Truly Addicting

Once you have a HTPC you’ll never go back to regular television. The media center features of Vista were a component one never tested three years ago in the Vista Beta/RC rounds. At the time one did not have a TV tuner. This time around, with two tuners at hand (the HVR 2250 and the PCTV 800i) one is much better equipped to test media center.

On Saturday, one built a quite modest HTPC setup with a Celeron 430 (OC’d to 2.4Ghz), Intel’s DQ45EK motherboard, 2GiB of ram, a Western Digital Scorpio 120GB hard drive, and a 150W picoPSU. The ram was temporarily robbed from one’s desktop as only 512MiB of the other DDR2 sticks that are not in use would not work (Intel motherboards are picky about speed and voltages). A full 2x2GiB DDR2 kit is on its way, hopefully it’ll be here on Thursday. The HVR 2250 was placed in this computer as it has dual built in MPEG2 encoders (also it is the only one that is a PCIEx1 card).

After installing Windows 7 RC, about a 30 minute process, one fired up Windows Media Center. Setup of the TV tuner was pretty automated, a few clicks here and there and it was ready to go. Scanning the cable connection for channels took the longest amount of time, a good 15 minutes. At this point all of the analog cable channels worked perfectly. However, Mediacom simulcasts the local channels in 720p or 1080i in unencrypted QAM256. Media Center did not immediately acknowledge the existence of these channels. They were not even in the TV Guide configuration menu. However, there is a manual channel adding option, which is what one had to use. After adding the channels, and associating them with the proper channel listing in the TV Guide everything was a go.

Well, almost everything, the local NBC affiliate does not come in (at this TV it’s channel is usually 112.2, everywhere else in the house it is 112.4 neither work for the HTPC). Regardless, the Celeron and Intel GMA4500 graphics are sufficient for HD decoding and display on a 720p screen (actually a tad bigger pixel wise) while simultaneously recording an analog cable program. At this point one realized more disk space was necessary, and attached an empty 250GB Western Digital Caviar RE in an external enclosure (now that’s about half full).

On to the PCTV 800i. For the last year-and-a-half it has been sitting on the shelf. Sadly, it is only a single tuner, and does not have a hardware MPEG2 encoder for its analog tuner. Thus, it requires a beefier processor to work. Hence, it went in one’s desktop, even though the E8500 is overkill for it. Unlike the HVR 2250, which was literally plug-and-play, the PCTB 800i drivers that Windows 7 installs do not support Clear QAM. Instead, for the digital tuner an unsigned driver must be installed. This means for the digital tuner to work on every boot one has to press F8 and tell Windows to load unsigned drivers, a royal pain.

The upside to the PCTV 800i is once the driver situation was ‘resolved’ Media Center found the Clear QAM channels right away. One still had to associate them to the proper listing, but it was one less step. At this point everything was working as expected.

The only time one has had Windows 7 crash is with Media Center. Both boxes have had their video drivers crash and recover due to Media Center. This occurs occasionally when playing recoded TV and skipping around too fast (more likely to happen if skipping about 10 minutes or more of video right after opening the file). The Celeron box actually presented the BSOD tonight, after being on for about 36 hours. Again, one was trying to skip around recorded TV too soon after opening the file.

TV Guide Background Image Corruption

TV Guide Background Image Corruption

Additionally, the image overlays for the TV Guide occasionally get corrupted. This occurs more often on the Celeron box, but both have exhibited this problem. Since Windows 7 is only a Release Candidate, bugs are to be expected. Hopefully, Microsoft fixes this by the time Windows 7 hits the shelves in early October.

-John Havlik

[end of transmission, stay tuned]

8 thoughts on “Truly Addicting

  1. I’m having significant trouble getting my Pinnacle PCTV 800i to work in Windows 7 Media Center. I saw you said something about pressing F8 when booting. You then went on to say something about unsigned drivers and lastly a you mention the driver issue was resolved. Can you elaborate more on what you meant in those statements? What was resolved and how can I get my tv tuner working with media center?

    • Austin,

      Essentially, what you have to do is go to PCTV’s Windows 7 Beta Drivers website and download the drivers for the 800i. These should be version 3.1.1.58. Now, everything but the digital (ATSC/QAM) tuner should already have the 3.1.1.58 driver from Windows Update. If they don’t, then go to device manager and find the device, right click on it and tell it to “Update Driver Software”. A prompt should show up, click “Browse my computer for driver software”. On the next screen select the folder containing the drivers you just downloaded from PCTV and it should accept them as updates to everything but the digital tuner.

