Media Center without a TV Tuner
- Posted: Oct 23, 2009 at 10:26AM
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Do you have a Windows 7 PC but no TV tuner? You may be surprised to learn that you don’t need one in order to watch streaming video and even popular TV programming on your Media Center PC or extender thanks to the numerous Media Center plugins currently available. In this post, we’ll look at the TV plugins you can use with Media Center, including those specifically designed for viewing Hulu content as well as other similar plugins for streaming video.
Plugins that allow you to watch TV shows via Media Center are very popular, especially those that provide access to Hulu, the online site where major TV networks have teamed up to provide free, streaming video. There are a number of different plugins to choose from, each with their own feature set and fan base. Which one you choose to install may come down to its offerings, ease of use, price, or just personal preference.
The Hulu Desktop Integration 1.0 plugin offers an easy way to hop between using Windows Media Center and the Hulu Desktop application, the desktop software that complements the online site. Once installed into Windows 7 Media Center, this plugin sets up its own menu simply called “HULU.” When you click on Hulu in this menu, the software will automatically close Windows Media Center and launch Hulu Desktop already in full screen mode. When you’re finished watching the streaming videos in Hulu, you just click on “Exit” from the software’s main menu and Windows Media Center will return, it too in full screen mode. This easy switching also works with Windows Media Center remote controls but does not work with extenders like the Xbox 360.
Before installing this application, you’ll need to install Hulu Desktop. Make sure both it and Windows Media Center are closed before you install the plugin which is available for a free download here.
With the Playon Digital Media Server, you can stream video on your Xbox 360, HP MediaSmart TV, or any other DLNA-compliant device. However, it wasn’t until the release of the PlayIt plugin that Media Center owners could get in on the action, too. Thanks to a user by the name of Elutmann1 on Microsoft’s Green Button forums, a site for Media Center enthusiasts, the PlayIt plugin lets Media Center users connect to a PlayOn server to stream video as well as use the Media Center controls like rewind, fast forward, play, pause and stop. With PlayIt installed, you gain access to Netflix, Amazon Video on Demand, Hulu, CBS, CNN, ESPN, YouTube, and more, all of which become available for viewing within the Media Center application.
However, although the PlayIt plugin software is free of charge, the PlayOn server software is not. PlayOn is $39.99, but a free 2-week trial is available. You can download PlayOn from here then follow these instructions to install the PlayIt plugin. The plugin works on Vista Media Center and up.
For additional plugins designed to operate with PlayOn server, visit the community site at playonplugins.com where a number of developers share additional third-party plugins that works with PlayOn.
Boxee is an open source media center type application that received a lot of attention in recent days thanks to its ability to stream popular TV programming to your PC or TV while also incorporating “social” elements like the ability to friend other users, rate content, and make recommendations.
Within Boxee, users have access to content from major TV networks like ABC, CNN, CBS, Comedy Central, and the WB as well as online content like Blip.TV, MTV music videos, MySpaceTV, Revision3 programs, Apple movie trailers, BBC iPlayer shows, Joost, SHOUTcast, Jamendo, Last.fm, NPR, and YouTube. In addition, you can add picture displaying plugins from Flickr and Picasa and RSS feeds.
Hulu support, however, has been off and on because Hulu’s parent company, NBC Universal, was asked to remove it from Boxee by their content partners. Boxee later re-added it using Hulu RSS feeds. Again, Hulu blocked access until Boxee introduced a new architecture which uses Firefox so that Hulu now sees Boxee as a Mozilla web browser so it won’t get blocked.
Thanks to the enthusiast site, Missing Remote with help from MVP Andrew Cherry, there’s a way to added Boxee support to your Windows 7 Media Center. You’ll first need to download this zip file and extract it to your Boxee installation directory (e.g. “C:\Program Files\Boxee\BoxeeMCE”). Then you’ll right-click to launch the file “installBoxee.cmd.” Detailed instructions are here. Although written for Vista Media Center, it works with Windows 7 works too.
