Archive for April, 2008

What’s the best Media Center Extender?

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

With my CableCARD tuner coming tomorrow, I’m packing up one of my Series3 TiVos to sell, and I’m looking for a Media Center Extender. All three options are about the same price, but right now I’m leaning towards the D-Link DSM-750 even though it’s the most expensive at $315. But I’m tempted to save some money and pick up the Linksys DMA2100 for $250, but Chris L’s review has me thinking twice. The real problem is that no one has reviewed the D-Link. The Xbox 360 is $300 after you buy a remote, and although I understand it makes a great extender and also plays games, I’ve had one and the noise really bothered me. Plus I hear the IR receiver on it is troublesome.

Dell is shipping CableCARD tuners again!

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

Just like I’ve come to expect from Dell, it has shipped my order much faster than promised. It’s a good thing too, as 2 months was way too much to ask for. In the end it only took two weeks, which isn’t that bad. A few others at The Green Button had to wait a month, but it appears everyone there who’s been waiting, has had their order shipped. Also, I’m glad I ordered when I did, as the price is about $50 more now than it was when I ordered.

Three days with Vista Media Center

Sunday, April 6th, 2008

Just couldn’t wait to get home Friday night so I could continue on with my Vista Media Center project — I know right, I’m so cool. I did take two hours off to watch We Own the Night on Blu-ray with my wife, but the rest of the night I hacked away on my VMC and I made a few strides.

First I installed Acronis True Image to do full image backup to the existing Dell recovery partition. Right now I’m doing it with the 15-day trial, but might pay the $50 since it supports imaging while Windows is running and will also do incremental imaging. I also finally remembered I already had a BT mouse, and I’m happy to report my Mighty Mouse is working with VMC nicely — yes I actually like the Mighty Mouse. Still no keyboard though, but thanks to Patrick’s tip in my last post, I have a very workable solution, while I wait for the relatively expensive BT keyboard (diNevo Mini) Grant told me about, to come down in price.

The last thing I did Friday night was to discover a way to transfer all my TiVo recordings to my Media Center. First I setup TiVo Desktop 2.6 to download all my shows to D:\TiVo — including new shows from cable channels — and then installed the fully functional trial of VideoReDo, and finally I installed and configured TVAP, which automatically watches my TiVo directory for the shows that have finished automatically transfered from my TiVo, then converts them into DVR-MS files and moves them to my Recorded TV directory. The coolest part is that all the meta data is there and fwd/rwd works, but for whatever reason the thumbnails don’t.

I got up Saturday morning, made a Latte, and took a nice walk with the family. Then when I got home I continued to fight with my IR system, I discovered that if I electrical tape the flasher to the to the sensor and move it away from the other flashers, it works better; but it is still annoying to use. I spent the next few hours rewiring all my equipment. I do a lot of testing in my rack and I never clean it up as I go, plus I used to have DirecTV and I left all the wires there even though I’d removed the H20. So after that was done — what a relief — I went on to reprogram my MainLobby Home Automation controller with a new macro for watching the VMC. I had to disabled sleep with the remote so I could use the IR signal from the button to kick off the macro. I still need to figure out how to do the volume and power, might build some logic into my macro, might replace the remote — more on that later.

So now that all that was done, I spent some more time adding all my family’s series recordings — almost 30 in all — and discovered I had a few conflicts and was reminded why I needed a CableCARD tuner. Then I remembered I had an old PCI V-Box Cat’s Eye ATSC tuner from another project and slapped it in. I tried to use MCE Tuner Extender, but it wouldn’t work, so I added an old USB MCE analog tuner I had — yes I have tons of crap like this all over the place — and after a few minutes fighting with the unintuitive interface, I had all four tuners working. After this, I was having problems updating guide data and thanks to Process Explorer it appeared the files where in use by WebGuide, so I stopped the services and was able to update, so I just removed the plug-in for now.

While I was wiring everything up, I discovered my ATI DVI to component adapter didn’t work on my ATI Radeon HD3650 video card, and based on the documentation, I came to the conclusion that component wasn’t an option. For those who don’t know, the reason I prefer component is because I have a Key Digital 8×3 component matrix switcher, and an HDMI matrix switch costs way too much — not to mention I like to make my own cables. I do have one 35-foot HDMI cable ran to my 60-inch Pioneer Kuro, but I use it for Blu-ray since component can’t carry 1080p24. So this revelation motivated me to sell my BD-P1000 on Amazon and buy a Lite-On Blu-ray player from Newegg for $129. I also took advantage of ArcSoft’s April Fools day sales — ends today enter code Fool08 at checkout — and got Total MediaTheater for $45. The Lite-On drive comes with Power DVD, but it doesn’t integrate with VMC very well.

Now that everything was working, I finally took some time to watch a few shows, some recorded on the VMC, some converted from the TiVo, I’m experiencing some judder, but not sure why or how yet. Will keep an eye on it, may try switching the output to 1080i.

I also spent some time tweeking the audio settings of ffdshow so it’d pass DTS, but then I was having some choppy playback on a few 1080p mkv files with DTS — you didn’t think I went without Paramount and Universal movies in HD did you? — so I switched it back to decode and re-encode as AC3.

I still have no idea where this thing is going to live, it’s just so big. Right now it’s on the top of my rack and looks like it might fall off at any minute, I may just have to wait until I sell my TiVos to find it a permanent home.

