Media Center Stuff (updated)

It’s been a while since I posted, so I thought I would, oh and some people have been saying I should write a post on this as they are now just getting into it…… So here we go, Vista Media Center.

Core Stuff………. Stuff I do to all my MCE boxes

  • X64 or x86? I’ve ran x64 for over 12 months now, but just recently switched back to x86 due to BR / HD DVD as most software does not work well with x64.
  • Drivers, ALWAYS make sure you have the latest drivers on, especially for graphics and TV receivers (currently using 2xPinaccle 7010ix’s so have 4xDVB-T and 4xDVB-S, no don’t ask about the DVB-S, due to NDA I cannot say owt, but in RTM/SP1 Vista use DVB-S Bridge or MCE2DVBS).
  • Windows Update the box and make sure you have the latest SP’s on for at least MC and the Core OS.
  • AntiVirus, now this is a difficult one. When I ran the x64 setup I did not even bother thinking about adding AV to the box, it afterall just uses IO and memory/cpu up. However on x86 there is a higher chance of getting virus’s, depending on what you use the PC for. I do all downloads on my laptop, and transfer them unpacked to the VMC, that way the laptop does the AV checks, and there is little need for AV on the VMC box. That being said there is browsing to worry about, again it does not worry me as all my internet traffic goes through an ISA server 2006 box with perimeter scanning turned on, keeps all malware/spyware etc out, but most will not have that option. If you do need AV on the box, then it might be worth setting it up to scan once a day/week and turn the realtime off. Then make sure you use either Vista Ultimate’s image utils, or something like Acronis Drive Image to keep a backup of a ‘safe’ version of the OS (another benefit of separating OS from Data drives). I also recommend doing a backup of the OS before any major update/install, that way you can roll back if it causes issues.
  • Windows Search 4, performance of the indexer is MUCH better, mad if you don’t install it as it reduces disk IO contention quite a lot (affects the Fiji release more than RTM/SP1, but still worth doing no matter what).
  • Power Options, decide if you want the machine to sleep, hybrid sleep, or not bother (due to the want to use WebGuide I leave mine on, it draws little power when it’s not doing anything, but you could get your router to do a wake on lan when it detects a request for WebGuide). After doing that head to the control panel for power and set those options, you also want to set the CPU state stuff in the advanced options tab, so the CPU is 100%/100%, daft only allowing windows to use a subset of the CPU. Disable the screen shutdown as you power the tv down yourself when you don’t use it, and most TV’s don’t support the same powering signals as monitors anyhow.
  • Screensaver, you are using a MC box, why not set the photo screensaver up to point to your family photos.
  • Setup some folders for Pic’s/Vids/Music, then remove the ‘default’ stuff by deleting the shortcuts in your %userprofile% folder (the shortcuts in the Video/Music and pics folders)
  • Change the Recorded TV path (edit registry) HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Media Center\Service\Recording and edit the LastRecordPath and the RecordPath to the place you really want it to be, then delete the c:\users\….. folder (the one the regkey was originally). Make sure you move any recorded TV out of that old folder first.
  • Setup the audio, make sure Windows knows if you have a DTS receiver, control panel sounds, then properties on the output in use (TosLink recommended). After all why have a DTS/AC3/DD decoder, and not use it.
  • Don’t use the quick setup option on first run, do it properly, it will save time in the long run.
  • If you have a graphics card that has the ability to clock down the memory and GPU then do it, it will keep the box cooler, so less fan noise, and make the PCIx cards in the slot next to it less prone to overheating. Remember don’t underclock it so much that AVC-1 playback suffers though, else BR/HDDVD wont be much fun, so a little trial and error here.
  • Install AnyDVD HD to get rid of the content protection on BR/HDDVD disk’s. Also allows for ‘underclocking’ the speed of the drive, makes it quite.
  • Setup your network card for your LAN, set the speed to 100/Full or 100/Half depending on the quality of your routers and switches. Nothing kills network performance quite like AutoDetect. (As I was reminded by Ben from Engadget HD make sure your switch is also configured to the same setting, use the telnet or HTTP interface to set it, see your manual)
  • Try set all you machines up for IPv6 if possible, if not (hardware routers don’t support it etc), then disable it in the protocols list. If it’s not setup right it will slow connections down.