      For the Digital tuner, it only sees 3.1.1.45 as the newest driver version on Windows Update, this is the old Windows Vista driver and it has some flaws. What you have to do now, since the bad driver is already installed is tell Windows to uninstall the device. Next, you’ll want to disconnect from the Internet to prevent Windows Update from automatically grabbing the bad drivers. After you disconnect from the Internet, in Device Manager click the “Scan for hardware changes” icon, it’s the fourth from the right and looks like the “Computer” icon with a magnifying glass over it. Now the Windows Update will try to install a driver for it, if everything goes right it will fail to find a driver. Now you can manually “update” the driver from Device Manager. Like with the analog tuner component, you want to select “Update Driver Software”, then on the prompt select “Browse my computer for driver software”, and finally point it to the folder containing the drivers you downloaded from PCTV. It will ask you if you want to install unsigned drivers, in this case you want to, so select “Yes”. Now the card will not work right away, you need to reboot. While the computer boots press F8 (start doing this right away) so that you get the Windows Boot menu and are able to disable the enforcement of only using signed drivers policy. Then you should be able to get the QAM tuner to work in Media Center (for that session only, one every boot you have to press F8 and disable the enforcement of only using signed drivers policy).

      -John Havlik

  2. I actually worked! Thanks John for the help. I had been trying for days with both vista and windows 7. I figured out how to make it so I don’t have to push f8 every reboot by referring to this site: http://www.killertechtips.com/2009/05/06/disable-driver-signing-in-windows-7-using-group-policy-editor/ . One last problem I am having is that the qam channels are not in the right places or the right channels. For example, ABC is supposed to be 16.1 but WVIA is taking that spot when its actually supposed to be 44.1. I started changing guide listings and that is working, but I can’t see to find my NBC station which I know is available via QAM since I get it on my HDTV. If there is anyway to make it get the channels in a better way or a way I can set up every channel, let me know. But thanks again for your help.

    • Austin,

      Well, if you go to SiliconDust and fill out the form for your area, you should get a listings of the available channels and their numbers. It will default to the ATSC channels, but in the drop down you should be able to select your cable provider. I had to use it to cross reference with where I thought the channels were. On my HVR 2250 tuner I still can’t get my local NBC affiliate to show up, even when manually entering its channel.

      -John Havlik

  3. John,

    Do you think the Windows 7 drivers will work in Windows Vista to see if Vista Media Center will find the channels in a better way? I’m thinking about trying that, but I don’t know if its worth reformatting and trying Vista in case the drivers don’t work. Just wondering if you had heard anything about them working in Vista Media Center or if the QAM tuning is better than the new Windows 7 Media Center.

    • Austin,

      If I remember correctly, as shipped, the Vista and XP Media Centers can not tune into QAM channels. Microsoft did release a service pack of sorts for OEMs to add QAM support to Vista Media Center but supposedly it has bugs. Windows 7 RC1 is the best it gets right now for QAM support. It really is not too bad, it works, but requires setup so everything doesn’t automatically work as the regular Analog channels do.

      -John Havlik

  4. John,

    I went out on a limb and tried using the Windows 7 drivers with Windows Vista Media center and I had great success. Everything installed perfectly and works great. I don’t have any glitches or bugs at all. I actually can tune in 2 or 3 QAM channels that I originally could not pick up with Windows 7 Media Center. Once thing I am having trouble with is converting WTV files to either MPEG or DVR-MS. I tried ToDVRMS but I was unsuccessful. I was just wondering if you knew of any free conversion software.

    Austin

    • Austin,

      Yeah, I’m not entirely sure how to convert WTV files to MP4 files (my currently preferred storage format). I have not actually attempted to convert any files yet, but I’d start with MediaCoder (It’s open source software :) ) as I already have it installed, it seems to be able to convert to and from just about anything.

      I have a hunch that the WTV file contains some greatly extended metadata from what other video formats have. One thing I did notice is that you can move WTV files from one computer to another and still play them within Windows 7 Media Center.

      -John Havlik

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