Using the PC for AV distribution

Thursday December 1st 2011


Windows 8 Media Centre

Tea Londons Elton gives some thoughts on the future of home automation, and how the humble PC can play an important role in changing your TV viewing habits.

From a young age I have always been surprised how ideas and concepts imagined by the fertile minds of Science Fiction authors and scriptwriters became to be realised as significant technical accomplishments later on. I have come to understand that pretty much anything is possible if we have the vision to imagine it and the willpower to accomplish it.

Nowadays home automation presents home owners with the level of automation and integration so advanced that it is not so much what it automates for you, but more a case of how much you can invest in it. With the advent of affordable home control system products such as the hardware based Control4 systems to software driven systems like Stardraw Control, the notion of installing a home automation system no longer exclusively applies to the incredibly wealthy. It now puts it within reach of those consumers who can comfortably afford to buy, say, a Mac notebook computer.

In addition to installing home automation control systems, I still see the PC as the essential piece of ‘kit’ as the centre of any home AV system, and will likely win out over more complicated and specialised home control systems as time goes on. It already provides a compelling array of Media storage and delivery services. Windows Media Centre, which is a ‘built-in’ feature of most versions of Windows Vista and Windows 7, provides you with a media-centric, intuitive user interface that is designed to be displayed and comfortably on flatscreen TV’s.

We are looking forward to the next release in Windows 8, which is currently in test or ‘preview’ stages of development. The first version of the new Media Centre Metro application included in the latest preview release.

Some reasons why Windows Media Centre is good for you:

  •  Simplified file sharing. File sharing is not a big deal, it can be achieved with most computers or even with NAS drives, however something like recorded TV is not typically shared. Using Media Centre to record TV, means that recorded TV is stored as a video file, that can be opened by any other system capable of running Media Centre. If you imagine how, for example, SKY+ operates, where recordings are only accessible on the box that recorded a programme, you may begin to understand how this subtle difference can bring about significant advantages to you.
  • Windows Media Centre typically supports 4 tuners of any type or combination. So it is possible for you to have ‘PVR’ that is capable of receiving and recording both terrestrial and satellite TV. Normally a PVR is restricted to only receiving signals from either source.
  • With satellite tunes, Windows Media Centre supports DISEqC switching. This allows you to connect either a motorised satellite dish or an array of fixed position satellite dishes to one tuner.  Again this does may not sound like a big deal, but it is possible for you to have up to 4 ‘positions’ configured per satellite tuner, each position relating to a dish that is aimed at a different broadcast satellite. This greatly increases the number of TV channels you can view. Windows makes the selection of the various satellite dishes transparent, these positions are selected simply by you changing channel. Usually TV content is limited to ‘unscrambled’ channels only, but it is possible to get some PayTV or scubscription based TV services working on this system, if the encryption system used by the broadcaster is more ‘open’. Sadly SKY is not one of them – we suspect that even if people wanted to pay a premium to watch their services on a system like this they will never allow it to happen. Using a simple 2 dish configuration with a TV antenna, comprising of FreeSAT (ASTRA2) and a dish aimed at European TV Services (Astra1), you will have in excess of 1000 free-to-air TV channels at your disposal. A surprising number of them are broadcast in HD, with more and more broadcasters launching HD services on a regular basis.
  • Although Media Centre can’t natively decode scrambled services like SKY and Virgin, it is still possible for you to connect our set-top box to a Media Centre PC. The Media Centre PC will provide you with full TV listings in its programme guide, and can change channels on the set-top box automatically. The only real weakness in this ability is that it delivers video in full HD quality. You certainly can view and record HD channels, but the viewing experience will always be in standard definition. The ability to connect HD devices for the purposes of recording still remains a sensitive issue for the likes of Hollywood, so this is more political/business restriction, rather than a technological one.
  • The killer feature of Media Centre is its fully interactive TV programme schedule guide. It will provide you with a fully consolidated programme guide of all of your TV channels – regardless of whether it is a foreign satellite service or FreeView/FreeSAT services. It provides you with a 2 week guide that you can browse not only in chronological order by category, genre, actor and director,you can also use text searching. You can for example, browse for all films that will be broadcast across all of your available TV channels for the next two weeks. By selecting to record any of the films that suit your tastes, you can rapidly build up a movie library at no cost and perfectly legally. Remember the rest of the home can share and access these recordings too. The guide fundamentally works the same as any other interactive guide, however its two week time line and its flexibility in how you can browse the guide makes it by far the best interactive programme guide we have ever used.
  • I don’t think I need to remind people how easy it is to rip music CD’s and build-up a music library. You can also rip DVD’s and Blu-Ray content, but this is a more complicated area which also has copyright implications.
  • As Windows Media Centre is a PC. This means it can playback all mainstream media file and disc formats. It is a truly universal media player, wiping out the need for you to adopt one video or audio standard or install additional equipment for the purposes of playing specific media (it makes installing a separate Blu-Ray player, DVD Player, CD Player, AppleTV, or media streamer redundant). It can play proprietary content such as Windows Media or Apple iTunes content as well as all other open video and audio file formats. Of course it can also access web based services, giving you access to a vast array of online, on-demand video and audio sources.

