Category Archives: Media Center

August EP650B Headphone Review

I’ve been using some in ear headphones at work for a while now, and although they worked just fine, the office has become a very noisy place as of recent so I decided to treat myself to some over ear headphones to get some of the noise isolation I wasn’t getting with the in ear ones.

I didn’t want to spend a fortune on them (and hence Active noise cancel was out) and prefered if they had BT4 / APTx support so at least over Bluetooth they would sound half decent. So I went looking for what was around.

I found a few that had decent writeups and the likes, but just then I had an email arrive, Amazon had these at a discount on one of their “Deal of the Day” offers. So thought “what’s the harm” and took the plunge.

SpecificationsIMG_20160427_140602

Bluetooth Specification: Bluetooth V4.0 (APTx and CSR support)
Operating Range: Up to 10m
Frequency Response: 60Hz – 20KHz
Speaker Output: 30mW
SNR: ≥85dB
Distortion: ≤1.0%
Battery: 3.7V/220mAh Built-in Li-ion Battery
Working Time: 10 Hours
Charging Time: 2 Hours
Standby Time: 30 Days
Weight: 235g
Dimensions: 176.6 x 188.6 x 71mm

IMG_20160427_140622Review

Now I know the specs don’t look outstanding, but remember these headphones were under £30 shipped, and had all the features I was looking for, at least on paper. The Frequency range is above average for the price and support BT4/APTx while adding a good level of noise isolation.

SOUND

OK, so they are headphones, so how do they sound? Answer… Pretty darn good! Now I will say straight away, they are bass heavy, but that is not necessarily a bad thing (depending on what you listen too obviously). I’ve tweaked this in the equaliser on my phone and PC, so they are less ‘boomy’ but if you are into metal/hard rock, I’m sure they would be just fine for you. Other frequency ranges are a lot more equalised, with mids and high’s representing themselves well, as long as not drowned out by bass that is. This could be read as a critical point, however other headphone hardware that cost’s a lot more (looking at you Beats) have the same sound representation, so it seems to be what all of the manufacturers are doing at the moment (only Sennheiser seem to have refrained at the moment), Sony started the ‘I can do Bass’ trend a while back. Hopefully it will move on at some point soon, as we all know that better magnets have allowed bigger bass, it’s like the whole blue LED thing, see them everywhere now, even on things that are designed for the bedroom, if the LED is on it’s like daylight in the room.

BUILD

IMG_20160427_140656The build quality on the headphones seems to be sound enough. the fit and finish looks pretty good, and I know the ‘B’ spec units have had some tweaks over the original because of issues with the plastics around the headphone cups. Only time will tell however, so if anything happens I’ll update this post. They fold to allow easier travel as well, which is nice. Pity they don’t come with some sort of case (although one is available on Amazon if you want one). They are packaged with a USB cable and a 3.5″ Headphone cable.

CONNECTIVITY

One of the main reasons for purchasing them was the BT4 support, allowing me to use them to listen and take calls on from my phone (Nexus 6P). And in this regard they work admirably.  I have been pleasantly surprised with how well they handle calls over the phone and Skype for Business, with no complaints from the people I’m speaking to about the noise/quality.

Bluetooth audio quality is great, yes it’s not the exact same as hardwired quality, but as long as your phone supports APTx it’s well within the margins of the flexibility over quality weighing up. They also have the standard BT controls on the Right earphone exterior, so volume, skip and play/pause all work. Just remember, the controls only work over BT, and not over 3.5″ or USB.

NFC pairing is supported, and worked just fine on the Nexus when tested.

The one thing that I didn’t realise, and is not well documented on the box or manual, the USB connectivity allows for more than just charging. When plugged into the PC (Windows 10IP) it registers as a media device with both Audio and Microphone support, and so can be used as a device on that as well. With the extremely useful ability to be connected to both the PC (USB) and the Phone (BT4) at the same time, and switches between the most recently used source. So if listening to the Phone, and then you press play on the PC it sends a Pause command to the phone, and audio on the PC takes over instantly, and vice versa, Very useful!

