Whether you've been a Media Center user for some time or you're just getting started, you're going to find that the core product from Microsoft, while excellent, doesn't quite do everything you need it to. Whether it's meta-data retrieval, music playback, movie playback or something else, there are certain apps you may want to consider when setting up a new HTPC. Below you'll find what we consider to be some of the best.
One of my absolute favorites. Whether you record a lot of TV or not, the shows you do grab will only look better using RecordedTV HD. It takes the standard TV interface in Media Center and really dresses it up. Backdrops, coverart and screenshots are all in store. The developer has continued to work hard at adding features and fixing any bugs.
The latest beta version of RecordedTV HD provides a more "Media Center" look to it, matching the rest of the UI if that's important to you. As well, RecordedTV HD actually works better than the standard Media Center app when it comes to sharing recordings across your network. Where the standard recorded TV section in Media Center will have a hard time properly reading and grouping shows that are on other PCs, RecordedTV HD never fails. Your shows are grouped by series and season making it easy to know if you're watching a new episode or a re-run. An absolute must-have. Set-up is easy as well and won't take the average user very long to complete.
You can try RecordedTV HD before buying it but trust me, it's well worth the $19.99 price tag.
If you're a TV and movie junkie like I am, getting things organized can be a bit of a chore. That's where Media Browser steps in and gives you not only meta-data (if you choose to use that portion of the program) but a gorgeous UI as well. And that's all before you really start digging into the options.
Media Browser is a free program. You get all of the core functionality at a price that can't be beat. Full movie and TV show cataloging if you're the type of person that stores a lot of content. Add-ons will even let you handle music through the application. Really, Media Browser is Media Center minus recorded TV. While that may sound redundant, the program does things in such a gorgeous way, it's hard to pass up.
If you do want to add more features, you can do so through the store on the application's website. Not only is the core product one that has found a permanent home in my Media Center setup, but the themes and add-ons provided by other developers are nothing to be passed up on.
If you're like me and you have a bit of OCD when it comes to proper meta-data for your collection, then meta<browser/> is for you. While it's not truly a Media Center app since it runs on the desktop, it does one thing and does it well: grabs every bit of info about every movie or TV show you have saved from the web and makes the information usable for several popular Media Center plugins such as Media Browser, My Movies and others.
meta<browser/> gets a bit pricy being $30 but if you feel compelled to have the most accurate and complete collection possible, it does the job to a T.
Though it's not an application that can really be considered in constant development like most, HeatWave, a weather plugin for Media Center, has been updated to run with Windows 7. At this point, there isn't really a website for the program, just download links. That said, if you like knowing what's going on without having to tune to The Weather Channel or getting up to head to a PC, HeatWave has you covered.
Available in both 32 and 64 bit forms, the application pulls data from weather.com and gives you most of the information you'd expect to see on their website. Once you set your location, you can get the current conditions, forecasts as well as radar (though not live).
It's not the most used app that I have installed but I like having it there. HeatWave does what it claims and works well.
In the end, the applications you run on your HTPC are going to be the ones you need. While you may not want to install each and every one of the apps listed above, they all perform the functions they claim they do and in a way to is seamless once they've been set up. Other than RecordedTV HD, none of these apps really add to the TV viewing experience, but then again, Media Center users are using their systems for more than just watching TV.
Do you have a favorite application, either for Media Center or another HTPC software that you think deserves to be on a "Best Apps" list? Drop an email and let us know!