Road Kill on the Convergence Highway: Three months with Windows Media Center

Special Contribution to BYOPVR by:

Duke Weber ( dukeweber AT gmail.com )

10/7/2005


I’m with Stupid

Gadget Jones comin’ down. I had to have something with a plug, or at the least a battery compartment. Primal cravings make people do strange and stupid things. They made me build a Windows Media Center PC.



This has been going on since I was 12. Mom would drag me to Radio Shack to buy diodes. Diodes, a gateway gadget, lead to stronger stuff. Pretty soon you’re soldering everything in sight. Then stereos with speakers as big as refrigerators, wires made from single crystals of silver. Zones of audio, zones of video. DVI and HDMI and panels and plugs that no one else in the house understands, except maybe the 15 year-old girl with the 16:9 rectangular eyes.



Computers everywhere. Windows and Macs and Linux. Ethernet Cat 1,2,3,4,5 and 6. Routers, hubs and switches blinking under tables and in closets. Eventually the computer stuff gets lucky with the hi-fi and video heap and that is what magazines like this call “Convergence”. Digital devices, music and video converging in a whole new pile of stuff with plugs that we can all go out and buy RIGHT NOW.



I’d already plucked the low-hanging convergence fruit. Hang a bunch of beater laptops on network, plug ‘em into stereos with he-man external sound boxes. Run iTunes all around and pat yourself on the back ‘cause you are CONVERGED, and you didn’t have to pay the price of a Buick for some gadget with an 80 gig drive and a blue light to do it.



But when the Gadget Jones is down, you need more wire. A few months ago, I made the mistake of cruising websites that traffic in this convergence porn. The news, behold, is that Microsoft, after a few tries, now has a product that doesn’t suck - Media Center Edition 2005. Mister Softee, we all know, has become the behemoth it is by selling software that sucks. It doesn’t suck quite enough for you to toss it out and get a pencil and a typewriter, but it AWAYS sucks enough that you’re willing to bite for the next version, which might suck a little less.

If you read it on the Internet, it must be true

I was ready to bite when “Paul Thurrott’s SuperSite for Windows” told me that, unlike Media Center Editions 2002 and 2004, the new one didn’t suck. This could be a two-channel HDTV TIVO, an archive for all those VHS tapes, and a DVD recording factory.



I was ready to bite harder when “Build It, Tweak It, Know It” (Extreme Tech) told me the secrets of turning the heap of computer innards in the closet into an uber-converged monster machine that would have the lesser nerds drooling on the socks in their Teva sandals.






The first secret is that you need to scam your way into getting a copy of Windows XP Media Edition 2005, which is only sold to OEMs. Usually, OEMs are companies like Dell and HP. You too can be an OEM by buying some OEM computer parts to use with the OEM software. Most of ‘em want you to buy a carload of cases and power supplies and motherboards to qualify as an OEM. Directron.com wants to sell you a mouse. I buy the mouse and snare a shrink wrap Windows MCE 2005, plus the snazzy Microsoft remote control. $125 for the OS, $35 for the remote, $2.99 for the mouse. ( rampy note: fyi you can also get MCE 2005 from PC Alchemy or New Egg similiar hardware bundling requirements still apply)







In the great tradition of “gadgets beget gadgets” the mouse comes with an IR receiver on a long USB wire so you can hide the humming beast in a closet.



Gadgets beget lots of gadgets. I wasn’t going to build some girlie man Media PC, so I scoped out Microsoft’s list of deluxe pre-made Media PCs



I made sure that I had the best of any of them. More disks, faster AMD Athlon 64 CPU, Zalman Cooler, Gigs of memory, DVD readers & writers, video in, DVI out. The pile of packages alone was a nerd badge of courage.







I can follow instructions as well as the next middle-aged geek, so I stuffed it into the “world’s quietest computer case” (an Antec Sonata) wired it all together and booted it up.



Oh boy. Right there on the monitor was the product of a zillion bucks worth of Microsoft Research, the “Ten Foot Interface”. This is supposed to let you use a remote control instead of keyboard & mouse to navigate around ten-foot interface “My Problem” PC applications.







It actually worked. I could record two TV shows and watch a third at the same time. I was majorly converged. Whipping stuff off cable TV and mixing in stuff from the Web. I could see the movie posters, casts and reviews for 200 channels for the next two weeks.



The Wide Screen HDTV Convergence Moment of Zen

Now it was time to move the black box with the terabyte inside ustairs to wire it to the big TV, a big 64” HDTV Pioneer CRT rear projector, the Pro-730HDI. The local hi-fi huts wanted a few hundred bucks for a 15 foot DVI-HDMI cable, but at Markertek I found it for under $50, delivered. This was not the last Markertek purchase I would make.






The softly humming Media Center PC found a good spot in the equipment closet, wired in with digital video, digital audio, two cable connections, FM antenna, and some purple dongle for a/v inputs, and anything else I could plug into it.






The ATI interface knew the Pioneer model number, but didn’t know what to do with it. The picture was a modest 4:3 box in the middle of the big screen, and not particularly good.