I also saw a deal on the Harmony One which I’ve had my eye on since CES, so I ordered one. I figure the worst case I’ll just sell it. But best case it’ll fix my IR repeater problem and make it easier for me to control the volume and power of my system since the VMC remote Dell included isn’t programmable. I used to have a Harmony 880 and I hated it, but after playing with the One at CES, I quickly realized they’d fixed all my gripes, but I was still not willing to pay $250, so it appears my wait is over.

Day one with Vista Media Center

Friday, April 4th, 2008

I successfully completed everything I set out to do yesterday, and more, and am feeling more confident that this solution will be able to replace my TiVos, but I’ll wait until I receive my CableCARD tuner to pass final judgment.

I ended up reinstalling Vista, because it was quicker than repartitioning and uninstall all the crapware, AV, firewalls etc. Then I installed all the updates including SP1. Next I installed both Logmein and Ultra VNC — because logmein is very slow locally — but I’m having problems getting VNC to launch at boot and I also had to disabled uac, since it was interfering with VNC. Later I plan to try an RDP hack. I then configured it to login automatically and start Media Center. I had some trouble configuring the display because although the video card properly set the HDMI output to 1080p, it also had underscan turned on by default. I’m sure this is helpful for some, but I prefer to use the “dot by dot” feature of my TV to disable overscan.

I also configured my HDHomeRun for ATSC and scheduled a bunch of recordings, everything works great, but it could change channels a little faster — hopefully the CableCARD tuner will. The biggest problem I’m having is with the remote, it doesn’t seem to work well with my Xantech IR distribution system, just like my AppleTV does. It is working, just not real well, which brings me to my biggest problem; I need a wireless keyboard/mouse. VNC is not working out, and having the keyboard in the a different room is nearly impossible. I’m going to be on the hunt for a nice Media Center Keyboard with integrated mouse, preferably Bluetooth, but IR will work too.

After I got the basics up and running I went out and installed ffdshow and haali so I could playback additional codecs like mkv. This was easy to setup thanks to Chris L, and is passing Dolby Digital and DTS nicely. The last thing I did was copy the contents of my “originals” folder from my iPhoto library and the contents of the “music” folder from my iTunes collection. Those copies finished this morning, so we’ll see how VMC deals with them, and how much work it will require to make those features usable. I may just end up continuing to use my Apple TV for music. I also want to figure out what the best way to import my shows from my TiVos. I copied over an exported show that was already converted to MPEG2, which worked, but I didn’t have as much control as I do when playing back DVR-MS files. So that is on the list of things to do, I may look at VideoRedo for converting the .tivo files to DVR-MS, but I’d rather not buy software as it’ll be a one time deal.

So enough about setup, here’s some Media Center impressions from a long time TiVo owner.

  • Setup was much, much, much harder, but not impossible — TiVo you just plug it in and set your res’, Guided Setup take some time, but other than that it’s a breeze.
  • The overall UI is so much better than TiVo it isn’t even funny, although some of the plugins look just as out of place as HME applications.
  • The grid guide is really snappy, the overlay is really cool, and I love how it actually shows what is recording and what is not because of a conflict in the guide. So no more To Do List to fight with. But the to do list is there, and better than TiVo because it splits it out by days.
  • Conflict resolution is also much better, you just pick what show you want per conflict. Of course you can set a priority — which doesn’t take 5 minutes to apply like TiVo.
  • The miniguide is very useful, but the info button not so much, I quickly learned you are better off just hitting the ‘up’ button than the info button to check show details.
  • I do already miss the ability to control the two tuners, but maybe that will fade as I stop using the TiVo.
  • The quick access buttons on the remote are useful, but TiVo did have some shortcuts that worked well, if you knew them.
  • The scrub bar is really nice, the FWD, RWD, skip etc, work very well, in this regard the TiVo and the Media Center are very comparable.
  • I love being able to play ‘other’ files without converting them.
  • Played a little with the pictures, it’s much better than TiVo as well, but then again I never liked the pictures feature on TiVo.
  • Setting defaults for recordings is nice as well. I don’t think Tivo has this, but I like being able to set “first runs only” by default.
  • The one button recording is also convenient, but I usually end up going in there to edit something anyways, this may pass as I get use,d to it.

Vista Media Center arrives today, what to do first?

Thursday, April 3rd, 2008

Dell loves to under promise and over deliver and although my new XPS 420 wasn’t expected to ship until the 14th, it is on track to arrive today via FedEx. Let’s just hope my ATI CableCARD tuner arrives in 1/3rd the time as well.

Unlike my TiVos, I’m sure I have a lot of setup to do. I plan to initially connect it to my desktop display until I think it’s ready to connect to the TV. Here’s what I know I have to do up until now, can you think of anything else?

  1. Try to repartition drive to make it easier to reinstall Windows, may need to re-install.
  2. Uninstall crapware
  3. Uninstall A/V and firewalls, disable Window’s firewall
  4. Update drivers on Dell’s site, then check manufactures’
  5. Install Windows updates including SP1
  6. Install and configure my HDHomerun as a tuner and setup MCE
  7. Install Ultra VNC and test from my Mac — since Vista doesn’t include RDP, might install hack later
  8. Setup two users, one admin and one to auto login VMC as
  9. Configure VMC to auto load in Media Center mode using the switch and startup
  10. Finally, move to rack and connect to my HDTV, maybe via HDMI, maybe component, depending on which works better

My primary objective is to replace my Series3. After I’m satisfied I’ve done this, then I’ll pick up an extender for my second HDTV. Then I’ll start to look at plug-ins and explore the other VMC features. Unless of course there is a plug-in that I need to replace the functionality of my TiVo.

Stay tuned for my impressions of how things go.