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Maximizing Windows : Getting the most out of your Windows Media Center remote

This article was originally published on January 14, 2011.

There’s no doubt about it, Microsoft Windows Media Center is a pretty fantastic product. There are competitors out there (Boxee, Front Row, and MythTV come to mind), but WMC is undeniably an amazing piece of software. It has continued to evolve and improve since Microsoft created its Media Center Edition of Windows XP, and now most home computers come with Media Center – it’s a standard component in Windows 7 Home Premium and Ultimate.

Combined with a good codec pack, Windows Media Center can handle pretty much anything you throw at it – I have no problems playing many different video formats, from the popular XviD and DivX to the slightly-less-common MKV format (which is frequently found as uncompressed 1080P video). However, as I started using WMC more and more with my little Acer L310 HTPC, I discovered I wanted a little more out of my MCE remote.

I’d had the good fortune to come across a used Microsoft MCE Remote v2, which undeniably offers the best support for MCE, seeing as it’s a Microsoft device made specifically for Microsoft hardware. Shortly after acquiring this remote and its accompanying USB receiver, I ended up getting a refurbished Logitech Harmony 550 universal remote for even more awesome control of my home theatre system.

I was disappointed to find out that the Harmony remote and its software can’t easily accept keyboard shortcuts (e.g. Ctrl+C) as remote commands. This makes sense, I suppose, since the remote uses standard IR commands for the many devices it supports. I was stuck with only the buttons that my MCE remote had, and I wanted more. There are handy keyboard shortcuts to access the media sections of WMC – pictures, videos, and music (the DVD menu button will take you to the movies section if a DVD isn’t currently playing). I wanted to program these shortcuts to the multi-function buttons around the LCD on my Harmony remote.

I first tried an older solution with an application called HIP, which theoretically could have let me reprogram the buttons on my MCE remote. Unfortunately, HIP relies on a modified driver for the USB IR receiver…which isn’t 64-bit compatible. I knew that Microsoft used to market an MCE keyboard that used IR, so if I could get my hands on one of those, I could teach my Harmony remote all the IR commands I was looking for. However, this particular keyboard is no longer sold, so I’d be stuck searching for one on eBay and elsewhere – not to mention that I really don’t need yet another keyboard floating around my apartment.

Finally, I happened upon a post on Logitech’s customer forums that mentioned the Microsoft MCE IR keyboard is in the Harmony software’s hardware database – you just have to know how to get to it! Instead of adding your HTPC as its own device, use the keyboard itself – it’s under Computer > Computer > Microsoft. Enter MCE Keyboard as the device, and presto! You have access to all 104 keys of a standard keyboard, plus some extra shortcut keys and MCE controls present on the original Microsoft hardware! With the Harmony software’s ability to enter key sequences in the “additional buttons” section, you can make your remote do anything you want – you can even further extend its ability with something like AutoHotKey, and assign a simple two-key shortcut to whatever scripting needs you might have.

With this discovery, I have exactly what I need to get the most out of my Harmony remote and my Windows Media Center experience. Keep in mind, however, that this solution will only work with Microsoft MCE-specific eHome IR receivers. Third-party MCE remotes use different receivers and IR commands; the keyboard’s IR codes will only work with an original Microsoft receiver.