10 improvements in Windows 7 Media Center

Windows Media Center began gaining fans when Microsoft added it to the Home Premium and Ultimate editions of Vista. Windows 7 is expanding this availability -- complete with a new look and enhanced functionality. Deb Shinder hits the highlights.

Windows Media Center began gaining fans when Microsoft added it to the Home Premium and Ultimate editions of Vista. Windows 7 is expanding this availability -- complete with a new look and enhanced functionality. Deb Shinder hits the highlights.

Windows Media Center was first introduced in a special edition of Windows XP, but it remained a niche product -- in large part because the OS was available only to OEMs. The major hardware vendors marketed media center PCs, but they didn't always implement them well, and prices were generally much higher than a comparable Windows XP Home or Pro computer.

With Vista, Microsoft decided to include the Media Center application in the Home Premium and Ultimate editions of the operating system. Consequently, many more people were exposed to this feature, and it has gained considerably in popularity.

Windows 7 keeps WMC and adds it to the Business and Enterprise editions, as well (although IT administrators can easily turn off the feature, which may not be desirable in a business environment). In addition, Microsoft has made a number of changes to WMC in Windows 7, giving it a different look and adding some new functionality. Let's look at the top 10 improvements.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download and as a photo gallery.

1: Launch WMC tasks from the Start menu

In previous versions of WMC, you had to start the Media Center application and then navigate to the task you wanted (such as watching Live TV, watching Recorded TV, or viewing the Program Guide). Windows 7 has cut some steps off the process, enabling you to choose a task right from the Windows Start menu, as shown in Figure A.

Figure A

You can now launch Media Center tasks directly from the Start menu.

Just click the arrow next to the Windows Media Center selection on the Start menu and you'll be presented with a list of the tasks that you frequently perform as well as those that are pinned to the submenu.

2: WMC desktop gadget

Another addition to Windows 7 is the built-in WMC desktop gadget, which lets you keep up with what's available through Media Center. It displays your recently recorded TV shows (click the program name to display a fly-out with more information about the show), popular series, news programs, sports, your music categories, and more. As Figure B shows, you can play a recorded program, an Internet program, or music directly from the gadget's interface.

Figure B

You can access Media Center content directly from the desktop gadget.

To install the gadget, just right-click an empty space on the desktop, select Gadgets, and choose Windows Media Center from the list of available gadgets. As you can see in Figure C, you can configure the number of new TV recordings, the number of Internet shows per channel, the channels to display, and the transition time between categories.

Figure C

You can configure how the gadget displays information.

3: Internet TV

Don't have a TV tuner installed in your computer? Never fear. You can still watch virtual channels with Windows 7 WMC's new Internet TV feature. As you can see in Figure D, available programming includes popular shows from many genres, including TV series, movies, sports, news, music channels, "viral" videos, and lifestyles.

Figure D

You can watch Internet TV even if you don't have a tuner installed in the computer.
The Internet TV service is free, supported by advertising. The Internet channels also show up in the Guide. If you have a tuner installed and configured, the Internet channels will be displayed at the end of the list of channels from your cable company or other TV provider, as shown in Figure E.

Figure E

The Internet channels show up in the Guide following the channels picked up by your tuner.

4: Music cover art background display

Media Center has a brand new look when playing music. Now, the cover art from all your albums displays as a scrolling background behind the information for the song that's currently playing. It's a much "busier" look, but definitely more sophisticated, as you can see in Figure F.

Figure F

The new visuals when playing music are impressive.

5: Play games through WMC

Now you can launch Windows games from inside Media Center. The Extras Library contains Windows 7 games that you can play by simply clicking their icons, as shown in Figure G.

Figure G

With Windows 7, you can launch games from within WMC.

6: New detailed Guide information

When you click a program in the Guide, you now get a more sophisticated dialog box that gives you more information and organizes your choices better. As you can see in Figure H, there is a synopsis page you can use to record the program or set WMC to record the entire series.

Figure H

A new dialog box appears when you click a program in the Guide.
You can also select other choices from the top of the dialog box. For example, if you select Other Showings, you get a list of upcoming scheduled showings of the program so you can pick the ones you want to record, as shown in Figure I.

Figure I

You can easily view upcoming showings of the same program

There's even an option to see a listing of the program's cast and crew.

7: Music and Picture Favorites

In both the Music and Pictures + Videos categories, you'll see a new selection called Play Favorites, as shown in Figure J.

Figure J

A new selection in both Music and Pictures + Videos allows you to play your favorites.
Selecting this option in Pictures + Videos will play a slideshow of the photos that you've set as favorites. This setting is made through the Tasks options, as shown in Figure K.

Figure K

You can set your favorite pictures through the Tasks | Pictures options.

Similarly, you can set the favorite music through the Tasks | Music settings. In this case, you can use a particular playlist or use highly rated songs, most played songs, and/or those you've added in the last 30 days.

8: New look for Pictures Browser

WMC in Windows 7 uses the new libraries feature of the operating system to find your pictures, music, and videos. When you open the Picture Library from within WMC, you see a display of those photos that are in the root of your Picture Library, as shown in Figure L.

Figure L

You can easily sort the pictures in the Picture Library.

If you look closely, you'll see that some of these photos (the ones that have names under them) actually represent folders in your Picture Library. You can click on one of them to display the photos within it.

Sorting the photos is easy, with the selections across the top that include sorting by folders, tags, date taken, ratings, slide shows, or shared status.

9: Slide show creator

The new slide show creator in WMC lets you make multiple slide shows for different occasions. Just click Slide Shows and then Create Slide Show, as shown in Figure M.

Figure M

You can create custom slideshows with the slide show creator.
You can choose pictures from your library to include in the show, and you can add music to play during the show, as shown in Figure N.

Figure N

You can add music to your slide shows.
Simply click the name of a slide show in the list and a dialog box will open, displaying thumbnails of the pictures in the show and giving you the option to play it, as you can see in Figure O.

Figure O

Playing the slide show only requires a couple of clicks.

10: For sports fans

You'll find a new option in the Sports category of WMC in Windows 7 called Leagues. This lets you sort games based on the league (NFL, MLB, NBA, etc.), as shown in Figure P.

Figure P

Sports fans can more easily find games according to the league that's playing.