Forget hard work – your PC is a hub of all things entertaining, from games to videos and music, and you're going to be distracted no matter how hard you try to get something done.
Feel like you're achieving something while giving in to procrastination by making your media library bend to your every whim.
1. Get the right player
Playing back media properly comes down to two things: the right player and the right codecs. You should deal with the former first, and there are plenty of choices out there that are more robust than (but perhaps not as pretty as) Windows Media Player.
The first option to try out is VLC, a highly regarded multi-platform player with a few fairly advanced abilities. Alternatively, try Media Player Classic – less capable, but more compatible with a wide range of formats.
2. Download a codec pack
Codecs are a tricky business – try to delve any deeper than installing them and hoping they work and you'll be in for weeks of reading about exactly what they're doing. The simplest thing to do is install a codec pack, hand-picked by the community for compatibility.
The primary free one is XP Codec Pack. Don't worry about the name – it's fully compatible with later versions of Windows. There are other packs out there too, but these aren't necessarily safe/legal to use, so tread carefully.
3. Tweak the EQ
Soundcards often include advanced interfaces that enable you to mess around with the way sound is output. Your results will vary depending on your PC's sound hardware, but you'll find the settings screen in Control Panel. Go to 'Hardware and Sound | Sound', find your device in the Playback tab and then click 'Properties'.
4. Stream to consoles
While your PC is probably able to play back multiple file formats, your other devices might not be. Even the Xbox 360, which is generally quite capable of playing back video, baulks at certain types.
The solution is to transcode that video and send it to the console in a different way, a job that's handled admirably by Tversity. You can use it to set up a UPnP interface to stream to consoles, and convert formats like YouTube directly.
5. Move Live TV
Tversity covers the task of shifting pre-formatted video files on a local network well, but to move TV streams around your house – or over the internet – you'll need Orb. It's an elegant solution.
Install the software, get it running and you'll be able to point any browser to the website at http://mycast.orb.com to start watching your home media – including the output of your TV card – from other devices.
6. Get more to watch
You can probably find places to download TV shows off your own back. We're not about to incriminate ourselves by pointing you to the all-too obvious illegitimate sources of material that can be found all over the web.
Finding legal content is probably more difficult. Start by checking out www.clearbits.net, a site dedicated to helping legitimate content providers share their works by bittorrent.
7. Explore the classics
If you just want something to watch, why not dig out something from the olden days? The Internet Archive, found at www.archive.org, contains a wealth of interesting abandoned content from times gone by, and even modern content that's deemed worthy of preservation.
Dig through and find a movie or slice of audio that you like, and use the links in the left-hand column to download the content in your choice of formats.
8. Grab content from Youtube
Miro, formerly known as Democracy Player, is a fantastic all-in-one media player and downloader with one particular talent – searching through streaming video sites and grabbing content for later consumption. It couldn't be easier.
Download Miro from www.getmiro.com, install the player, open it and use the Video Search function in the left-hand column to find what you're looking for. Just click the 'Download' button next to the content you want and it will be stored in Miro's video library.
Make sure you start the video playing and click the 'Keep' button if you want to hang on to it – otherwise, Miro automatically deletes downloads after a certain expiry time.
9. Convert to your mobile device
Videora is generally considered the best free conversion application for getting all sorts of videos onto your iPhone or PSP for offline viewing. You can even convert FLV files, which is handy if you've extracted a bunch of them with Miro.
Download the program from www.videora.com, then install it – keeping an eye out for the chunk of insidious crapware it attempts to install halfway through – and navigate through the (rather horrible) interface. From there, video conversion is a simple point-and-click job.
10. Stream Live TV
If you've been around the internet for some years, then you'll know of the folly of live streaming. It's a great idea, but not one that works well. You can try, though!
Your first port of call, for a variety of European stations and worldwide news, should be www.tvlizer.com, the latest in a long line of aggregation sites. Then you should check out www.tvcatchup.com for a decent selection of UK channels. You can even use this site on your mobile devices, but don't expect miracles.
11. Remote control VLC
VLC has a little hidden functionality that enables you to control it from any PC in the house.
If you're using your laptop and have a movie running on the box under your TV, for example, just point your laptop's web browser to the IP address of the media PC at port 80 – 192.168.1.2:8080, for example – and voila! Full remote control access.