BATTERY

Battery life is rated at 10 hours+, and I have no reason to doubt that. It’s obviously dependent on how loud you drive them, and what source you use to do it, but I’ve not run out of charge yet through a complete working day, so that’s fine with me.

CONCLUSION

I was surprised by the abilities of these ‘cost effective’ headphones, I bought them on a whim to see if they would do until I found something that I could live with long term, and to be honest, I’ve stopped looking. These are much better than the price would make you believe. In fact one of the nicest things to be said for them is that after I purchased mine, two of my colleagues have also purchased some for the same reason. Not much higher praise really if you ask me than three ‘geeks’ in the same team owning them.

IMG_20160427_140710
Update : Got the travel pack for them and it’s perfectly functional, nothing special but hey, it’s only to hold them safe, so cant expect too much I suppose.

Buy now at Amazon.co.uk

Packed Bitstream in Win7

The Windows 7 ‘SuperCodec’ does not like Packed Bitstream xVids and DivX’s. It shows itself by looking like the playback is at 15-20fps instead of 23.997/25/29.997. Not a problem though, we can fix that with a little PowerShell and MPEG4ModifierCL (see below).

The script is as below, just save this into a UpdateVideoPacking.ps1

# Enumerate through avi files in directory
# and run MMCL to uncompress them if required

foreach ($file in get-childitem *.avi)
{
  $FileTrim = $file.name.TrimEnd(".avi")
  $FileNew = $fileTrim + ".up.avi"
  write-host "Working on " $FileTrim "Output To " $FileNew
  mmcl –unpack $file.name $FileNew
  if($LASTEXITCODE -eq 0)
    {
      if (Test-Path $FileNew)
       {   
         write-host "Would delete "$file
         del $file
       }
    }
   write-host "Completed Folder"
}

Make sure that the MPEG4Modifier executable (mmcl.exe) is in the path, or the same folder as the script/video’s.

Now pull down and install PowerShell if you have not, launch it and type set-ExecutionPolicy unrestricted (will allow the PS1 to run)

Now change folder to the video folder you want to process and type fullpathtoscript\UpdateVideoPacking.ps1 this will run the script in the folder, I put both the script and the mmcl.exe in my c:\utils folder, which is in my path.

The script will read the file in, determine if the file needs unpacking, if it does it will create a file with the same name as the original but put .up before the .avi. It will then make sure the unpack worked without error, and delete the original, if you don’t want it to delete the file put a # in front of the line del $file this will then just echo the file’s name out to the screen that would have been deleted.

Yes I know the code is a little clunky, and this version only does one folder at a time, I do have a version that will traverse the tree, and will post it if anyone wants it.

MPEG4ModifierCL Download

Media Center and US Content

A couple of people at work have asked me how to get some of the US only features working on Vista Media Center.

I have not put it off for any particular reason, It's just I forgot to do it.

Anyhow, it's easy! Copy the registry file content below into notepad and save it out into a .reg file.

Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00

[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\Keyboard Layouts\00000409]
"Layout File"="KBDUK.DLL"
"Layout Text"="United Kingdom"

[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\Keyboard Layout\DosKeybCodes]
"00000409"="uk"

[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Media Center\Settings\MCE.GlobalSettings]
"systemGeoISO2"="US"

Yeah I know it looks like this will set your keyboard into US, it does but we swap the location over so that the US is actualy UK.

You can do this for any country by changing the DLL etc over to your keyboard.

Oh, nearly forgot, make sure you do a Guide Update after doing this (Tasks/Settings/TV/Guide/Get Latest Guide Listings)

Media Center WideScreen

I've been playing with coding a MCE Vista Plug-in for downloading Video's from Easynews of late, and I've come across a very useful command in the MCE developer documentation that I thought would be worth sharing.

If you start MCE on a Vista PC using c:\windows\eHome\ehshell.exe /widescreen Media Center will launch in Wide Screen (16×9) for you to test things etc, however the one slight downside is that it will only display in 16×9 when in windowed mode, and not full screen.

