you will choose to play (things like Alchemy, Bars and Waves, Battery) and you may as well set when the Song Information should be displayed on screen (whether at the beginning and end of the song, or never).
When seeing Album Details you will be displayed the list of tracks, with their titles and duration. Even if the playback structure is based on the Queue system, you may as well save playlists to play them later or simply play a selected album.
For the Queue mode you may add albums, select a Shuffle or Continuous mode, Repeat tracks or delete them. As well as with the video files, music files can play in background while you can freely navigate through Windows Media Center's other tools.
Another feature that is available with the Music Library is the Search option. This helps you to search music content that you know you might have in the Library. By providing an adjustable entry mode for the search tool, you may use a remote control and type the artist or song name from a distance, just like using the keys of your mobile phone. Once the searched track has been found you may play it straight away or you may add it to queue.
Windows Media Center tracks the songs you play in Windows Media Player
If you happen to use Windows Media Player and then open Windows Media Center to see some photos, you will shortly notice that the songs played in Windows Media Player are being tracked in the Media Center. This means that when you are in the middle of image slide shows and picture folders navigation you will be able to access the audio control buttons (Play, Pause, Stop, Next, Previous) and the audio volume, as well.
If music is being played during an image slide show and you don't want the title and artist name to appear on the screen each time the songs are being changed, you can disable this option. Right-click the image, select Settings -> Pictures ->Show Song information during slide show and choose 'Never'.
How to remove media that is no longer available on your hard drive, but is still displayed in Media Library
Go to Tasks -> Settings -> Library Setup -> Stop Watching a Folder and then select the folders you no longer want to be displayed in the Library. You will be prompted a message that says 'Windows Media Center will stop watching these locations'. Then simply click the Finish button. If you want a shorter way to do this, you can right click on the Music/Pictures/Video Library window and then select Library Setup which will guide you to the same steps.
One curious thing that happens when adding or removing folders to be watched is that the Library doesn't always automatically update, and it keeps displaying the same content. After restarting the application, and even after restarting Windows Vista, it keeps showing the name and thumbnails of the files that were previously loaded in the Library. So this means that when you will select a media file to be played, an error message will appear, telling you that the location of the media file is no longer available, even though you know you have removed the item from the library or you have re-added the new location of that file.
I have tried to run the Setup wizard again to see if this will work and still, after reseting the Library and adding new folders, Windows Media Center continued to display the old names and locations of the files, and was still showing error messages. I hope this won't happen the same way for you, but this is what I got during my tests on the Music Library tool.
Although it is a complex and useful application, I would only recommend Windows Media Center for those of you who need to make a quick media presentation that looks nice. Compared to the traditional Windows Explorer and Windows Photo Gallery, the design of Windows Media Center is more stylish, but only use it when you know that the libraries you are referring to are properly updated. And as I mentioned before, make sure you have installed additional codecs for the videos you want to see in Windows Media Center. Sometimes it's just easier to use specific software!