Internet TV and other on-demand services clearly will become more popular with consumers than traditional off-air TV viewing (broadcast TV).  All mid-ranged or better flatscreen TV’s have networking capabilities. They have buildin-in ‘apps’ that will give you access to online services like YouTube, BBC iPlayer and Skype, even access to LoveFilm’s online content. This to some extend negates the need for a media PC to be attached directly to the TV. You could access media stored on the PC using DLNA. Flatscreen TV’s are becoming ‘smarter’, and they are progressively becoming purpose built ‘appliance computers’. Soon plugging your laptop into the TV will become a thing of the past.

The manner in which TV and PC’s are merging it would make sense to only install one or the other in any room – why have both?

Tablet PC’s  will ultimately become your remote control that can handle almost all control of your home automation system. From TV remote control to the light switch. You can view your CCTV cameras, or answer your door phone from the same device. Perhaps you might want it to open the window for you and automatically turn off your air con at the same time.

The automated stuff we used to watch in Sci-Fi movies is becoming reality. Things that seem far fetched today will more than likely be accomplished sooner than you think.


TEA London always advise clients to strongly consider installing a dedicated home theatre PC (HTPC or MCE) in their front room, as opposed to installing several hardware units that collectively can perform the same function as one machine.We will perhaps write a different article in the future which can convey all of the benefits and virtues of a HTPC over the more traditional approach of installing dedicated components, such as a blu-ray player, PVR and so on, to perform these same tasks.

We currently recommend Windows 7 based machines for these purposes, and with that in mind this article specifically mentions equipment that has been used and tested on Windows based PC’s. It is likely these PC’s are compatible with other operating systems such as MAC OS and Linux, however we suggest you check with the manufacturer and supplier first before making any purchases based on our recommendations.

Key features

We have been building, installing and supporting HTPC’s for over 5 years now, and in this time we have tried and tested a number of wireless control systems, i.e. keyboards, mice and remote controls. We primarily assess the suitability of these controllers for simple and accessible media control; after all the MCE PC is more often than not going to be used for the playback and control of media such as videos, photos and music, so there is little point in a keyboard not having buttons to control volume, playback, and so on.

The next, and perhaps the most important feature the controller needs is its wireless range. Most wireless keyboards systems have very limited range, most on the market are limited to only 2 metres or less, despite what the manufacturer may claim. Most wireless are designed to work within a limited range for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that generally speaking keyboard and mice tend to be placed on a desk, and are normally very close to the wireless receiver, some manufacturers put the controller’s receiver unit onto an extension cable, so you can place the wireless receiver within inches of the keyboard and mouse. The advantage of this should equate to lower power consumption and therefore a longer battery life. The practicalities of the same principles being applied in the front room however is less than ideal. For one you want to have complete freedom of movement where you can be within 1 metre of the wireless receiver or 5 metres away from the receiver. You do not necessary want any wires dangling out of your AV storage unit underneath your TV, nor do you necessarily want a cable to be pulled from the TV/PC to the back of the so you can ensure you are within range of the wireless receiver. Using a keyboard with a limited range can be an incredibly frustrating experience, where if you move a keyboard only a few inches to the left or right, the keyboard may very well go out of range, or worse only some of the keys you press are received by the computer.

It is because of this, above all else, that the range of the wireless keyboard/mouse/controller is perhaps the most important consideration. As a rule of thumb, the more office orientated, and certainly the less expensive the keyboard, the less suitable it will be for the task. We have found that keyboards that use radio frequencies (RF) in the 2.4GHz band tend to work very well, and there are a few on the market that run at much higher frequencies than this; these theoretically should give a longer range and more reliable transmission of commands.

That said, we can now move onto our brief review of our two current favourite wireless keyboard and mouse combinations.