To add Boxee onto Media Center’s start menu in Windows 7, you’ll need to navigate to Media Center’s “Extras” menu where you’ll now see Boxee listed. Right-click on the icon and choose “Add to Start Menu” from the menu that appears.
SecondRunTV is a plugin that allows you to launch the Hulu desktop application right within Media Center. Since Hulu Desktop works with a remote this makes SecondRunTV feel like it’s just another Media Center application.
The interface for SecondRunTV lets you sort through the available TV stations by Network or by Title. Movies and Trailers are separated in the two other menus. Unfortunately though, the plugin doesn’t work on extenders like the Xbox 360, so it’s only worthwhile if you do most of your TV viewing on your Media Center PC itself. You can download the SecondRun.tv plugin for free here (donations accepted), but be aware that it’s still in beta status.
TunerFree MCE is a Windows Media Center plugin that brings several of the United Kingdom's main TV providers (BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five), as well as all of the BBC Radio stations to your Media Center PC and extender. They’ve also added full Hulu support for their U.S. users.
The program’s interface displays the various channels’ logos for easy access as well as a “favorites” section for tracking your most frequently watched programs. You can also sort the programming by date or search through the available content by keyword.
For a little bit of extra fun, the developer even added a Twitter section which lets you tweet what you watch right from Media Center itself. To use this feature, go into TunerFree’s preferences and enter in your Twitter credentials. You’ll then have a new Twitter icon on the TunerFree start page in Media Center.
TunerFree is a free download (donations accepted) and works on both Vista and Windows 7. (On a personal note, I use this plugin myself and found it to be one of the easiest ones to install and configure.)
Again thanks to the Missing Remote blog, there’s information on how to add the Hulu Desktop program to MediaCenter as a shortcut from the main screen. This is similar to the functionality provided by SecondRunTV so you would want to try one or the other, not both.
To install this plugin, you’ll need to grab the zip file called HuluMCE Plugin and unzip it into the same folder where you have the Hulu Desktop application installed. (By default - C:\Users\USERNAME\AppData\Local\HuluDesktop). There are a few more steps involved to get it properly configured which you can follow by reading through the online guide available here.
Once installed, the HuluMCE plugin will appear in your TV+Movies menu on Vista Media Center or in your Extras menu on Windows 7 Media Center. You can then browse and view Hulu content via the plugin and you can even use your Media Center remote to control Hulu.
The Zinc Internet browser is a free downloadable software program from ZeeVee, a company known for their commercial and residential solutions for HD video. With the Zinc software, you can browse through a number of channels, including major TV networks like FOX, ABC, CBS, CW, and ESPN as well as online sites like Hulu, Revision3, and YouTube.
A Green Button forum member, Rob Rogers, at one time made a ZeeVee plugin available for Windows Media Center users that lets you launch and browse ZeeVee’s Zinc player in Media Center. Sadly though, he decided to take it down because he didn’t see much interest. However, we reached out to him to ask him about it and he shared the details of how it was made in case anyone wants to duplicate his efforts.
Basically, he downloaded the HuluMCE plugin (above) and modified it to point to the Zinc files instead. That’s it. After doing so, unzip the files it contains in the same folder as your Zinc install (which you must first get from ZeeVee’s website). Typically, the installation location is %ProgramFiles%\ZeeVee\Zv\zviewer\ZeeVeeMCE\. Next, run the InstallZeeVee.cmd as an administrator. You’ll then find Zinc available from the Extras menu in Windows 7 Media Center or the Picture & Videos menu in Windows Vista Media Center.
TubeCore is one of the newer plugins for streaming TV shows from the internet via Windows Media Center. The software finds online video from websites like Hulu, CBS.com, the Onion, Revision3, and many others, and lets you watch it on your Media Center computer or on a Media Center extender like the Xbox 360.
