Building a Media Center – Rebuilt using Windows 8

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Its been a while since I wrote an article about Media Centers, and in truth, its kind of overdue.
My current ‘primary’ Media Center at home is showing its age, as is my server and workstation. Recently I find myself thinking more and more about successors to these venerable systems that have served me so well over the years…

My server and workstation will have to wait for another day as they have always been more closely related so the focus today is on my primary Media Center which lives in the living room attached to the TV. So with that in mind, I rebuilt it last weekend. I thought I’d document some of my experiences.

At the most basic level, and as far as I can see, my choice was either to 1) Continue and see if I can further its life a little more by (Within reason) upgrading or reinstalling the hardware/software or 2) Cut my losses and shed out to build a new and better system. I chose the former as I think the old dog still has a bit of fight in it yet.

So here is what I did.

Things to be aware of:
I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to use Windows 8 for the OS.
It would be an upgrade from the customised Windows 7 currently installed. I have always felt that despite the push and idea of Windows 8 being designed for touch interfaces, it would work very well as a sofa/remote-friendly interface due to the tiled design. I also recently downloaded and tested the Windows 8.1 Preview which I ran for a few weeks and liked, and as thats a good reason as any to be ready for the rumoured August release.
I also want my Media Center to be used as my own ‘Steam Box’ using the ‘Big Picture’ which is a controller-friendly interface that I have not used much until now. This might also help me make a dent in my ridiculously large Steam library…

The idea behind the vast majority my home technology and Media serving needs are centred around the goal of simplicity and ease of setup. I’m long past the days of creating a complicated infrastructure at home using lots of cool tech that always breaks. Of course, I have the ‘girlfriend test’ to confirm when something is too difficult to use but I have a few basic goals that I aim for when building a media center:
1. Everything should be available using the remote from the sofa
2. I should be able to recover from a crash/freeze without needing a keyboard/mouse
3. Worse case scenario via restarting the system, again using the remote
4. Again, I should not NEED a mouse/keyboard

This meant creating custom shortcuts in the Windows 8 ‘Start Screen’ and making these do things I want. This allowed me to use the Start Screen as my applications launcher, which is already its purpose anyway. I also configured the system to remap the remotes ‘Green Button’ to the normal Windows key. So if I’m ever in trouble or need to install Updates, I can hit the Green Button, and restart (Which is very quick with Windows 8).

Hardware used
My old HP Compaq dc7800 – 2GHz Core2duo & 2GB DDR2 (Soon to be 4GB)
I recently upgraded the system with a nVidia 210 low-profile GPU
A semi-official MS MCE remote set that I got on ebay a few years for 7 GBP
USB Mouse and Keyboard for intial setup
A wireless Bluetooth keyboard I always keep handy nearby (For Justin)

Software used
Windows 8 (Obviously)
Plex Media Center
Steam Client

As you can see, there is no special or custom hardware here, its all off-the-shelf parts. I concentrate on the ecosystem of how different devices work together in my home and try to keep that experience consistent.
I did some fancy shortcuts and automation but nothing particularly special this time around.

Install Windows 8.
An important point to make is that I create a local account that has access to my media on my server, not a ‘Microsoft Account’ which Windows 8 really pushes you to create if an internet connection is detected. The way to get around this is simply to unplug the network cable while installing and configuring Windows.

At this point important to create 2 local accounts instead of 1. Set passwords for both accounts. The reason I do this is so that the first account is the ‘Administrator’ that will be used for installing/updating/fixing the system and the second account is the regular (Non-Administator) user that will be configured for autologin. Of course, I could forgo this part and just create a single Administrative account, but I always feel safer knowing that somebody wont be able to fubar my Media Center when I’m not around…

Configure Autologin
1. Press Windows+R keys on the keyboard to bring up the ‘Run…’ dialog
2. Enter ‘netplwiz’ into the text box and press ‘OK’. You’ll see a list of the accounts you created here.
3. Select the one you wish to use for autologin and untick the “Users must enter a user name and password to use this computer” box
4. enter the username/password for the autologin account.
5. Press ‘OK’ and you’re done.
There is another guide for this

Configure Power options not to require password
1. Open the Control Panel (icons view), and click/tap on the Power Options icon.
2. In the left pane, click/tap on the Require a password on wakeup link.
3. Click/tap on the Change settings that are currently unavailable link.
4. If prompted by UAC, click/tap on Yes.
5. Do step 6 or 7 below for what you would like to do.
6a. To Disable Require Password on Wakeup
6b. Select (dot) the Require a password setting, click/tap on Save changes, and go to step 8 below.
7a. To Enable Require Password on Wakeup
7b. Select (dot) the Don’t require a password setting, click/tap on Save changes, and go to step 8 below.
8. When finished, you can close the Power Options window if you like.

Configure ‘Green Button’
1. Press Windows+R keys on the keyboard to bring up the ‘Run…’ dialog
2. Enter ‘regedit’ into the text box and press ‘OK’. You’ll see the Registry Editor.
3. Export the following key, so you can restore in case something breaks.
4. In the same location, find the value ‘ReportMappingTable’ to modify it.
5. Scroll to the bottom of the binary data and add the following: 0D 00 00 00 04 08 00
6. Reboot your computer.
I found some useful instructions which provided details (and screenshot for those who might want).

After this I login to the 2nd ‘Media-only’ account to begin customisation.
I didnt need to login again as my Administrative account anymore.

Install & configure Plex
Download the Plex Media Center from Plex and install.
Start Plex and configure your account in settings

Install & configure Steam
Download the Steam Client from Valve and install.
Start Steam, login and configure the settings menu to:
-Not start with Windows
-Always launch in Big Picture
-I always configure a bandwidth limit also, but thats optional
-The rest is pretty standard, exit Steam

Start Screen shortcuts
Create desktop shortcuts using the following destinations (Create ‘Internet Shortcut’ for Steam)
Shutdown – “shutdown.exe /s /t 0”
Restart – “shutdown.exe /r /t 0”
Logoff – “shutdown.exe /l”
Hibernate – “shutdown.exe /h”
Plex Media Center – “C:Program Files (x86)PlexPlex Media CenterPlex.exe”
Steam Big Picture – “steam:/open/bigpicture”
You may also wish to setup the correct icons for these shortcuts!

Show shortcuts in Start Screen
Copy all of these shortcuts to folder:
“C:ProgramDataMicrosoftWindowsStart MenuPrograms”
You can then pick and pin these to your Start Screen view, as they will now be listed in ‘All Apps’.
I found an interesting article that explains this very well.

Issues and things to note
1. Steam and Plex dont like running together
I find that if Big Picture is running, Plex may misbehave.
Likewise Big Picture misbehaves when Plex is running.
I simply always ‘Quit’ Plex when intending to run Steam Big Picture or when in Big Picture either ‘Exit to Desktop’ or ‘Exit Steam’ to completely exit Steam. It seems ok that Steam is running as long as Big Picture is not active. You can always restart Big Picture from the Start Screen shortcut.

2. There is an issue with ‘Games for Windows Live’ games
(I encountered this with Street Fighter IV but all ‘GFWL’ enabled games will do this)
Here are instructions I found on the steam forum:
1. Uninstall MS Games for windows if its already installed
2. Download MS Games for windows from this link
3. BEFORE running SETUP, set the properties of the setup file to COMPATIBILITY MODE with “Windows 7” and also CHECK “Run as Administrator”
4. After setup launch the MS Games for windows and close it
5. Copy these files
FROM folder C:WindowsSysWOW64
TO THE folder C:WindowsSystem32
6. Run the game…

Well that should just about do it.

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