However it's great for testing how apps will look on a TV. But I'm sure you can find something else useful to do with it.

Terratec Cinergy DT USB XS Diversity

The Terratec Cinergy DT USB XS Diversity is one of the first Diversity devices to reach the market.

Diversity allows you to take the best parts of the signal from two aerial sources and combine them to create the best signal possible.

The box includes everything you will need to use the Cinergy DT USB XS Diversity straight away.

There is the device itself, a USB extension cable, remote, remote sensor, two magnetic aerials, two suction bases, converters for the mini aerial sockets, and the software.

Installation is as simple as inserting the device into a USB 2 socket, popping the driver CD into the drive and installing the software. After plugging the aerials in and scanning for channels using the Terratec Home Cinema software you are free to watch.

The version of Terratec Home Cinema that comes with the Cinergy DT USB XS Diversity includes the Diversity mode.

To test the diversity mode I decided to see if the included aerials were capable of holding a BBC1 signal whilst on the move in a car. I stuck the aerials to the two separate side windows of the car, turned on the Diversity mode, and tuned into BBC1.

I was not expecting the channel to remain watchable, but to my surprise the channel was rock solid whilst I was driving at 40Mph. Even going around corners and driving into built up areas did not disrupt the signal! Quite impressive.

After testing using my laptop – as if I was a mobile user – I decided to see if the little USB device was good enough to use in another of its likely locations, in the home.

The reason I class this as a likely location for use is because media center PCs are getting slimmer and slimmer, and most PCI/PCI-E dual DVB-T tuners are full height cards and won't fit in some of the smaller cases. This means that if you want a dual DVB-T tuner, the easiest way is to use an external one like the Cinergy DT USB XS Diversity.

To test the device in these conditions, I connected it to the Vista Media Center PC that I have been building to replace my Sky+ installation.

I was looking for a USB or half height dual DVB-T tuner, and when I had the chance to test the Cinergy device I jumped on it. The device fills all my needs: it should be reliable and well performing based on my previous tests of the XS's big brother the Cinergy 2400i DT, it is also well built and includes all the necessary drivers for Vista Media Center.

After plugging the device into my digital aerial and scanning for channels in Media Center I had a full channel lineup, a good sign as Media Center can be picky with channel reception.

I scheduled some recordings, making sure that some of them overlapped so I could test the Cinergy DT USB XS Diversity's abilities when recording two channels at once, as this usually shows up any issues that may exist with bandwidth on the device and between the device and the PC.

No issues located however; the Cinergy DT USB XS Diversity records two channels without any issues, and there is no sign of skipping and stuttering in the recordings, even on the channels that are difficult for some tuners to receive (Sky3/UKTV History).

Conclusion

The Cinergy DT USB XS Diversity is a great USB receiver. It is well built with a nice design, it has some really good features with the dual aerial inputs and the Diversity functionality. The only issue that I can see is that at the moment the Diversity functionality is only available when using the Terratec software, however some third party applications will enable its use shortly.

I can recommend this card to any laptop user that travels and would like to take a TV with them. I will also heartily recommend the device to anyone who does not have space in their Media Center PC for a full height card. The USB device could also be used to add two more tuners to an existing dual tuner Media Center setup, therefore allowing you to record three channels whilst watching a fourth (registry hacking is required to enable this).

The device retails for around 75GBP (111Euro/144USD) and for that price it is more expensive than some of its competition, but the build quality and Diversity functionality more than make up for the small price difference. Support seems to be as good with this device as with the Cinergy 2400i DT in that there is already 32 and 64bit BDA drivers for Vista available.

It is also worth noting that Terratec also sell an Apple version of the device, so even OSX users need not feel left out.

Terratec Cinergy 2400i DT

The Terratec Cinergy 2400i DT is the first PCI-Express dual digital tuner TV card on the market.