I was able to goose it up to a better size, but nothing like the big clear HDMI picture that comes out of a DVD player. After much correspondence, I learned that even though the ATI software recognizes the Pioneer HDTV, actually making it work is not a current or planned feature.

“The Killer App of the HTPC World”

Back on the web, they say something called “Powerstrip” is needed. It’s a huge chunk of freeware for tweaking drivers. You can’t buy it, but it is free, downloadable and documented across a couple of websites (one such resource is PowerStrip tutorial)



Here we learn this high concept stuff:



“Powerstrip is indeed "the killer app" of the HTPC world. It is possibly the most important program today in the "convergence" market between computers (PC only unfortunately!) and the high definition television (HDTV) or Projector marketplace. With it you can craft a custom resolution and sync timings to enable the best possible display of your computer Desktop, DVD's and other video sources from an HTPC to an HDTV or Projector.”



And we also learn the down and dirty truth of doing this:



“Check to make sure everything looks ok. For instance, if using the Key Digital KD-VTCA2 Transcoder, make sure the sync Polarity is set the same in Powerstrip as it is set on the Dip Switch on the Transcoder.”



Most of this is equally simple. They also tell you that you need to attach a regular monitor, and make sure you know how to start up in “safe mode” to recover from the many times your HDTV will refuse to cooperate. Thus you end up with this convenient remote control setup.






The wire snaking out of the closet into the front of the monitor is the S-video cable that went in after learning the hard DVI-HDMI lesson. It is actually the second S-video cable in this spot.







S-video is the suicide bomber of consumer electronics connectors, if not inserted & removed dead-on axis, they leave parts behind, as one did while being wrestled behind the PC.



What Media Center does really well is show many ways there are to mess with an HDTV monitor that it doesn’t like, and allow you to practice starting in “safe mode”.



What is does really poorly is most of everything else. I retired from battle with a strategic retreat: moving the whole shebang to the bedroom, cohabitating with me, spouse, two medium dogs, and a vanilla 27” CRT.



DVR – Sort of

As a DVR, one tuner was just OK, with a second tuner working, it was still OK, provided you weren’t too picky about mouths moving at the same time words came out. Out with the snazzy Realtek integrated sound on the ASUS-A8V motherboard. In with an Audigy 2ZS to lessen the load on the AMD 64 3000+ processor. More gadgets. That cured the synch. The picture still was no where close to a vintage Tivo.



But it does keep track of the programs, important with a terabyte of disc. You can see all the episodes of a show grouped together. Movie posters retrieved from the net are nice. It seems dumber than Tivo about recording the same show repeatedly, even on the same day. It is definitely not a tosser as a DVR. I didn’t try the HDTV off air recording, since the mountain between me and the antenna in LA keeps the signal away. There would also not be much point to it, since HDTV playback was DOA.

Video Recorder – Hopeless

As a video recorder, for archiving tapes, you have to leave Media Center and tussle with one windows movie app or another. The one that comes with XP takes an hour to save a file that took an hour to import.



Well, maybe recording to DVD-R is better. Forget it. Media Center tells you to insert a recordable disk. You do. It tells you to insert a recordable disk. You do. It tells you again. The “You have ten seconds to drop your weapon.” Robocop School of Software. DVD recording can actually work if you leave Media Center and use some XP program which doesn’t know anything about the remote control. It will play DVDs.

Audio – Uh Oh

I already had a distributed digital music system, with PCs and laptops running iTunes, sharing libraries, which worked just fine. When a new iTunes was started, it took about 30 seconds to get its bearings, and share the 25,000+ songs on a few machines.



Media Center wanted to put all this in “My Music”, so I let it. TWO DAYS LATER it was still adding files AND THEN IT LOST THEM!!!! Since there was a terabyte on the machine and a person only needs so many reruns of The Daily Show, I moved a copy of the music up to a local drive. MCE then updated “My Music” with the new files but can’t get rid of the old ones, which it doesn’t access anyway, so there are almost 60,000 titles and HALF OF THEM ARE WRONG!!!



Not to be totally negative, you get a little dancing animated Scooby-Doo, who keeps time to the music and you can download more Windows Dancers for 20 bucks (yeah, I did it). The visualizations are certified Grateful Dead quality concert space-outs and go well with Scooby and the other dancing fools.







With FM radio on the machine, you could have an FM-Tivo to record mp3s. It would seem to make sense. Instead, the radio in MCE has a user interface last seen in a late seventies car radio. You pick 9 FM stations, by frequency. Play one, or don’t. The sound quality is marginally better than a car radio, but not by much.






One does wonder if anybody ever really tried this before the put on the shrink-wrap. Mixing consumer electronics with Windows and the Internet is just one wacky idea.

The Final Indignity

The Netopian dream of the refrigerator that orders more milk when you run low remains elusive. But in the 21st century, with Media Center, your VCR can now offer to sell you Viagra. And it has a social disease.



That is the final curse of Media Center. Even if it worked, it would still be Windows .



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