Sunday, August 17, 2008

performance problems with HD viewing in Media Center resolved

This is a follow up to my first three posts:
Vista View Saber DA-1N1-I tuner and Media Center
Vista 32-bit, First Impressions
Making Sense of Home Theatre PCs

I had quite a battle over the past couple of days. The goal was to get a working Vista Media Center that did not choke while displaying live, HDTV content. First, I have to say that Microsoft has done a kick ass job with Media Center. It has taken a number of years, but the Media Center interface is really slick and easy to use, the content and functionality deep and the possibilities pretty open, given the way they've designed it. You can even download an SDK for it, which is cool.

In practice, however, getting Media Center to work on older equipment is challenging and frustrating for the newcomer. The interesting thing is the base system I started with ("started with"..yuk, yuk) was no slouch:

  • Dell 400SC, 3.2Ghz
  • 2GB PC3200 mem
  • 128MB ATI All-in-Wonder 9800 Pro AGP 4x card
  • 120GB 7200RPM IDE system drive

The Problem
The main problem was that when I viewed live HDTV channels, I would get drop outs and compression artifacts.

As you know, I had already completed the base Vista install, installed aVista View Saber DA-1N1-I tuner card and layered the latest and greatest Media Center with TVPack update on top of it.

There were a couple links to the Media Center TV Pack Unofficial Download on Engadget's site here. I've plucked out a couple of links to download TV Pack 2008 here, but I'm not sure how long they will be valid:

The neat thing about TVPack with the Vista View tuner is that, among many other things it did, was resolve tricky problems with displaying the correct listings in the TV Guide if you have multiple channel sources (ie, cable and antenna signal inputs), as well as add support for clear QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation) channels. QAM channels are the HD channels that a TV provider will send "in the clear" over the cable line. In my case, Media Center sees about 14 clear QAM channels from Comcast.

Tuner Setup
I have a three way splitter in my upstairs loft that splits the cable signal three ways: one to the analog, NTSC connection on the TV tuner card, one to the digital, ATSC connection on the tuner card and one to the cable modem itself. Because I was getting drops, I thought that I was just getting a weak signal. I removed the splitter and plugged the feed directly into the digital connection on the tuner card. No luck, as the signal still broke up.

Initial Performance Stats
Taking a look at the new Reliability and Performance Monitor in Vista (quite nice, really) while an HDTV show was being displayed in MC, I saw that CPU was being driven close to 100% on my hyperthreaded system. Peaking on CPU is never good. I thought the problem could be my video card not offloading enough load from the CPU. Maybe the ATI card was unpowered to the task? I removed it and installed an NVidia 7600GS that I had laying around. Symptoms were the same with the new card.

So far, the evidence showed that the problem was not in the source signal or video card since:
1) the input source signal was clean
2) a capable video card was choking in the same way as an older one

Reviewing Performance Monitor, the disk seemed to be quite busy. I assumed this was due to the live tv buffer that MediaCenter keeps while you watch programs. To explain, MediaCenter has the same ability as a regular consumer DVR, in that it buffers live tv in order to allow the viewer to playback the last few minutes of a program. This rewind feature is supported by the system writing huge files to disk.

I should have pulled up some disk queue stats to confirm, but I had a gut feeling that the problem was in the disk subsystem. Looking at the disk reads and writes in Performance Monitor, I saw that about 4MB of data were being written to and read from the hard drive every second while an HD program was being shown. My current hard drive was a 120GB IDE. IDE throughput is pretty weak by today's standards. Hmmm..this old drive has to go. So, I was off to the nearest store to get a hard drive.

Throwing Money At It Will Solves the Problem!
In a pinch, Staples is my closest source of computer parts. Of course, it is not the best choice for prices. Oh well, I was on a mission. Seagate 500GB SATA..$130. Eeesh. That is a little too much. I patiently waited for the computer department rep to finish his conversation with another customer. I'm glad I did. I overheard that Staples supported price matching. I scrambled to find a machine with an open internet connection. Finding one, I Googled " seagate 500GB SATA". Lo and behold, they had the very same drive for $90! Great! At the register, the clerk had to confirm the price. I noticed his point of sale system had web browsing directly built in. But he confirmed the price..$40 saved!

