HTPC – Windows 7 Configuration Part 1

It has been about six months since I went totally to OTA-HD antenna, Netflix and Internet for my video feeds. I have not regretted the decision one bit. Even if Satellite or Cable TV companies decided to cut their prices 80% to make them competitive (LOL) I still wouldn’t go back. It’s just way too convenient and more akin to my viewing habits to find things on-line now. I’m exposed to so much new content that I never would have watched if I was still dependent on what my Satellite provider decided to supply.

So, as a follow up to my previous post, I have decided to make this post to help detail the settings I have done to Windows 7 to make it a better HTPC. After convincing some family and friends to try out this method, I realized some of them needed help getting their OS configured to work well as a media center. I recommend restricting your HTPC to serve as a media center only. This means don’t install wordprocessors, spreadsheets, databases, etc on the machine unless it is needed to maintain your HTPC. I don’t do much PC gaming, I prefer dedicated consoles, so there are no games installed on my HTPC either. Keep it clean and simple, because if that machine goes down, so does your TV!

Here is what is installed on my HTPC: Anti-Virus with Firewall, Picasa for Photos, DVDDecrypter and DVDShrink for DVD backups, Handbrake to convert videos to MKV, VLC Media Player to playback media (audio and video), and some other smaller programs used for maintaining the system. That’s it!

Now, here are some recommendations for the OS setup. First, you don’t want the HTPC running as admin all the time, so first thing you do is create an HTPC user account with no password, as shown in this tutorial. and then make Windows login with that account on bootup. Follow this guide.

This way, all you have to do if things get slow or lock up, just reboot and the system will come back up in the correct state. I do this about once a week or so. Of course, if you haven’t already done so within WMC, go to settings and make sure to check “Start Windows Media Center when Windows starts”. This will always bring windows into DVR mode. Also in that same settings window, tell WMC to re-organize your database regularly, at 4am or something like that when no one is using the system. This will help keep your media library organized.

In addition to Netflix that is integrated into the Media Center Movies by default, you can Integrate Hulu Desktop as another alternative to Netflix. Hulu is really good for streaming some basic cable shows and major network stuff. It’s kind of like on-demand. You need to sign up for an account, but just get the free one to test it out. You can schedule recordings in Hulu just like you would on the DVR. The link below will put an icon within Media Center to launch Hulu Desktop from the home page of WMC.

Outside of the built-in Media Center capabilities of this system for HD OTA signal recording and Media Guide, I soon found that the use of a web-browser for real-time streaming is a big plus. I hadn’t expected the content of streaming sites to be as good as they are. The stream I use are nearly as good as SD Satellite or Cable for the most part, and many come close to HD quality. For example, the stuff on Comedy Central is great, and mostly unedited too, which is cool for South Park.

First, install VLC if you haven’t already for video playback and set it for default instead of Windows Media Player. VLC works much better with a bunch of media types. If you find some files won’t play, you need Codecs. I recommend the K-lite codec packs … there are many versions depending on your needs. I just used the standard pack and it covers all files I can find. Make note there are 32-bit and 64-bit versions, and if you use Win7-64 you’ll need to install both.

Finally, get a bulk downloader to help with downloading your files. I use jdownloader. You’ll need a downloader program to help get files that are stored in multiple parts like you’ll find in some forums. The final step is to find some streaming media sites … and I won’t link to them from here since some are a bit suspect in their origins. It’s not hard to find forums though, and a simple Google search should find plenty for you to use. One suggestion, if you search for encodes, make sure to include “720p” as part of the search term if you want to get the best quality.

OK, that’s it for Part 1 … I’ll pick up more in a bit.

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