I’ve always believed in the separation of church and state: My desktop computer stays in my home office, and my TV and entertainment gear stay in the living room. Sure, sometimes there’s crossover between the two — I like to view Web-based streaming video or shows I’ve downloaded on my big-screen TV, for example. But I’ve never been tempted to make my desktop PC my home entertainment center.
Until now. Now, I have a shiny, new Windows 7 PC, and it’s almost ready to make the move to the living room. Microsoft’s latest operating system is earning raves for its enhanced stability and productivity features, but the enhanced video features are what have impressed me.
One of the most notable improvements is the file format support in the latest version of Windows Media Player, 12. I’ve never been a huge fan of Windows Media Player — I prefer VLC’s excellent media player for video playback. But with its new ability to play H.264 video and AAC audio files, Windows Media Player can now play unprotected content purchased from the iTunes Store. Slowly, Windows Media Player is winning me over.
I especially like how Windows 7′s new Jump List feature works with the app; Jump Lists allow you to access the application’s features just by right clicking on the app’s icon in your Taskbar. When I right click on the Windows Media Player icon, for example, I can start playing music or a video without having to go in and launch the app first.
Microsoft’s Windows Media Player also gets some nifty updates in Windows 7 — though this is my first time using any version of Windows Media Center at all, so much of the experience is new to me. I opted not to purchase a system with a built-in TV tuner card, but after reading EngadgetHD’s review of the OS’ DVR features, I’m regretting that decision.
The Windows Media Center features I was able to try were pretty impressive on their own. For starters, I like the integrated Internet TV feature, which lets you browse through online shows that you can watch right in Windows Media Center. The interface is attractive, and the controls are easy to use. The selection is somewhat limited, though — I saw a lot of shows from CBS, but few from other networks. The content comes from a small group of providers, including CBS and MSNBC, and you also get access to the Zune podcast library.
I also like how you can browse available Internet TV titles from your desktop, using the desktop gadget. You just click on a show title, and you’re taken to Windows Media Center, where you can watch the entire show. Windows Media Center offers instant access to your Netflix Instant Watch queue, which makes it easy to browse and watch movies.
Also new in Windows 7 is Homegroup networking, a feature that has plenty of potential, but is, so far, limited. You can use the Homegroup option, which allows you to share files between computers. You could, for example, stream a video stored on your Windows 7 desktop to your laptop in another room. But — and it’s a big but — all computers in the Homegroup must be running Windows 7. The feature would be much more useful if it worked with computers running Windows Vista or XP, never mind Macs. Also odd: Windows 7 generates a Homegroup password for you — you can’t set your own.
Windows 7 isn’t perfect, of course — far from it. For one, fans of the free Windows Movie Maker app will be disappointed that it no longer comes bundled with Microsoft’s OS. (You can download it for free.) Overall, though, Windows 7 is by far the most multimedia-friendly version of Windows yet. It’s almost enough to convince me to move my PC into the family room. Almost.