I ran home and installed the drive. Reading through the installation manual, I saw that Seagate has Disk Wizard, which allows you to format your new drive. It also had an option I hadn't seen clone an older drives' contents onto a newer one. Psych! I was expecting to have to reinstall Vista, but if this Acronis clone software actually worked, I wouldn't have to go through that pain.

New Drive Fun
I installed the drive in the PC and got Disk Wizard running. Selecting the appropriate clone options, clone was to copy the old drives' content, sets the master boot record and reboot. Hitting "go", I saw that the clone ran very quickly, almost too quick, and then asked me to reboot. I figured the process must do the cloning on reboot, but when the box rebooted, the OS did not boot. Oh sh1t. I hope it hadn't blown away my Vista install. Googling for people with similar problems, I learned from someone else's issue that clone changes the master boot record, so my system trying to read off the new disk. Since the clone process didn't go as expected, there was no operating system for the master boot record to access. Luckily, clone did not touch the original system disk, so after unplugging the new one, I was able to verify my base Vista system was still alive.

Starting Disk Wizard again, I saw it had a bootable install version of the clone process. Since the initial Vista install process did not work, I thought I'd give this a shot. I burned an ISO to a CD and started up the clone process. This time, I saw progress on the clone procedure meter. It took about 17 minutes to clone 24GB of data from a 120GB IDE to my new 500GB Seagate. After the clone process was complete, the box rebooted. While the box rebooted, I made sure to shut down the box entirely and take the original system disk offline. After doing this, I restarted the system and was overjoyed to see Vista start booting. New drive works with my old install of Media Center! Yay!

Did the New Drive Help?
Moment of truth. I pulled up Media Center with some live HDTV. I still had dropouts even with the new, faster drive. Damn! OK. Since you can't turn off Live TV easily in MediaCenter (why would I want to, with Olympic Volleyball coming up?), I decided to meet the burden head on by using my old IDE RAID card and setup a stripe set of old hard drives. I had two 120GB lying around (the one old system disk plus another), so I installed the card, setup the RAID set in the BIOS and formatted the new RAID set when it came up in Vista. Voila! Lots of fast disk capacity on hand! Now to repoint the destination directory for the live hd temporary files to the RAID set.

Move those Temp Files!
In Media Center, I saw that there was no easy way to turn off the Live TV feature. So I figured the location of the temp file directory was in the registry. Reviewing the Disk statistics of Reliability and Performance Monitor more closely, PerfMon actually shows the location of the directory where disk access (reads and writes) are occurring. Sweet! Looking at the details of the offending process, I saw that this directory was the culprit of most of the reads and writes:
C:\Users\Public\Recorded TV\TempRec\TempSBE

Cool. I searched on this string in regedit, found the appropriate location:
HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Media Center\Service\Video\Tuners\DVR\IO\Writer

Then, I tweaked the values to match a new directory that I setup on the D:. I restarted Media Center for the change to take effect and waited patiently for live HD to come up. Watching it, I saw that HD was definetly smoother, but not perfect. It still hiccupped from time to time. DAMMIT! Looking at the top CPU consumers in Task Manager, I saw that dwm.exe (Desktop Window Manager) kept popping up, albeit with low CPU consumptions of 5-7%. More performance tuning necessary.

