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 the other sticks of DDR2 sticks 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]

Windows 7 RC 1

Of course, Windows 7 RC1 is already installed on one’s desktop. This time around, Microsoft used the Java applet download manager, the same Adobe uses for CS4 trials. Downloading was a breeze, one was able to pull through 800KB/s the entire time. Installation went just a smoothly as before. Getting the Netgear WPN111 to work required the same steps as before.  Battlefield Heroes works fine, as does Test Drive Unlimited. Other than not being able to play any game that relies on PunkBuster, one finds little reason to hate Windows 7 (and even there one blames Even Balance for their own incompetence).

Again, PunkBuster is not working. Some are claiming success by scattering the PnkBusterA.exe and PnkBusterB.exe files in various folders and modifying the registry. It also requires a reboot and running a script after rebooting, and after each subsequent reboot. Now that Windows 7 is in the release candidate phase, hopefully Even Balance will get their heads out of the sand and get to work (one expects PunkBuster to work perfectly on the day Windows 7 is available in any form at a retail store (be it new computer or retail software)).

The mouse gestures for expanding windows is very handy, especially the ability to make a window open to half the screen width on one’s LP2475W. It’s not the only thing one really enjoys about Windows 7, but it is one thing that really makes XP painful to use after becoming accustomed to Windows 7.

-John Havlik

[end of transmission, stay tuned]

Battlefield Heroes Beta

Note: This was written two weeks ago and was never published due to a lack of time, many things have changed in the last two weeks for Battlefield Heros. Look for an updated article in a week or so.

Unexpectedly, Friday (March 20th) morning a gift from DICE awaited in one’s email inbox. This gift was a beta key to access the Battlefield Heroes closed beta. After activating the key, since the laptop was already on, one installed Heroes on it. Installation is no slower than games distributed via DVD on a 8mbit/s Internet connection. Surprisingly, the frail Intel GMA X3100 graphics can cope with Battlefield Heroes just fine, though at “low” quality settings. Just about any “standard” 4:3, 16:9, 16:10, and 5:4 resolution are supported, a nice change as all of one’s screens are now 16:10 format.

After playing a good seven or so hours, one has found things about the game that could be improved. The first is the matchmaking only play type. One has never been a fan of such schemes, playing on clan servers is typically more enjoyable. However, as this game is trying to be more casual matchmaking does work well. Since this is a Third Person Shooter (TPS), the camera is always more or less “over the shoulder”. This becomes a problem when up against a wall as the camera gets stuck as it can not go through the wall. Sometimes it will try to go up, which ends up looking at the character’s feet–not good when trying to blast apart enemies. Basically, do not back up to a wall when being attacked as you will most certainly die. Also, tall grasses somehow penetrate the floor pan of the jeeps–just goes to show this is still a beta for a reason.

There is absolutely no team work encouragement. This takes one back to the Halo for PC days when everyone wandered around aimlessly blowing eachother’s brains out while occasionally some one would get lucky and bring the enemy flag to their base. Don’t take this the wrong way, Halo for PC is very fun to play online, it just has nothing that promotes teamwork, something Battlefield has traditionally had. In short, one misses having squads. In Battlefield Heroes it is much easier to do things when working in pairs or groups of three or so, nothing actively encourages or facilitates this behavior.

-John Havlik

[end of transmission, stay tuned]

Windows 7 Beta 1

Like with Vista, I’m beta testing again. This time, I’m using something a little more powerful, my laptop. Since it came with Vista, some direct comparisons can be done. The first thing to note is Windows 7 Beta 1 is just that, a beta. Though I have yet to have something on it crash, there are some visual bugs that need to be worked out. In certain circumstances I am getting visual corruption in Aero. One thing that was improved right off the bat was wireless networking support. Vista was much better than XP, likewise Windows 7 is much better than Vista in this regard.

Booting does not seem much faster than with Vista, but I am using a slightly slower hard drive, and all my ready boost stuff is disabled at the moment. The sound driver that was installed did not work for the built in speakers on my laptop, but installing a Vista driver for it resolved the issue. Like Vista, the automatic installation of drivers is improved greatly over XP. Unlike Vista, in Windows 7 more information about the devise, and process the installer is following is available. Most devices are just plug-n-play with Windows 7, even more so than with Vista.

The window peaking, and new taskbar are two things I’d throw onto the improvement list. On the taskbar you can move around the currently active applications in a manner that reminds me of Avant Window Navigator (OS X is probably like that too). The mouse gestures will take a little bit to get used to and fully learn, so I won’t comment fully on them at this time.

There are still quite a few problems, but hey, it’s a beta so it’s my job to let Microsoft know about them. The first issues is FTP support, it sucks. Vista FTP support wasn’t much better than XP, they both have issues if you double click on an file (they both try to open the files in Internet Explorer). In Windows 7 Beta 1 I can not even log into my FTP folder, all authenticated FTP accesses fail with the error “The handle is invalid.”

Printer drivers for older USB devices do not exist. My HP Officejet v40 (which is built better than most new printers) had drivers built in to Windows since XP. In Vista the included drivers were slow and made printing painfull, in Windows 7 the drivers are not there. HP does not even distribute Vista drivers for the Officejet v40, so unless you have Vista and rip the drivers out of it, or are resourceful with Google, you are SOL.

There are some screen corruption issues, where Aero flakes out, or the font does not render properly. The font issue is reproducible, go add a printer, and scroll quickly through the driver listing (not using the scroll wheel but instead the scroll bar). It is a flaw in the rendering of the letter ‘e’, and specifically the horizontal line is too thick (two to three times the thickness it should be). The fact that a screen capture using the Print Screen button captures this points to a rendering issue caused by windows rather than a driver issue. Using the ClearType configuration utility (a quick, six step, which text chunk looks best ‘test’ ) seems to resolve this issue.

The Aero corruption issue may be a graphics driver issue. So far I have not found a method that reliably reproduces the issue. It will some times affect the taskbar, when opening and closing windows, or minimizing and maximizing them. Sometimes it will affect the titlebar of an application.

Overall Windows 7 is shaping up to be a good replacement for Vista and XP. Sure the Beta has some bugs, but then again it’s a beta.

-John Havlik

January Already

Well, the ongoing web coding/design implementation project is taking a little more time than initially expected (well, not necessarily true, but things are going along nicely now). The new HP LP2475w helps with coding and debugging, the extra screen real estate is nice–I’m literally surrounded by screen now. It is too bad that currently no two screens show the same color in my setup. By far my ancient Dell 1702FP shows the truest colors, though the HP LP2475w should be able to match it once calibrated properly. Only one stuck subpixel, naturally it had to be the green one, so on darker colors it sticks out, but on lighter ones is is not noticeable. Thanks to the small size of the pixels, one stuck subpixel is not really a problem. Gaming wise, my system is too weak to push the full resolution to the monitor on any modern games. However, Worms Armageddon supports the 1920×1200 resolution just fine, most maps fit within the screen, which is awesome.

The previously mentioned new plugin will be delayed slightly as, once again, it will use jQuery. Originally it was going to use jQuery, I could not get it to work correctly so I rewrote the JavaScript using MooTools, but I think I can get it to work in jQuery. That is all I will say about that plugin for now.

An update to Breadcrumb NavXT will come out late next week. This is a feature adding release, and so far three things have been improved. I’ll be looking into paged archive/post/page pages for this release, and probably qtranslate support as well (through a wrapper of sorts).

-John Havlik

[end of transmission, stay tuned]