Logitech Dinovo Mini

The Dinovo mini has been a favourite of ours for a few years now, I personally use one on my HTPC. There is very little not to like about the unit, and when it is demonstrated to prospective clients, it is always met with great approval. On the plus side it connects using Bluetooth connectivity, the Dinovo comes with a Bluetooth fob which plugs into any USB port in your computer. We have found that it is better to insert this fob into, if you have them, the front USB ports of the computer. We have had some erratic results with the range of the keyboard when inserting it into one of the rear USB ports, we can only assume that this is because there is far more electronic noise or interference at the rear of PC than there is at the front. Although you are bringing the receiver closer to the keyboard, this is only by a foot or two, but we have found that the overall workable range of the keyboard increases considerably. We found in some scenarios the range of the keyboard was only 2-3 metres when inserted in the rear of the PC, but this increases to well over 6 metres (more than ample for the average front room) when using a front USB port.

The unit comes with its own rechargeable battery and power supply. We found that through standard use of the keyboard the battery lasts over 2 weeks between charges, sometimes longer through light use. The unit does conserve power automatically, and tends to put the keyboard in standby when its lid is shut. the unit does indicate when the battery is running low, it does give plenty of warning when it needs charging, further you can use the keyboard when it is plugged into its charger, so you do not have to wait for the unit to charge up in order to use it. You can use it whilst plugged in with ease. We have not measured the charging time, but it is fairly long, over 4 hours would be our estimate, so being able to use it whilst charging is handy if you accidentally let the battery run completely down.

In essence this is a keyboard you would hold in the palms of your hand, and you would type with your thumbs. A process which may sound a little odd, but is surprisingly easy to do. This is obviously not the ideal keyboard for those of you who intend doing a lot of typing on your HTPC, such as responding to emails on a regular basis, and so on; but for those of you who merely need to do the odd internet search, or type in the odd bit of information here and there, this is an ideal choice for the front room.

Its has a neat compact design that would allow it to fit in with any front room’s décor. It certainly looks less obtrusive than the average remote control. It features a lid that neatly protects the keyboard, so if it slips off a sofa’s arm and ends up in between the cushions, the unit is quite well protected from accidental damage or key-presses.

One of the nicest features of the keyboard, is its integrated touch-pad mouse. It responds accurately to the tracking performed with your right thumb. it works just as well as a standard mouse. This touch-pad has a dual personality, where is can also acts as standard navigation keys, i.e. left, right,up and down, making it ideal for navigating through menu systems such as Windows Media Centre. You can switch between ‘mouse mode’ and ‘navigation key mode’ by toggling a switch that is located very close to the touchpad; it is close enough for the modes to be selected using your right thumb, and thus all navigation tasks can easily be performed by just the one digit of your hand.

The keyboard features a full set of media controls at the top of the keyboard, so you will be able to control the playback of media easily. The top media controls also include volume and mute controls. The left side buttons enable easy channel changing in Media Centre.

The only real niggles we have found with the keyboard, is because of its very compact size, not all keys are present on the keyboard. So certain buttons have to be accessed using the keyboards FN key. To, for example, press CTRL-SHIFT-ESCAPE you have to press 4 keys simultaneously, which on such a compact unit feels like you are performing a Vulcan nerve pinch; if you consider the keyboard is designed for thumb typing, this means you have to use more than just your thumbs to perform certain keystrokes. The keyboard also lacks function keys… so calling for help or doing a page refresh is no longer a simple, single keypress.

At around £80 this is not a cheap keyboard, and niggles aside, it is almost the perfect keyboard for the front room. Having used one for some years now, I can vouch for the reliability and build quality of the Dinovo Mini. No problems have been experienced with it, and the battery still seems as strong as it was from the start, so from first impressions to long term use, this unit has never failed to impress

Gyration Air Mouse Go Plus

The Gyration Air Mouse Go Plus is a keyboard and mouse suite that follows the more traditional looking approach to a keyboard and mouse combination. In fact the keyboard is fairly unremarkable looking in many respects. Just a small compact keyboard with a removable lid, that clips neatly underneath the keyboard so you don’t have to contend with it lying around or going missing.

What makes the Gyration suite good is the mouse, which we will come to shortly. Firstly we will talk about the keyboard. Despite appearances the keyboard is of a rugged design, but is still lightweight and compact enough to sit comfortably on your lap or sofa arm. There is a nice feel to the keys, where each press is definite and responsive. The keyboard has a single indicator light, which lights up with each key press. this is very useful feedback it not only tells you whether you did hit a key properly, but provides you with feedback that the keyboard is working (i.e. batteries are not flat) and key presses are being sent.