  • If you get video/photo/music from a network share (server 2003/server 2008/WHS) then create the user on the VMC PC to be the same username and password, this will save issues later in trying to get Vista to remember passwords. Also it’s worth noting that Windows Server 2008’s network speed when used with Vista is a Lot better than 2003/WHS.
  • Run Control UserPasswords2 and set the VMC user to not require a username and password to login. This will ‘Auto Login’ the user and get you into VMC without the need for interaction on your behalf, also set the advanced power options and Screensaver options so you don’t have to re-enter password on resume.
  • In the general settings of Media Center (in the startup and window behaviour) set VMC to auto start, and be always on top, again this will save you from pressing the Green Button on the remote every time the machine starts. Also go into the optimizations option and turn it on, this will try keep VMC clean and tidy.
  • Change the defrag options in Scheduled Tasks (start-run-taskschd.msc-tasks-Microsoft-Windows-Defrag). By default it runs once a week at 1am. I’ve found it’s better changed to twice a week (wed/sun) at 3am or so, as there is less likely to be recordings going on, but you know your recording schedule best, so make your own decision. Worth doing though as the recorded TV files are large, and tend to be deleted/created regularly, so cause a fair chunk of fragmentation, and recording from possibly 8 tuners really needs the IO performance.
  • Talking of IO performance, I have found it’s best to separate the OS from the TV drives. I don’t mean partitioning, I mean actual drives. Get yourself a small SATA for the OS and then use the big drive or drives for the recording. I have 2x250gb drives (raid 1) for the OS and then 4x500Gb drives (raid 5) for the video. This gives me redundancy and performance where I need it.
  • Disable the SideBar, after all it takes up resources and you will never see it. Go into control panel sidebar, and untick the start with windows.
  • Disable any ‘clever’ manufacturer software. It’s usually bloatware and completely un needed. I’m all for fdisking and starting again when I get a PC from one of the large manufacturers. Just make sure you have the network driver on a USB stick or CD else you wont be able to get to the net/Windows Update for the rest of the drivers.
  • Domains, if your machine is on a home network with a domain, use the same username and password as the domain user for it and don’t attach to the domain. Why you might ask, well domains have great management features that many get wrong, and I would not want to miss a show because I had set the domain policies up wrong by accident. Also domain membership has other memory and performance overheads to think of.
  • Make sure you set Windows Update to not install and reboot automatically (just download the updates). Last thing you want is for a recording to not get done, or get interrupted because of an auto update. Some even set WU to not do anything, just notify when an update is available, I can see the point in that as well, there is no chance of issues then.
  • Get a proper Media Center remote, or at least one that is 100% compatible. Again it just saves hassle if you don’t have to re-program the thing.
  • PowerStrip is a useful utility if you are struggling to get a 1:1 pixel map on your telly.
  • UPDATE – I completely forgot about this one, and I could not live without it, how I forgot I will never know, Synergy allows you to use a keyboard and mouse on one PC, to control another. I install it so the client (machine to be controlled) is on the VMC machine, and the Server (the controlling keyboard and mouse) is on my laptop. I always have my laptop nearby when I’m on the sofa, so controlling VMC at a desktop level or browser level is as easy as pie. This makes installing apps or updates so much more comfy than getting up to pickup the keyboard/mouse combo that’s hidden behind the telly. And before you say that they don’t support it in Vista, yes I know, but it works fine, just set it to autostart when the user logs in (which the VMC box does automatically) instead of running it as a service. But if you must run it as a service then just go edit the username it’s starting as to the VMC box admin account, and it will work fine anyhow.
  • SideShow plugin for VMC allows you to use your sideshow device for control on VMC. This also includes the recently released Windows Mobile SideShow client. Save’s on purchasing another remote as long as you have a sideshow device that the plugin supports. You will need a Microsoft Connect login to download the plugin as it’s still in Beta, but that’s just a matter of having a passport enabled email address.