Optimizing Media Center Performance
The key to getting Media Center working right is optimizing performance in Vista. Here are a few articles that helped me do that, in order of most useful:
ExtremeTech article
Andrew Grant's blog article
Jwyse's blog

Also, the following article has some registry tweaks to get your Media Center setup just the way you like it: article

One feature that I had kept running in Vista was the Aero interface with a sidebar of gadgets (clock, RSS news feed and rotating pictures). Apparently, the process dwm.exe controls the display of these visual effects and gadgets. In Control Panel -> Personalization -> Window Colors and Appearance, I disabled the Aero interface by selecting "Windows Standard" as the color scheme. After the change, I checked live HD. There were less drops, but still an occasional one every fifty seconds or so. Damn! On a hunch, I disabled the RSS news feed that was in the sidebar under the clock. Restarting Media Center, I watched for any live HD dropouts. One minute went problem. Two problem. Three drops. Awesome! I think I've got the problem licked!

Right now, I've had live HDTV (the Olympics) running for four hours. There seems to be a barely noticeable lag sometimes when replaying the live HDTV buffer. I believe this is due, again, to disk access. I may add a third 7200RPM 80GB drive to my stripe set to improve performance. I will let you know how that goes.

In general, if you are skirting the edge of recommended hardware for HD viewing, Media Center seems VERY sensitive to any processes taking up CPU or mouse movements. Disabling any CPU performance hogs is essential in order to have live, HDTV in Vista Media Center run properly on an older system. If I want a perfectly clear HD viewing experience with no dropouts, I will not open ANY programs. Also, I don't have any programs running that update the display, like Task Manager or Performance monitor. In fact, I won't even touch the mouse if I want undisturbed video. Media Center a bit touchy, eh?

I assume if I had a new dual or quad core box with a fast CPU, the latest memory, a 1333Mhz front side bus, PCI Express video card and all SATA, I wouldn't have these problems. But I didn't feeling like paying an arm and a leg for a new box. With my trusty old Dell 400SC, I may be able to get by adding a $100 tuner and $100 hard drive only. Time will tell!

In sum, once Media Center is running well, it IS pretty sweet. Now to find a usable remote for VMC. Any suggestions?


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Vista View Saber DA-1N1-I tuner and Media Center

This is a follow up to my first two posts:
Vista 32-bit, First Impressions
Making Sense of Home Theatre PCs

Last night, I spent a few hours experimenting with Windows Media Center on Vista and the new TV Pack, with the goal of getting digital cable from Comcast integrated into Media Center. As suggested from the article linked above, I reinstalled Vista (painfully slow). I then installed the TV Pack and associated hotfixes. That day, I had bought a Vista View Saber DA-1N1-I tuner card. It is PCI, to fit in my older Dell 400SC. I let Vista select the driver from the internet and I saw that it found the latest driver.

Setup in WMC was straightforward, similar to Ben's experience. I connected the card's NTSC connection to my comcast line. After the requisite asking of where Ilived, downloading of my area's TV guide and inspecting my tuners' connection, WMC got me to the point where I could select my area's cable provider. Since I live in NY Metro, there were about ten choices. I selected Comcast in Jersey City. So sure enough, channels 1-99 on Comcast appeared.

I was happy to see I had basic analog connectivity, but wondered where the digital channels went. At the time, I didn't realize that this was regular analog cable from Comcast. I went through the discovery process again, and this time I selected Comcast Digital as my provider. Well, this didn't work, because the cable was plugged into the analog, NTSC connection. In my haste, I hadn't realized that the card I bought is only good for ATSC, over the air HD and NTSC analog cable. It won't get me what I wanted, which was the ability to watch and record unencrypted, clear QAM channels via my Comcast connection. Duh.

Taking my idiocy in stride, I moved on to the ATSC output. When I connected my cable connection to ATSC, as expected, WMC didn't find any channels. I thought I might be able to use the cable coming from the back of the PC as an antenna, so I disconnected the opposite end of the cable from the PC (the splitter end), reran the automatic setup and I was nicely surprised to see that the WMC picked up the local over the air HD channel selection, about 14 channels in my case, directly across the river from Manhattan. Performance was a bit choppy, as my signal wasn't very good in my computer closet. I'm sure with a proper antenna, the signal would be great.

