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]


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

Wood Hard Drive Case Mod Part Four

Now for the fourth set of images for this project. I finally found some stain that I liked, and hence went to town staining the wood case. The stain is a gell stain, which I’ve never worked with before. Since it was old (found it in a bunch of old wood working tools) I was surprised it was any good. It says to apply liberally and wipe off after 5 to 10 minutes. Due to it’s age, leaving it on that long would result in it drying too much, a very bad thing, but nothing a little water can’t take care of.

The case all fits together now, but the mounts for the hard drive are causing some problems that allow it to power up but Windows will not recognize it. What is happening is the little converter board that plugs into the hard drive gets tweaked and the data connector loses it’s connection. This will require redrilling mounting holes in the bottom aluminum plate, this time I’m going to use the drill press and hopefully that will be the end of the project.

-John Havlik

Wood Hard Drive Case Mod Part Three

Onto the third set of pictures for the wooden external hard drive case. As of now all that really needs to be done is to stain the wood. Since I don’t have the stain I want to use at hand, that part is not complete yet. Since the last set, the attachment mechanism was figured out. Turns out wood glue works good for tapping wood for M3 screws. The activity and power LEDs were mounted together, and the polycarbonate window for them was placed in the case.

-John Havlik