Let's have a look at the card, for my test's I will be using Windows Vista Ultimate as my bench operating system. This is great for two reasons, Windows Vista will have a much larger Media Center exposure than XP MCE 2005 (as it's shipped as standard) and most importantly has native 64bit support in Media Center, this means that for the first time we will need 64bit drivers for Media Center.

The great news is, that even though Vista is not officially released yet Terratec have already got drivers available for the card, and even more importantly they have both 32 and 64 bit versions of them available.

Unboxing the card showed that Terratec have put some thought into the card, the box includes everything you may need, the card obviously, but there is also a USB infrared receiver and controller that will allow you to control Media Center as well as the included software.

Talking of which as well as the Windows XP drivers, there is also the Terratec Home Cinema software that has all the usual DVB-T features. There is however another great addition is the inclusion of Cyberlink's Power Cinema software, so even those that don't have XP Media Center or Vista can get the nice Media Center style 10 foot interface.

The card itself is a really nicely put together piece of equipment with it's white PCB. 

Both of the Micronas tuners are well shielded and the card only requires one antenna connection.

Installation into a spare PCI-Express slot was a brieze, and after downloading the latest drivers for vista installation went straight in.

To make sure all was working well I popped on the Terratec Home Cinema software and kicked off a scan for channels.

I was not expecting too much in the way of reception, as the antenna that the card was connected to was a standard analogue one, and I live in a class 2 antenna area. To my surprise the software brought back all of the major channels, and only a few of them had some partial stuttering. The Terratec software also had another bonus hidden, it includes a subscription to the TVTV program data service.

After all went so well with the Terratec software I decided to fire up the Vista Media Center interface.

On first coming up, and going into the TV settings Vista Media Center said that a new tuner had been found, so I clicked through the screens to set the card up. After the setup all the channels found with the Terratec software where available to me in Vista Media Center. Why was this so surprising? The card that I was previously using (a Hauppauge Nova T) struggled to get some of the channels, and just did not find some of the fringe channels using this antenna.

After setting a few recordings up in Vista Media Center so that the card would have to use both tuners at the same time, and inspecting the output video it seems that both tuners on the Terratec Cinergy 2400i DT perform just as well as each other.

I have been using the card in this PC for a month now with no issues raising there head.

To benchmark the Terratec I popped the Hauppauge back into the box and disabled on of the Terratec tuners, this forced Vista Media Center to use the two different manufacturers of card to record dual channel recordings. Both cards were plugged into the same booster/splitter box and the Terratec Cinergy 2400i DT clearly out performed the Hauppauge on every test, I even swapped the aerial cables round to make sure it was not a badly screened RF cable. This showed that the tuners on the Terratec Cinergy 2400i DT are certainly more sensitive, and as such are more capable of holding a weak signal.

That said after plugging both cards into my DVB-T antenna they both received and recorded all channels available in my area, however even then the Hauppauge showed more dropout and stutter issues.

Conclusion

I would rate this card very highly indeed, everything that I have seen so far is good news. The card is relatively cheap (around 70GBP / 130USD / 100Euro), performs exceptionally well, and has great support (Hauppauge, who after all are the market leaders have very few 32Bit let alone 64Bit drivers at the moment).

I would highly recommend one of these cards for your Vista Media Center project at a drop of a hat. I'm very happy with the one I have, so much so that it has replaced my trusted Hauppauge card.

Vista Media Center

What is Media Center

Windows Media Center started life as Windows XP MCE 2004, and this was basically a nice 10ft front end (i.e. not the standard Windows 2ft interface, but specifically designed for much larger displays) to Media Player 8. It had some added functionality over the normal Media Player in that it could show a slide show of pictures, video and be controlled via a TV style remote. Windows XP MCE 2005 and MCE 2005 SR2 added to the features, allowing radio, pictures and stored videos over a network share to the media.

MCE 2005 also introduced the hosted HTML application framework to Media Center. This allowed third party developers to improve and add to the functionality of Media Center. 