There's a free iPhone app that performs the same function, although it's a little heavy on the ads for the full (paid-for) version.
12. Find some more remotes
The best known remote control application for the iPhone is Apple's own iTunes remote app, and it works particularly well – if you can stand to use iTunes. You'll also find an app for controlling popular homebrew media centre XBMC, although this one doesn't have a free version.
And if you happen to have an internet-connected Blu-ray player and a bunch of films from Universal, hunt out pocketBLU. It's a very specific iPhone remote control that only works in these particular circumstances. Is it any wonder the Blu-ray format hasn't really taken off yet?
13. Back up your library
Make a copy of your media on an external drive to protect it from electronic death. Simple! With most applications you'll need to hunt through your various folders and copy files manually, but if iTunes has one saving grace, it's the program's ability to make this task easy.
Start by consolidating your library ('File | Library | Consolidate Library') to bring all of your media content into one folder, and then copy that folder (usually '\Documents and Settings\username\My Documents \My Music\iTunes\iTunes Music') to your backup disc.
14. Master metadata
If you have a huge music collection, you'll know how annoying it is when certain tracks aren't properly tagged. You could wade through and tweak all of your tags yourself, or you could download Picard from www.musicbrainz.org and have it do the hard work for you.
The community-supported audio-tagger uses a vast database of shared information to get things right, and if there's something it doesn't know, you'll be helping the next person who's in your situation by adding to its repertoire.
15. Go completely mad
VLC has one final trick up its sleeve: it can display your videos in the classic ASCII style. If you've ever wanted to watch an epilepsy-inducing video made up of ANSI-coloured text characters, now's your chance.
Just go to the 'Preferences' screen, hit the 'Video' section and change the output mode to 'Colour AsCii Art'. You might need to stop and then restart your video to see it in action.
5 quick Windows Media Center tips
16. Skip the startup
There's no need for the animation that pops up when you start Media Center. Luckily, it's simple to stop it. Right-click the shortcut and, in the 'Target' box, add the phrase /nostart upanimation after the text that's already there. Click 'Apply', and you're set.
17. Straight to the library
There are other switches you can add: try /homepage :Music BrowsePage.xml /Push StartPage:True to force the program to start in the media library. To jump to live TV, try /homepage: Video Fullscreen.xml /PushStart Page:True – Live TV.
18. Skip further
The Quick Skip button hops you forward 30 seconds, but let's make it three minutes.
Run regedit, go to 'HKEY_ CURRENT_USER\ Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Media Center\Settings\VideoSettings' and change the value of 'Skip AheadInterval' to 180000.
19. Integrate Twitter
Point your browser to www.mcezone.com/plugins.php and grab the plug-in. Unzip the file, double-click the installer and find it in Media Center's 'Extras' section. Log in with your usual details and you'll be able to tweet while watching.
20. Watch IPTV
If you only install one plug-in into Media Center, make it TunerFree MCE. Grab it from www.tunerfree.tv and install it. You'll then gain access to the terrestrial TV channels, as well as all of the various on-demand content that's provided by services such as BBC iPlayer and 4oD.
5 quick VLC tips
21. Play YouTube videos
If you go to the Media menu and choose 'Open Network Stream', you can paste in the address of a YouTube video and have VLC play the highest-quality version available in its own interface. This means easy skipping, multi-monitor fullscreen, and you won't need a browser open.
22. Rip on the fly
Want a quick way to take clips from DVDs or any other video source? In the View menu, select 'Advanced Controls'. Play back a video and hit the record button that's displayed. A recording of the current video, in MP4 format, will appear in your Videos directory.
23. Set as wallpaper
Pointless it may be, but VLC's ability to access the DirectX video layer means you can use a video as your wallpaper. Hit [Ctrl]+[P] to bring up the Preferences screen and, under 'Video', choose 'DirectX output'. Restart VLC, then select 'Enable wallpaper mode' on the same screen. Pretty!
24. Take it with you
If you're taking videos around on a hard drive, why not include a copy of VLC with them? PortableApps has compiled a version that's only 20MB in size and doesn't require installation, so it will run off your external drive. See www.portableapps.com.
25. Download an alternative
VLC being a free, open-source application, others have taken the code and run with it. We recommend checking out Kantaris for an alternative with a heap more features built in, notably a gorgeous user interface. You can download Kantaris from www.kantaris.org.
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