Fine Tuning Media Center 7 – Is it all worth it?

See Part 2 here.

I didn’t think that it would come to this…but we have finally switched to a cable box, and I’ll be re-purposing the Media Center PC shortly. This post has 2 purposes: 1. To help me make sure I did the right thing and work out ways to get functionality back. 2. Help anyone that is thinking about going this route make the decision. We have used a Media Center based TV for nearly 5 years now. It wasn’t always easy as you may have guessed from some of my other posts – and there were times where I almost gave up completely. This time, the 2nd media hard drive in the system failed, and we were greeted with a BSOD. Upon reboot, the system hung completely. I booted into WinPE from a USB key I keep around and as soon as I [tried] to run Diskpart – I knew what the problem was. When the drive was unplugged, the system booted just fine.

Several friends and family have asked about having me setup this kind of system for them…and the answer has always been “it’s expensive, and you’re knowledge of PCs doesn’t meet the requirements”. I believe one of the biggest problems is that Windows is a General Purpose Operating System – there’s just too much ‘other’ functionality built in that gets in the way of Media Center. The other major problem with Media Center is thanks to cable providers and broadcast companies that want to have WAY too much control of content. Why the hell is there even a need for a flipping cable card? An OCUR device is really just a QAM tuner with a decryption engine – HD channels work fine if they are not encrypted (and some of them still are not encrypted). Even the term “OCUR” scares broadcasting companies – “Open Cable”?!?! They all want a closed system…anyway, I digress.

Our system has been through several changes – hardware changes, upgrades…we started with one QAM tuner (when most HD channels were not yet encrypted) then I purchased 2 ATI DCT CableCard tuners. We started with Vista, then the [ahem…hacked…] TV Pack 2008 update, then Windows 7 and finally the digital cable adviser tool. I believe that Media Center is a great product – when it works, it’s just plain awesome. Every single person that saw it was always impressed – but when it doesn’t work…it just sucks. So here’s the meat and potatoes: The ‘Pros’ are things that make Media Center awesome – and in my case, I’m trying to work out ways to replace them. The ‘Cons’ are things that are in the most general sense “Things that get in the way of watching TV”. Granted some of the cons may be specific to my hardware setup and environment, but still – it’s good to know what CAN happen.

The Pros:

  • Audio Library
    • Having your entire music library at hand is always nice – and if it’s not stored on the PC itself, across the network works just fine too. It’s searchable by artist, album, song name, or playlist, AND while the music is playing, the background image – a scrolling mosaic of all of your album covers – just looks fantastic on a large TV. I have found that the only problem with this is can be having TOO MUCH music to search through – playlists can fix this for the most part, but that is more work. Not to mention all of the online content from streaming services such as Pandora.
    • The Replacement: Music to either the TV or PS3 via DLNA. And as soon as I can get my hands on a receiver with DLNA support, the better.
  • Picture Library
    • There are two parts to this – the first is being able to do a full screen slideshow of a folder of pictures (or everything) with music in the background. The second part is the default “screen saver” in Media Center – it is a B&W mosaic of all pictures in the library that is constantly scrolling, zooming in, and changing. It really is a great conversation piece – the ultimate digital photo frame. While it is nice, I found that we only used this feature when guests were around or when we went on a trip.
    • The Replacement: Photos to the TV or PS3 via DLNA
  • Video Library
    • Much like the above – we all know that a PC can play nearly ANY multimedia content. This includes downloaded movie trailers, videos taken from a camera, movies, and the other big portion of this section – online video content such as youtube, hulu, Netflix, etc. Keep in mind that the Netflix plugin for Media Center is a native plugin and works perfectly.
    • The Replacement: A combination of DLNA and the Netflix plugin on the PS3…and OnDemand – see below. While it won’t play everything, it’s not terrible.
  • Excellent DVR
    • Your MediaCenter-based DVR is limited in storage space by the amount of hard drive space you have – and when you think about the fact that any storage type is supported (external drives, flash, USB thumb drives, network drives, iSCSI…) – the storage truly is unlimited. Additionally, if a show is not marked with copy protection, you can copy the .wtv file to any Windows 7 PC and watch it over and over. This also includes the live tv pause buffer – this part is nice – phone rings right when the killer is revealed? That’s what pause is for.
    • The Replacement: Sadly – none in this case. We found that we did not record that much any more, and chose not to use a DVR from the cable provider…and yes, we already miss the pause buffer
  • Video Upconversion
    • I don’t know if this is the true version of “up-converting” to 1080P, but the TV was always in 1080P mode regardless of what was being displayed.
    • The Replacement: None – this does not really apply.
  • Built in optical drive
    • No need for more boxes here – the DVD player is built right in to the box – and the drive looks nice too! On top of that, while I never had a chance to do this, Blu-Ray internal drives have been available for some time and are becoming more and more affordable.
    • The Replacement: PS3
  • Huge PC
    • Having a computer connected to a large TV is just nice…forget tablets being all the rage – this is a full PC with a GIANT screen and a wireless full keyboard and mouse. Don’t knock it until you try it. And did I mention games? Ever played Dawn of War on a 55″ screen? I didn’t think so.
    • The Replacement: None.
  • Sports package
    • All scores listed for all major leagues, plus near-play-by-play during games. Additionally, there is a FoxSports add-in that allows for stories, news, and commentaries that’s built for the Media Center.
    • The Replacement: None.