Making a PC into a Media Center

My reasons for looking at setting up a full time Media Center PC came about due to the ever increasing price of subscription TV (Cable and Satellite in the UK). The price of a couple of months high-end subscription will upgrade a standard PC to a decent Media Center.

Free View (Digital Over The Air TV) is starting to take off in most European countries at the moment, and the UK is no different, so I decided to see if I could replace my Sky+ with a Media Center PC full time.

As I was already running Vista Ultimate Edition as my desktop OS on all but one PC in the house, I could add the Media Center functionality with no real difficulty. However, I am no stranger to Windows XP Media Center 2005, as I used to use it to stream video to my PocketPC.

After some research it seemed that for little outlay I could upgrade my home equipment to perform well in Vista and work as the replacement for Sky+.

What's Needed

I already had a case that was approved by the wife for use in the lounge, some memory and most other requirements. What I did need, however, was a decent dual channel TV tuner and a DVI capable Vista graphics card so I could plumb it into my Panasonic LCD.

Graphics was the easy part. I needed a half height card, that had HDMI/DVI (as the Panasonic does not have VGA) and it had to be Vista compliant.

After a little searching around it came down to either the nVidia 6200 series or the ATI X600. I decided on the ATI card in the end, really due to the fact that I am happy with ATI cards as most my PCs run one or another of the X series. This also makes driver updates easier, but the choice is yours.

I also needed a dual digital TV tuner for the half height chassis, this proved difficult. None of the well known manufacturers have one. They do all seem to have USB devices though, so with that in mind I went about looking into them.

I decided to use the Terratec Cinergy USB XS Diversity as it offers not only great build quality, but clever design as well. It also has Vista BDA (Media Center) drivers available for both 32 and 64bit (one of few). I have also go the Terratec Cinergy 2400i DT which is a PCI-X dual tuner card in my other (upstairs) media center, this is the computer that feeds my PocketPC devices while I am on the move. Both of these cards will get the review they deserve shortly, as they are well worth a look.

You should also think about storage; Media Center does not decode the incoming TV stream nor do any encoding on it, and due to this all the recorded TV is in MPEG2 format, and can consume a good proportion of disk space. My PC has 3x250Gb Sata300 drives in a raid 5 configuration  for the storage, and a single Sata 300 drive for the OS. This configuration is not cheap, but then again it is not expensive nowadays either. It also has the benefit of being redundant for the video storage, and easily restorable for the OS as that is just an install away.

Operating Systems

To enjoy Media Center in Vista you will either need the Home Premium or Ultimate, with a compatible TV card (any of the Terratec Cinergy Cards come recommended).

First thing to do is to get your machine built with either of the Vista editions I mentioned earlier. Now click on the start menu and type Media Center and launch the application.

After launching, the initial setup screen will be shown. Go through this set of screens one by one and setup Media Center for your particular computer and configuration.

During setup Media Center will ask you details of where you live so it can setup the guide for your location and channel lineup, it will then scan for the TV channels that you can receive in your area and map the channels found to the correct channel names on the guide.

After all the setup is done, that's about it. I would recommend investing in a decent Media Center remote control as the ones that come with the Terratec cards are OK, but not really Media Center remotes. 

Media Center allows for all the, now standard, digital TV additions, these include live pause and timeshifting, as well as series recordings and searching for actor/genre/program. It also includes a decent DVD player.

This being Windows however, we can take things a lot further.

Add-ons

Media Center is a very extensible system in Vista. Almost all of the old Media Center 2005 hosted HTML Plugins that I have tried work great with Vista. However Vista's version of Media Center adds the new 'Windows Media Center Presentation Layer Applications', this is new in that as well as hosted HTML applications you can now host .NET Framework 3.0 XAML applications. This allows developers to add new animation and effects to their applications.

MyMovies allows you to copy your DVD's from disk onto your hard disk, and will download details of the film from IMDB.

WebGuide 4 allows you to connect to your PC over the internet to change the recording schedule of your PC.