Codec’s…….. These are the best solutions for codecs I have found, remember the best way to deal with Codec’s is to take the view of less is more… Codecs tend to step on each others toes, so don’t install one unless you really need it. Debugging DirectShow codec issues is a nightmare.

  • FFDShow-Tryout, easiest way to get 95% of the the video and audio formats covered, it’s stable, fast and reliable. I tend to recomend using the latest stable Beta as that will give you the least hassle. That being said I tend to use the latest and greatest, and roll back if I have troubles, which has only happened once before.
  • Media Control Plugin, not strictly a codec, but this VMC plugin gives you fast forward and rewind as well as subtitle enable/disable and a whole bunch of other stuff, for any video played back with FFDShow-Tryout. A must download.
  • Haali Media Splitter, allows playback of MKV and other MP4 wrapper stuff.
  • QuickTime, yes I know, use an alternative if you must, but QT is now easy to get WITHOUT all the iPod rubbish, and having the real thing on saves hassle later. Just tell it to not check for updates.
  • COREAVC, this is a little tuffer to sell, especially when FFDShow does most of what this does. But if you have a tricky MP4 that just wont play, then this may be the solution. Beware though it’s a pay for codec.

Applications….. The interesting stuff

  • WebGuide, awesome application, schedule your recordings, watch recordings (transcode in realtime) and share tuner recourses, brilliant. (does not work in Fiji, but may be fixed at a later date as the coder now works for the MS Media Center team)
  • TVTonic, RSS2 Media platform for VMC with VMC native interface. Great application. Needs the real Quicktime installed.
  • Tuner Free MCE, great way of catching up on telly, plays the free streaming systems from the BBC/ITV/Channel 4 (i.e iPlayer, works in Fiji, but bug with installer causes issues, will be resolved shortly, see below for temporary fix)
  • My Movies, great movie and DVD management software for VMC, downloads the information and meta data for the movies, and even allows you to setup a movie server for use on many VMC boxes. Biggest issue is it needs the server component installed, and my feeling is it’s a little too heavyweight to be installed on the VMC box. But have a try yourself, I just like to keep the VMC box as clean as possible as there are less chances for issues if there is little installed.
  • VMC Browser, Web browser for Media Center, uses the IE engine, but allows for the 10ft interface. Not perfect, but works just fine. Once that’s installed try Google Maps For MCE.
  • MyNetFlix, yes I know I’m English and Netflix has not hit us yet, but it’s a great piece of software and from all accounts works well.
  • ArcSoft Total Media Theatre, Blu ray and HD DVD playback integrated into VMC (almost, works seamlessly though). Much better than the haphazard integration that you have to use to get PowerDVD/WinDVD working. There is a downside to this though, it’s an x86 only application (at the moment), and will not work at all in the 64bit world.
  • Big Screen Weather, weather reporting and so much more, amazing display of the VMC native interface (issues with Fiji, see below for fix).
  • Big Screen Photos, same people, same great interface design. Displays your Flickr account pictures in various ways. BS Headlines (RSS Reader) and Contacts are both great as well (issues with Fiji, see below for fix).
  • DVRMSToolbox, excellent application, allows the removal of adverts from shows recorded, as well as converting the DVR-MS files to other formats (xvid/wmv etc). Note not Fiji friendly at all, too many API and file format changes, should be fixed after Fiji release though.
  • RadioTime, MCE version of the web based radio system, works great and has hundreds of stations. Copy the MCL file to %userprofile%\AppData\Roaming\Media Center Programs this will then add it to the Program Library.
  • MCEAuction, eBay in VMC.
  • EmuCenter, play all the mame (and other emulator) supported arcade games on your telly.
  • Intelli Remote, not strictly a VMC plugin, but super useful when you have got it sorted out. Advanced control of any IR device using the blasters on the MC remote. Also allows the remote to be ‘reprogrammed’ without reprogramming it.
  • RemindMeMCE, exactly what it says, setup reminders.
  • DeepBurner, again not a VMC plugin, but it’s a good lightweight DVD/CD burner that does not hook the OS. This means if there is need to burn anything outside of the VMC environment you can, and it’s highly unlikely to cause issues like Nero and the likes can as these tend to try ‘improve’ VMC’s burning options as well.
  • IMGBurn someone mentioned this to me, and I had completely forgotten about it, but do still use it quite regularly. The core of this app used to be the much fabled DVD Decrypter, which was obviously banned. But it’s a great Swiss Army knife piece of software to have on the box. And best of all, it does not tie itself into the OS at all, so should cause no problems. (mikinho thanks.)