To use TubeCore, you’ll need a Vista or Windows 7 PC, a TV connection (either direct or an extender), and media server software.
However, unlike some of the other plugins on this list, TubeCore is not free. You can try it for 2 weeks at no charge, but afterwards, you’ll have to purchase it if you want to continue to use it. At that time, the plugin is available for a one-time fee of $19.99. Since you are paying, though, you’re entitled to support via the company’s tech support email address and forums.
Just in time for Windows 7’s launch, the Sky Player add-in for Windows 7 Media Center has been announced (although not launched). This plugin, designed for UK customers, lets you watch live and on-demand programming from Sky TV’s online TV service, Sky Player. The player currently offers 24 channels as well as an online library containing 500 movies.
Existing Sky TV customers can simply install the plugin and watch the programming on their Media Center PC or extender. New customers can access the content by paying for a monthly subscription.
Image courtesy of Andrew Edney
There are a few other plugins that may also be of interest to Windows Media Center users. While these below don’t provide you with access to streaming TV and movies directly, they do provide other ways to watch streaming video on your Media Center PC.
Orb is a desktop software program that lets you share files you already have on your PC with your friends, with other computers, mobile phones, and even your Xbox. Specifically, it’s designed for sharing multimedia content like videos, photos, and music.
Although not officially documented by the company, blogger Ian Dixon discovered an Orb.MCL file tucked away in the Orb directory after installing the software on his PC. As it turns out, this file was an entry point to Windows Media Center which lets you run the Orb front end via Media Center. A commenter on the blog post also explained how to manually create this file, if desired.
My Trailers and In the Movies are actually two different plugins from the same company. “My Trailers SE for MCE” allows you to watch movie trailers with via Windows Media Center while “In The Movies SE for MCE” delivers information about movies in the theaters now.
In “My Trailers” you can watch trailers for current releases as well as for movies that are coming soon. You can scroll through the releases using the left and right arrow buttons and you can maximize the playing trailer to view it full screen.
“In the Movies” has a feature called "In Theaters" which shows you the movies that are currently playing plus a "Showtimes" which shows you where and what time the movie you want to see is playing. "Reviews" displays comments about the movies and "Coming Soon" gives you a sneak peek upcoming releases. Finally, the "Box Office" section shows the weekend box office top 50 movies.
Both plugins are Windows 7 compatible.
HD Movie Trailers, which is hosted on Codeplex, describes itself as a "proof of concept." However, a blogger over at Hack7MC.com installed it in order to add movie trailers to the information screen for each movie in his collection. Like it sounds, this plugin lets you watch HD movie trailers via Media Center, but unfortunately, you have to first download them manually and place them in that movie’s folder. You then have to create an XML file so Media Center knows where to find them.
Obviously, this is one of the geekier plugins to use, but some of you may find it helpful.
Of course, one of the best ways to stream movies (and TV shows available on DVD) is via Netflix. If you’re a Netflix subscriber, you can access the new option which only appeared days ago from Windows Media Center’s “Movies” menu.
The first time you click on the “Netflix” option, you’ll need to check the box agreeing to the Terms of Service and then click the “Install” button. You’ll then sign into your account or, if you don’t have one, you have the option to sign up for a free trial right there. Once signed in, you can browse through and manage your DVD queue and your instant queue as well as search through Netflix’s database of available movies.
To watch a movie from your instant queue, just click on the thumbnail and then click “Play.” The movie will begin immediately.
As you can see, there are numerous choices for watching TV and movies within Windows 7 Media Center even if you can’t afford to invest in a TV tuner card at the moment. Many of the options above are even free to install and use. Although a lot of the plugins focus on Hulu integration, a U.S.-only site, international users will still be able to take advantage of those plugins which stream other content like YouTube videos or Revision3 web shows. No matter which plugins you choose to install, you can be sure it will make Windows Media Center a lot more fun to use.