MobileWares has some nice .NET 3.0 applications that are worthy of a look, both Big Screen Headlines and Big Screen Photos are  both great applications, and worthy of installation on any Media Center.

DVRMSToolbox is a great little application that will allow you to transcode recorded TV into WMV as well as remove or allow you to skip adverts.

MCEBrowser is a nice little wrapper for IE to allow you to surf the web from your sofa via a nice 10ft interface.

TVTonic is another great little application that also supports the new flashy Vista interface, and allows you to subscribe to media feeds. It then downloads them in the background so you can watch them at a later date. Great stuff.

Conclusion

Vista Media Center has moved on significantly from XP MCE 2005. Performance in general is improved, as is the reliability of the system as a whole, the new XAML based applications are a much needed improvement from the hosted HTML of 2005 as is the XBox360 integration. 

Vista MCE has a few other new tricks under it's bonnet, Microsoft have now integrated a decent MPG2 codec so third party DVD decoders are no longer needed, as is the DVD burning software. This allows the user to make use of some of the most important parts of the MCE experience. You can now backup your favorite TV or video to a DVD disk and watch it back at any point, on any DVD player.

So should you build a Media Center PC or just pop out and buy a TopField or TiVO. Well yes, it offers all of the functionality of a standard set top recorder, but with extensibility just a plugin away.

People have asked me in the past why a product that I, and many others believe is one of Microsoft's best has not taken off like it should have done? My feeling for this is it is due to the way it has been marketed in the past and the difficulties of integrating with cable and satellite television. Microsoft used to only sell MCE 2005 to OEM vendors (HP/Dell etc) and those vendors supplied Media Center PC's, they where usually expensive and underpowered machines. this and both of the pay for services have there own TiVo/Sky+ systems that where for the most most part 'less hassle' for end users. That combined with the fact that the free to view digital over the air channel lineup has not been good enough until relatively recently has impacted heavily on the success of MCE.

Things are changing however. People now require a more integrated experience, with the like of the Xbox 360 / Wii and PS3 on the market where a lot of diverse media can be integrated into one experience, people are looking for an all in one solution for all there digital media. This is where MCE excels, it's good integration of all sources of media, be it TV, Music or WebCasts. Also there has been agreement in the USA with the Fox Cable network that a cable tuner card will be available for Vista MCE allowing access to the full spectrum of programming in the USA, if Fox's sister company in the UK (Sky) allow a similar card for Satellite television in Europe would really mean that MCE would become a common site in lounges all around the world.

Links

Windows Media Center
Freeview
Terratec

Media Center Vista

I've come across one of the best MCE plugins, and it's available for Vista. WebGuide 4 allows you to connect to your Media Center PC over the net using a browser. The application gives you a rendering of the guide and you can setup recordings, series links or remove recordings.

There are other options as well, these allow downloading of your recorded media etc.

Pop along and have a look for yourself if you use Media Center, well worth a go.

Vista X64 and Media Center

I've recently upgraded my Media Center PC to a Core II Duo, and as a consequence I decided to try Vista X64.

Now this went on well, performed well, and for the most part worked great, I even had native driver support for everything I had connected.

The one place I did not think there would be a problem was with Media Center. Now the issue is not Media Center itself, but rather the fact that it is a native X64 application, because of this it needs X64 versions of all the codec's I use.

However there are no X64 codecs around, none! FFDShow has a variant that will not play back XVid/DivX at all, and makes a hash of most other things as well.

The *Nix world has had native 64bit support for things for quite a while now, so why is the windows world dragging their heals?

I think it's because the X64 WinXP was for all intense and purpose a 32Bit OS anyhow, there was no 64Bit apps.

Yes it's the old chicken egg syndrome, vendors wont write x64 stuff, because no-one has it, but people wont install it because x64 stuff does not exist.

I was willing to try the Vista x64 stuff, because I thought I could struggle through until it took hold, but I cannot, a media center without any media is just not worth it.

So back to 32Bit Vista for me it is. Please someone let me know when x64 wakes up and starts being useful!