In both cases, analog cable and over the air, WMC picked the correct guide. The guide picked up all the shows, was really nice to navigate through and had lots of supplemental information. Very slick.

Today, I went back to the drawing board and picked up a Hauppauge WinTV HVR-1600 . I'll let you know how this install goes tomorrow.

Long story short, though, if you are looking for a card that works for NTSC and ATSC over the air signals out of the box with this latest update for WMC, the Vista View Saber seems to fit the bill.

UPDATE 8/14/2008
Last Tuesday, VistaView released a QAM patch (a simple registry tweak) for MediaCenter with TVpack to allow the Saber DA-1N1-I to allow you to tune QAM channels on ATSC cable TV:

I downloaded the patch and rebooted. I split my cable line to go to both the analog NTSC and digital ATSC jacks on the back of the Vista View card. The positive: during the tuner setup, Media Center now sees both the analog tuner and a new digital cable tuner:

ViXS PureTV Analog TV Tuner

Continuing through the tuner setup, I can select my provider's (Comcast) channel selection and guide. Checking the source of the channels under Guide -> Edit Channels, I get a mix of the OTA HD channels (about 14 channels) on the Digital Cable connection, but the rest (70 or so) are coming through the analog tuner. The digital channels seem to break up a lot. I imagine using an HD antenna instead of the digital cable would help here, since the digital cable is only getting me those 14 channels. If I hook up only one cable to the ATSC input, I only get those 14 channels. I have had no luck seeing any channels I would normally see with the Comcast Motorola box above 99.

From the Guide -> Edit channels, I see that most of the available channels that are disabled have padlocks next to them and that the source of them is the digital tuner. I imagine the padlocks mean that they are encrypted.

Tonight allowed me to get a bit farther, but am perplexed as to why I'm not seeing any channels above 99. I am a bit of a newbie to this MediaCenter/cable integration stuff. It seems as if Comcast locks everything above 99..not sure right now. Looking at the clear qam guide for my zip code here, I notice that the higher range (above 99) channels that I enjoy watching like Military/VH1 classic/Encore/etc are missing from the list. I guess they are not in clear QAM. Maybe I'm just out of luck?

So, a bit of progress, a bit of disappointment.

UPDATE 8/15/2008
One follow up: I'm a bit disappointed in the performance of HDTV in Media Center w/TV Pack. I've got a Dell SC400 (probably four 1/2 years old) P4, 3.2Ghz, 2GB w/120GB IDE drive and ATI all-in-wonder 9800 pro. Not the latest and greatest, sure, but no slouch box either. Viewing standard def, Media Center drives the box to run at 50% CPU without a problem. Running live HDTV (1280x720), MC runs the box to 100%, at which point I get drop outs. Also, I notice SearchIndexer runs constantly, thus sucking up more CPU.

Granted, the system is a few years old, but this is unacceptable. I will look for ways to tune or upgrade the system to see if I can relieve the 100% spiking.

Andrew Grant has an excellent post on optimizing Windows Media Center to improve performance. I will try his suggestions out tonight. A more technical article on the same subject is on

UPDATE 8/16/2008
Today, I wasted about an hour tracking this high CPU problem down. I accidentally scheduled a recording and wondered why Media Center Receiver service was taking up so much CPU. This was because it was recording a show and I didn't know it! I went into my Recordings and deleted the scheduled recording.

Getting Started with Windows Media Center in Vista
Getting Started with HDTV in Media Center
Great intro to channel tweaking in Media Center
Tweaking Media Center's HDTV Lineup
Media Center Receiver Server Technical Discussion


Saturday, August 09, 2008

Vista Ultimate 32-bit first impressions

This is a follow up to my first post
Making Sense of Home Theatre PCs

Last night, I experimented with Vista Ultimate, 32-bit for the first time. My intention was to use Windows Media Center to access all my digital media and to feed Media Center my Comcast HDTV connection. As I was going to install Vista on a 1.8Ghz Pentium IV with 1.5GB of memory, I knew the system was underpowered for Vista and that the install didn't have much of a chance of running smoothly.

