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.
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.
[end of transmission, stay tuned]