There are a full set of media controls at the top of the keyboard as well as user definable shortcut keys.

The primary reason why we recommend the Gyration keyboard is its range… it is just phenomenal. the manufacturer states that the range is up to 30 metres on this model, with other models achieving much further distances. Given what the average size of a room is in the UK, it is likely you could type from several rooms away if it were practical to do so.  There are few others on the market that can achieve these distances with the reliability of the Gyration keyboard.

The keyboard uses two standard AA batteries. You can opt to install rechargeable batteries, but there is no means of charging these batteries whilst they are installed in the keyboard. We have found through extended use that bog standard Duracell batteries last well over 4 months with standard use. In some areas where the keyboard performs lighter activities, such as boardroom and presentation applications, the battery life has exceeded a year – proving that despite the incredible range of this keyboard, it is still incredibly energy efficient.

Gyration comes into its own, and the brand name makes more sense when you take a look at their mouse. The Gyration mouse behaves and functions like any other ordinary optical mouse, where it can be used on any suitable flat surface and tracks movements with good accuracy. It is however not designed to be used exclusively as a traditional mouse, can also be use in the ‘air’ in a similar fashion to a Wii controller. The mouse has a ‘trigger’ button on the underside of the mouse which when engaged activates its ‘gyration’ function. Simple arm movements can then move a mouse on screen.  It takes a little getting used to, but after a few minutes of use, you do get the hang of it and you are able to control mouse functions as well as a normal surface based mouse. The fact that the mouse can be used in the air is useful from a front room perspective… no need for a flat surface to be found in order to use the mouse, just pick it up and wave it around.

The mouse does include a rechargeable battery and a charging dock. The battery life is nowhere near as good as the keyboard. The mouse sadly loses charge if you leave it off its dock. We have have found that the mouse can discharge itself without use only after a week or two. So this means that it is safer to leave the mouse on charge when not in use. This is our only real critcism of an otherwise great product.

The Gyration suit is ideal for those of you who need a normal keyboard for typing in the front room. It is compact enough to be tucked away neatly, but large enough for it to feel and function as well as a standard keyboard does. The mouse’s air function makes it perfect for the front room too, where you are no longer constrained to work from a flat surface.

At a retail price of around £89, it is similarly priced to the Dinovo Mini, so you decide which is better for your needs.

Remember you can always use these in conjunction with a Media Centre Remote control (or universal remote control) so for the Gyration option in particular you can keep it tucked away for those lengthy typing and mouse controlled applications and use a remote control for typical media control. We like the £20 Compro K300 remote control, which includes the all important Media Centre compatible USB infra-red receiver fob.

Windows 7 TV splutters

Saturday December 5th 2009


As a keen convert, eager to put the vagaries of Windows Vista behind me as soon as possible, I leapt feet first into the Windows 7 world, and had no hesitation in making it our standard OS for all our custom build Media Center PC’s, RED.

However we have notice some decoding issues with 64-Bit versions of Windows 7. Live TV is prone to artefacting, recordings jam, the odd reboot occurs under intensive tuner use, and H.264 decodes from Satellite broadcasts is atrocious.

We have done all of the troubleshooting we can think of with this problem; different machines, latest drivers, removal of codecs, installation of codecs, fine tuning of codecs, broadcast signal quality assessments, different PC hardware builds, different combinations of use and tuner types, and so on. Admittedly some of these steps did make some improvement to the problem, but we know the root cause is still lurking around.

We generally install a Terratec dual DVB-T tuner card as a standard. We have great experiences with their Cinergy 2400dti card, and its PCI-E bus connector makes it ideally suited for our RED Junior units. We have had flawless performance with its live TV playback, recording, applying all possible dualities during recording and live playback. The recordings are clear, well compressed and faultless despite that our systems act as a media servers as well as media centres.

We can automatically assume that this might be a driver compatibility issue with Windows 7, and maybe even a rogue codec of sorts, but none of these same problems occurred, and I really hate to say it, in Windows Vista.

This is thus far our first negative observation about Windows 7; it may not be the OS’s fault, it could very well be a hardware issue, or poorly written driver, or some 3rd party software, but fact remains it has and does work with that one key different, the OS is different.

We are going to try one last thing before resorting to taking these issues up with Terratec. We will report back on our progress with this matter.


Issues were down to Terratec and their drivers. It was fixed after a long time. We have found Hauppauge is much better for Windows MCE use.


If anybody else has a similar experience, please do drop us line from our contact us page:

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