The Cons:

  • Boot time\Sleep issues
    • I’m lumping these two together as I feel like they are related. If you read the previous post about Power Optimization then you know that the only way to make a Media Center usable daily is to have it go to sleep and wake from sleep – this way it appears that the TV powering on is nearly instant. In Windows 7 – the sleep function works great. But you have to realize how many times you power on and off a TV – quite a few. Otherwise, it’s a full boot from no power and you’re waiting for a minute or so before the system is fully usable. There were also times where I would bring the system up from sleep, everything would be powered on, but the TV would be completely black…moving the mouse around, I could hear the tones when rolling over the guide…Ctrl+Shift+Esc would open task manager, but Media Center would always be in focus. Sometimes I could get it to close – and no, Alt+F4 didn’t work. I don’t know what was causing this, but it was quite annoying – fortunately it didn’t happen all that often.
  • Guide jump to Recorded TV
    • This also happened semi-frequently: when selecting ‘Guide’ from the menu, the cursor would slide back one space left to ‘Recorded TV’ and select it. I don’t know if this was a remote control issue or IR receiver issue, but it was annoying. A close and re-open of media center resolved this one.
  • Overall remote issues
    • I’m going to blame this one on the i-Mon IR receiver and LCD package that is a part of the PC case. Don’t get me wrong – the LCD is pretty cool, even more so when the ability to turn it off quickly and schedule on\off times was released in software. Also, not having an external IR receiver was also nice as there was one build next to the LCD screen in the case – but its reception SUCKED – it required pretty close to direct line of sight and there always seemed to be just a tad bit of a delay. It’s even more evident with a cable box as we can have the remote sitting on the coffee table and can still change the channel. And no, the multiple IR emitter array in the Harmony remote didn’t help with this one. There were also key repeat\key stuck issues – if you tried to punch in channel 438 – you might end up on channel 433333333333333333333333.
  • No OnDemand
    • This is a known limitation of the setup from the very beginning – if you are using a CableCard, you don’t get OnDemand (or an interactive Guide, but the MediaCenter took care of that). This is because the whole premise of the CableCard is that it works in an OCUR – Open Cable Unidirectional Receiver. But the strange part that I don’t understand: look inside of a cable box…what do you see? A CableCard. WTF?!? Either way, I must admit that OnDemand is pretty nice – especially now that the cable companies keep touting the service and adding content to it.
  • Hardware failure
    • This is what brought us to this point. Two failed (or failing) hard drives, weird motherboard issues where the system wouldn’t boot if a cable was not sitting the right way (that’s the only thing I can figure – if it was happening, the fix was to pop open the case and jiggle wires….it worked)
  • Heat and Noise
    • Also known as “everything you would expect from a very high performance PC”. Let me explain: 2 Digital Cable Tuners (and these things get frigging HOTT!!), a dual-slot high end video card, 8GB of RAM with heat sinks, 2 hard drives – one of which has constant, high I/O, and a 3.2GHz CPU. All of this on air cooling. In a micro-ATX case. With just 2 120mm fans in the case. I know – not the best case, but aesthetically, it is an awesome case. It looked very nice, it was approved by the “review board” of the house, had a nice flip-door for the optical drive tray, and a built in IR receiver. On days when it was hot outside and the A\C in the house was not on full blast, this thing got loud…that’s all there is to it.
  • Cable provider service updates
    • This happened when we went to the Cable Card tuners and there are two parts to this – and they are both VERY frustrating. The first is caused because of the fact that Cable Cards are VERY rare for cable providers – VERY FEW subscribers use them, so when there is an issue with yours, good luck getting it fixed. The Cable Card must be paired to the Receiver and stay with that receiver in order to work. We went through weeks where one of the two tuners would not work….I probably spent hours on the phone trying to get it all sorted, but never did. This problem was actually caused by the second part of this section: If the cable provider sends out a channel update and your system is turned off or asleep, you won’t receive the update and it will need to be manually sent out. The channel table is what tells the guide what channel number is what station – the service provider can (and will) change the channel lineup at will, and this can get difficult. Also, if you change your service to get a new package or premium channel – an update will need to be sent to your receiver(s). When non-CableCard proficient support personnel try to work on CableCards – things just don’t work out. The long story short is that cable boxes work natively with the cable system – everyone can work on them, and do not require special attention.

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