Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Roku 3 and finally giving up on Media Center

It's finally happened. I have abandoned Windows Media Center as the primary TV system in our house. It's sad, really. Media Center is easily one of the best products Microsoft has ever created, but fell victim to changing company focus. As Microsoft's living room priorities shifted to the XBox, the idea of a Media Center PC was abandoned.

This isn't the first time I've written about this. From my initial review of Media Center in Windows 7, to my thoughts on how my children will watch TV as they grow up, to my first thoughts of giving up on Media Center, this has been a topic on my mind for a long time.

A little over a year ago, I wrote that I was getting a Roku streaming box and experimenting with abandoning Media Center for good. That didn't happen. The Roku experiment didn't work very well for a number of reasons. Netflix wasn't as nice as it was on Media Center, Plex had trouble streaming a number of our movies, and on the whole, we all got frustrated with it and went back to the tried and true Media Center.

This year, I decided to try again. The most frustrating part of Media Center is that it hasn't progressed with the world of streaming video. The only sources of video within Media Center are video files you already have, recorded over-the-air TV shows, and Netflix. No Amazon, no YouTube, no Crackle, etc. Of course it's running on a full Windows PC, so getting to any of those other sources is easy enough, but requires a mouse and keyboard. Hardly the simplest interface for the living room.

A lot has changed in the past year since I last tried my Roku experiment. Google released the Chromecast since then, Plex has updated their service, and Media Center has continued to remain unchanged since 2009. So I sold my Roku 2 and picked up a Roku 3. My Media Center PC is still connected, running as a Plex server.

Let me start by saying that the Roku 3 is without a doubt the best TV streaming box I have ever used. If you are a parent of small children (or live in a house with roommates), you owe it to yourself to buy this thing. The headphone jack on the remote is the killer feature. Since the remote is connected via Bluetooth, you just plug headphones into it and the audio of whatever you're watching is streamed to the remote. Perfect for watching movies while someone else sleeps.

In addition, the Roku 3 is super fast. It moves between screens quickly and starts streaming almost immediately. It also has an ethernet port for wired connections (awesome) and a USB port for connecting an extermal drive full of videos or pictures (I haven't tested this yet).

Plex has come a very long way since I last tried it, and is better than Media Center in many respects. It pulls movie information automatically including synopsys, cover art, cast, etc. and presents everything in an easy to use interface. It has channels Media Center doesn't, like Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime video. It also has a YouTube channel which is compatible with the cast protocol, so, just like Chroemcast, you can open Youtube on your phone or tablet, find the video you want to watch, and send it straight to the Roku where it just starts playing.

Oh yeah, and Roku has an Angry Birds Toons channel, which was an instant hit with my kids. Media Center doesn't have Angry Birds.

All in all, it's an excellent device that I can enthusiasticly recommend to anyone. Media Center still has one advantage in that it can record live TV from an antenna. But honestly, with the TV selection that Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu offer, I rarely find myself wanting to watch something from traditional TV anyway.

I think it's safe to say that I have finally found my Media Center replacement. It still makes me sad that Microsoft completely failed to market and improve what was one of their best products. Media Center was great and it could have been freaking fantastic. It will always be remembered for what it almost was. 

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