05 May 2012

As we had recently found out, much to the dismay of us Home Theater PC (HTPC) users, Media Center is not included by default in the new Windows 8 product SKUs.  Instead it would be available only if you purchase Windows 8 Pro and an add-on.  What could be driving Microsoft's reasoning behind not including it out of the box.  The numbers do the talking.  Meanwhile DVD playback is completely gone from Windows Media Player.
Statistics Driving the Add-on Direction

Microsoft released numbers that showed on average, last year, only 6% of users launched Media Center.  A product that has been around for 10 years should have better numbers than this.  Hence came the move from Microsoft deeming it an old-school add-on.  Even more shocking is that Microsoft has depreciated codecs as well, particularly those of audio and DVD playback.  Windows 8 will not have DVD playback out of the box, to gain these you will need the Media Center Pack.  DVD playback will also not work in Windows Media Player either (even with the add-on for Media Center).  

What is a Codec?

For the uninitiated, a codec is software that used to compress or decompress a digital media file such as a song or video.  MPEG-2 is widely used for DVD video, as well as digital TV signals and satellite TV systems.  On the audio side, Dolby Digital is the widely used standard for the same formats. 

A Brief History of Codecs with Windows

This codec topic is really nothing new.  Back in the days of Windows XP and Windows Vista there were specialized editions such as Windows Media Center Edition and also codec add-ons for Windows Media Player.  DVD playback was not included with Windows Vista Starter, Home Basic, Business, and Windows Vista Enterprise as well.  OEMs (PC makers) could license DVD playback on these for a price increase.  Then in Windows 7, Microsoft made the codecs available broadly in most editions, with the exception of Windows 7 Home Basic and Windows 7 Starter.  As a result Royalties related to DVD playback with Windows 7 were paid broadly, regardless of the inclusion of optical media players.  Microsoft realized that they were supplying codecs to a large number of PCs which didn't even have an optical drive or would ever play a DVD.

Thus with Windows 8, even though MPEG-2 for DVDs is missing, it is included in H.264 decoding with Dolby Digital Plus support.  The goal here is to focus on streaming of video, since optical drives aren't as common, hence just removing DVD-Video playback (and ignoring BluRay support) is par for this new course.  Statistics show that users will stream 3.4 billion movies in 2012 as opposed to watching 2.4 billion on all media combined.  The trend in the future is towards discless devices such as tablets, netbooks and ultrabooks.  Microsoft will save some money on the licensing costs for unsupported technology, while they and OEMs will only have to pay if a machine needs to play DVDs out of the box.

Upgrading your Windows 7 PC with a DVD drive

If there is existing third-party playback software, the Windows Upgrade Assistant will guide you and determine if the existing software will be compatible with Windows 8.  You will then be given the option to keep it after the upgrade.  If it can't be kept then you will have to acquire third-party playback software after the upgrade to Windows 8.  The alternative is to get the Windows 8 Media Center Pack or the Windows 8 Pro pack after the upgrade.  The Windows 8 Pro Pack is an upgrade from Windows 8 to Windows 8 Pro, hence making it possible to get the Media Center Pack add-on, since it requires Windows 8 Pro. 

Media Center Version and DVD playback in Windows Media Player

Microsoft has indicated that the version of Media Center included with Windows 8 is the one shipped with Windows 8 Consumer Preview, which is nearly identical to that of the one with Windows 7.  DVD playback will not be possible even after installing the Media Center add-on.  According to Microsoft this is "to avoid feature overlap and to avoid the complexity of behavior changing for a previously installed component, we only enable DVD playback in Media Center once it is installed."

CableCARD Support

Microsoft has stated that CableCARD support will still exist in Windows 8.

The Tech-Stew Take Home

It would not be shocking to find most HTPC users sticking with Windows 7 for the time being, rather than being forced to pay for both Windows 8 Pro and the add-on.  Or for those users to move to a different software under Windows 8, though without the Media Center pack CableCARD support may be non-existent.  There is a boatload of alternative software, many of them freeware, that would enable DVD playback in Windows 8 or give you Media Center-like ability.  MythTV, Xbox Media Center and Tversity would be alternatives to Media Center.  For DVD playback you could look into VLC Media Player, a free, open-source program that does an excellent job of playing media thanks to the French developers who aren't subject to costly licensing issues.  VLC will also play files ripped from BluRay discs, but not the discs themselves. 

Source:  Building Windows 8

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