Stuff you might not know… But might be useful

  • Go to Recorded TV, Add Recording, Keyword, General and put in your favourite star/director/sport/whatever and VMC will record everything that’s aired with them in it. You end up getting interviews etc on programs you would never usually watch, and it’s great.
  • Go into Online Media, Program Gallery, right click (or i) any application and you can pin it to the Online media menu bar to save you having to find it every time in the programs folder list.
  • The channel orders and numbers can be re-arranged by going to Settings, TV, Guide, Edit Channels. Make it the way YOU want it, not the way VMC wants to give it you.
  • Setup a Favourites lineup (same section as above) and only see the channels that mean something to you. (Fiji Only)
  • Looking for something to watch, well the guide allows sorting by program type (movie/sport etc), just press left a couple of times in the guide and the guide area will slide out to display the options.
  • Want the Gallery option for the DVD area of VMC and not in the USA? Goto HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Media Center\Settings\DvdSettings and change the ShowGallery option to Gallery from Play. This gives you cover art etc for the DVD’s.
  • Pick up a dual BR/HD DVD drive, HD DVD’s are going for nothing at the moment as companies are FireSale’ing them. There still good, and quality wise are the equal to BR (if not better in some regards). If you already have a BR drive, why not get yourself an XBox 360 HD DVD drive, Vista knows all about it, and they are going for peanuts (best buy in the states has them for $5 at the moment). You can then get the whole HD DVD collection (or at least the good ones) for the same price as 2 Blu ray titles.
  • Make sure you add your ‘video’ folder to VMC. This can be on the local machine or the network. Goto Pics and Vids, then into video library click i (CTRL-D) then Library Setup and tell VMC where to monitor. Add your pictures and music share here as well, VMC will know where to put it all. Then again if you followed my advice up above and went through the full setup at first start you would have already done this.
  • Important one this, you don’t NEED a ‘Media Center’ machine to run Media Center. I use a Tower Machine that I built myself. This way I can have the storage and components I want, and it hides nicely in the corner of the room along with the sub behind a table. All the cables are channeled to the TV (including the IR receiver) and because It’s quite and unobtrusive (quality fans, and components) people don’t even realise it’s a PC doing the task. The other way to do it is to setup the VMC machine, and put it in a spare room/cupboard and use Media Center Extenders to get the output to the TV (Linksys/360/Dlink or HP do extenders). Basically what I am saying is there is no reason not to have a VMC PC controlling your digital home (there is even software for controlling X10 devices for home automation).

And that’s about it…. I don’t think I have missed anything, but sure I have?

Anyhow, if you have any other decent VMC plugin’s or apps that you use, then leave me a message, and I’ll give em a go.

And remember, VMC is a media center first and foremost. My mantra is only install what is needed on the box, the less on the PC the less chance of hassle you will have.

Update : Fiji problems (install ones at least) can be overcome quite easily, pop into the registry (before trying to install), goto HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Media Center and change the Ident value to 5.0, now install and change it back to 5.1. You will (possibly) need to do the same thing if you decide to uninstall the application as well. Cheers to Niall (over at Big Screen) for the help on sorting that one out.

Oh and if you don’t know what Fiji is, then don’t worry about it, you won’t see the issues with Vista RTM or Vista SP1 Media Center.

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