As part of our Home Technology Demonstration for Small Spaces we decided that a Media Center PC would be the appropriate device to store and serve all of our entertainment content. One of the independent newcomers to the market is CannonPC so we approached them and were very pleased with their co-operation to get a unit to us for testing.
The CannonPC Media Center has connections for almost everything there is so we have lots of optional arrangements here. This is basically a high end computer with all the audio and video inputs and outputs you’ll need. It’s going to receive the signals etc. from your cable box, photo collection and dvd’s etc., process them using all the most up to date software and magical formulas and then send them out to the audio and video equipment so you can see and hear them.
The first thing you will need to do is connect the CannonPC to your audio and video equipment. Almost every option is available here except HDMI so you should opt for the best connection available to your display and audio systems. In our case that is DVI for video and Optical for audio. If you don’t know what you should use there are several articles at HomeToys to help you understand the differences. I would recommend An Overview of CE Connectivity.
Lets have a quick look at the back of the CannonPC box. Just like a PC with more inputs and outputs right. Input from the outside world comes in the form of internet / ethernet, TV, HDTV and Radio signals.
In our case for the internet we are using a wireless network so for that all we need is the small antenna that is included in the CannonPC box. That connects to a special spot and sits on the shelf of the entertainment stand to receive the wireless signal. If you have an ethernet hub nearby you can plug the CannonPC directly into that.
There are 2 separate TV tuners and one HDTV tuner in the CannonPC unit. This is so you can watch TV on one channel while recording another channel on the built in DVR system. Nice feature. Unfortunately if you are using digital cable you will need 2 boxes to do this. You can’t set it up with one digital box and one straight cable connection. For our system we plug s-video from the digital cable box into one of the tuners. For audio we are limited to analog audio via RCA connections. Hopefully there will be more options for inputs in the future. It seems to be an issue of Digital Rights Management that’s holding up progress here. Here is a good diagram showing all the connections possible.
For over the air HDTV we went out and bought an antenna to see how that would work. A combination HDTV and FM radio antenna set us back about $25. Well worth it I think. We don’t get a ton of HDTV signals but when we get a clean one … it’s awesome.
That’s about it for wiring … oh except for the IR receiver (supplied by CannonPC). Plug that in and set it up on the equipment stand. This is what directs the IR remote control signals into the Media Center and also blasts them to the other components such as the cable box. It allows you to use the supplied Microsoft remote to control some of the digital box features and change channels etc.
Setting Up the System
Windows Media Center Edition is what we will be working with here and it has a fairly simple and comprehensive setup procedure to follow (like a wizard). Using this interface you go through the steps necessary to set up your audio and video signals as well as the other features such as TV, PVR etc.
As you can see, this is going to be an involved process so leave yourself some time to do a thorough job. One of the ugly things about the procedure is that if you get it wrong and have to come back to this setup wizard … you basically have to re-enter everything. It’s is a mystery to me why you can’t just change the settings that you want to … but that’s the way it works. CannonPC has some good pdf documents that you should have a look at to get the scope of what you will be up against. http://www.cannonpc.com/downloads.html
Here are a few tips and highlights:
1. Setting Up TV Signal
Here you input your zip code and the system goes and gets the appropriate TV guide for you. If you are using a digital cable box it also walks you through the process of setting up the Media Center remote to work with that box. Basically what you end up with is a system where the remote sends it’s “CH+” signal to the Media Center and internal software converts that to “CH+” for the set-top box and sends that signal back to the box via the IR blaster device. This works OK but is really a bit slow reacting for channel changing jockeys (like my son). I also find the Microsoft remote is less that thrilling to use. You really have to jab at the volume and channel buttons to get a response.
2. Configuring your display
This is the most important thing you will do since your display probably cost you more than the other equipment and with HDTV etc. you really want great pictures … not just good ones. For me, the wizard did not do a good job of this. It set me up for 720i resolution using the automatic process. I ended up going into the display settings for the desktop (remember this is just a computer) and tweaking it to get the “native” resolution of the our screen (1280×768 pixels). This gives me the awesome HDTV picture I expected. If you need help with this part of the process … get it wherever you can because it’s crucial to your viewing pleasure. Don’t settle unless you are completely happy.
3. Set up the speakers
Pretty straight forward stuff here. The wizard asks a few questions about how many speakers etc. and then plays a test tone in each so you can confirm that the system is working OK.
Setting up for the internet and wireless network are pretty straight forward so I’ll leave that to you. Mostly automatic or at least should be familiar if you already have an internet connection and / or home network.
I’ve got to admit though that I was a bit disappointed with the setup process of MCE. I think it still needs work and the stability of the platform is not what it needs to be to satisfy the average user. That said, once I got everything working satisfactorily and got my head around the idea that this is just another computer with all of it’s inherent quirks and frustrations … the tradeoff is well worth it in my opinion. With one simple remote control and a wireless keyboard (if I need it), I have access to Live and recorded TV and HDTV, DVD’s, My Movie and Concert Collection, My Music Collection, My Photo Collection, Radio, Internet browsing, internet services such as Napster. movielink, xm radio online, msn music. reuters news services, fox sports online, gaming on demand and many others. All of this is displayed and played via a widescreen display and whatever sound system I wish. In addition I have a powerful computer which I use to store my home and business files and since it runs 24/7 I can set up automatic backups etc.
A great experience I just had. Over Christmas the kids were home and I took a ton of photos on my digital camera. All I had to do was take out the memory card and plug it directly into the CannonPC via it’s handy front panel socket. Immediately I was able to show everyone all of the photos on the big screen. I just told it to show as a slide show and we all sat back and enjoyed the show while one of my favorite music playlists was playing in the background. This was all seamless and instantaneous.
I made the right decision selecting this for the Small Spaces Demo as far as I’m concerned. And the best part is that I’m sure the system will just get better as time goes on and because it is a computer I will be able to upgrade at will. The caveat here is … you need to have some knowledge of PC’s to get the most out of this equipment … and be prepared for some setup challenges. Gregg at CannonPC was most helpful and responsive to my questions … and that helped a great deal.
MSRP for this system is $2050 on the CannonPC website at www.cannonpc.com.
As I said, there are connections for almost everything you can dream up on this unit. Here is a link to the technical specs so you can see for yourself that CannonPC did not spare the expense when it comes to connectivity.