Sunday, November 11, 2012

Digital Music in Windows 8

I've been using and writing about Windows 8 for some time now, for my two books Absolute Beginner's Guide to Computer Basics, Windows 8 Edition, and Easy Computer Basics, Windows 8 Edition. I just now got around to upgrading my aging Niveus media center PC to Windows 8, however, so I can now speak to the Windows 8 experience for digital music in the living room. 

First, about the upgrade. My Niveus Denali HTPC is getting a little long in the tooth. I'm pretty sure it dates back to 2005 or so, but in 2008, following a massive system failure, the good folks at Niveus put in a new motherboard and other internals, free of charge. So let's call it a 2008 model, still four years old, still running Windows Vista.

The upgrade went relatively smoothly. The only big issue was that, post-upgrade, Windows couldn't find my sound card or install proper drivers. Fortunately Brian Paper at Niveus helped me out by identifying the proper sound card and a link to the drivers; got the drivers installed and everything worked good as new. Better than new, actually, as Windows 8 is much, much zippier on older machines than Windows Vista was. Feels kind of like a new system.

(Kudos to Brian and the guys at Niveus for their continued assistance and support -- which they really don't need to do, as Niveus quit making PCs about two years ago. Now they focus on providing digital media solutions for various consumer and commercial markets; no more of those uber expensive, ultra quiet, high-end HTPCs, which I miss.)

Anyway, one of the questions I had was whether the default Win8 Music app (recently renamed to Xbox Music) would suffice for living room use. Quick answer? Nope. I thought the big-tiled interface would work well as a ten-foot interface, but that's not the case; navigation gets in the way. I can use my Logitech remote control to move left or right (or up or down) through the individual tiles, but not from one tile group to another on the Music screen. And, since Microsoft insists on starting Music on the Now Playing section, leading to the All Music section (the focus is on purchasing music, not playing your own), it's difficult if not impossible to move backwards to the My Music section to access my own digital music collection. Even when you get into the My Music section, the album display is much, much too small for living room use. Let's face it; Win8 is designed primarily for up-close tablet use, is somewhat usable on a standard desktop or notebook PC, but doesn't cut it as a living room media center interface.

Which means it's back to Windows Media Center. If you're into digital media at all, you probably know that Microsoft has ceased future development of WMC and even removed it from the base version of Windows 8. But MS still makes WMC available as an add-on for Win8 users, and it's actually free until the end of the year. (Go here to learn how to download WMC for Win8.)

So after I upgraded to Win8 I downloaded my free version of Windows Media Center. It's essentially the same WMC that was in Windows 7, which is a small improvement over the one I was using in Windows Vista. There were a handful of useful changes that I noted, including the following:
  • New Now Playing screen, with small thumbnails of album covers in the background. I kind of like it, but my wife thinks it's too busy.
  • New Now Playing controls after you make a selection. Smaller text, but more options. I give it a wash.
  • New "play pictures" option from the Now Playing screen, launches a completely different photo slideshow than the standard slideshow in the Photos section. Looks like it grabs all photos at random from the My Photos folder, as opposed to any selected subfolder. I like it.
  • New ability to play all albums/tracks released in a given year. I really like this.
  • Appears to have fixed the old Vista bug that downgraded all album artwork to 300 x 300 pixels.
And just a slightly snazzier interface throughout, with hipper fonts. Always nice to put a fresh coat of paint on the old house.

By the way, the potential issue of not being able to boot directly into WMC is an issue, but not a major one. Windows 8 always, always, always boots into the hated Start screen; you can't boot to the Desktop or to Media Center. But one push of the "green button" on the remote control launches WMC and displays it front and center. Turns out not to be a big deal, and I have to deal with the Win8 Start screen not much at all.

The big news, however, is how much faster the entire system runs under Windows 8. No more interminable pauses before playing music after a restart. Much, much faster booting. More responsive menus. Fewer little playback quirks. Just runs better. Well worth the $39 upgrade price.

I'll talk more about the Xbox Music app in a future post. At this juncture I'm not overwhelmingly impressed, but we'll see.

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