I was correct for a number of reasons:
1) First, the Vista install did not recognized my Sil0680 IDE RAID card.
This was a bummer, as I thought I could make up for the lack of CPU horsepower by running a stripe set. During the install, Vista is smart enough to allow you to stop and look for drivers. It also allows you to search for drivers on a USB flash drive, so I found Sil 680 drivers from here:

and then copied them to the USB. However, when I loaded them on the box, Vista did not recognize the drivers as the correct drivers for the Sil RAID card. This is doubly disappointing as the Ultimate install DVD I had was SP1. Argh.

So, I had to back off and install the base OS to a regular IDE drive that I had floating around. That was problematic too, as the primary partition was not marked as active. So, I had to boot up with a floppy, mark it as active and give it a base format. Surprisingly, Vista still did not recognize the partition as usable. So, just to see if an older XP install would recognize the partition, I booted with XP. Luckily, XP did see the partition. In fact, though fdisk reported only one partition on the drive, the XP install disk saw two partitions. Strange. Using the XP installer, I deleted both partitions, created a new one and reformatted as NTFS. This seemed to do the trick and the XP install continued and installed XP.

After the XP install finished correctly, I reinserted the Vista install DVD and gave the install another shot. Because I had fixed the drive partition problems with XP, Vista now saw the partition correctly and I was able to install the OS successfully.

2) The install process took interminably long and did not give you adequate feedback about where it was in the process and when that part of the process was going to be finished.

3) ATI's All-in-Wonder Radeon 8500DV does not work with Vista.
This was also a great bummer, as I wanted to try out some of the TV functionality with Windows Media Center. Reading the install README from the Catalyst download section on ATIs website:

it seems that older card is not supported under Vista. I was hoping to take advantage of my older equipment. With Vista, again, this was not to be.

4) Vista is a resource hog.
Once I got Vista running, the OS did seem to run fairly smoothly on this low-end equipment. However, Vista is heavy:
- base install requires about 10GB with the default install selections
- memory usage is about 540MB with nothing running

So, Vista is a hog. And it is designed for the latest and greatest equipment. I would not recommend the operating system for users who want to take advantage of older equipment they have lying around. Vista just won't run it. This might be Microsoft's way of weaning old equipment off the supported hardware list. Which is here if you need it:
Vista Hardware Compatibility List

As I experiment more with Vista, I will let you know my impressions of the OS. Right now, I'm a bit saddened that Microsoft has kicked the old folks (READ: old equipment) out the door in favor for the new.

Aren't we supposed to care for our elders?

Thursday, August 07, 2008

making sense of media center/home theatre PCs

I bought an Apple iPod Touch 32 GB over the weekend (a post is coming) and it has led me down some interesting paths. It is wonderful to be able to scroll through a good chunk of my music, video and photos easily, all in one little handheld device.

Even more impressive than its storage and playback capabilities are all the applications and connectivity options available via the App Store. The apps will really lengthen the life of both the iTouch and iPhone for years down the road.

iPod Touch Extensibility
One app that I particularly liked was Remote, which allows one to control iTunes from the iTouch/iPhone. Plus, its free!

While surfing for applications, I also came upon the TouchPad Pro. The handy little application can be used to control a Windows Vista Media Center PC with the iPod Touch!

Unfortunately, as of this writing (08/05/2008), the TouchPad Pro is not available for the iTouch's 2.0 firmware:

Finally, Mocha VNC Lite is a free app that connects you via to any VNC Server (Mac/PC/Unix) in your environment:


Home Theatre PC (HTPC) Possibilities
In playing around with the iTouch, I started thinking about the possibilities of having the iTouch become my remote for not just my media, but for my HDTV and Home Theatre, too. This got me very excited, as I would love to have all my music, video, recorded HD, podcasts, everything integrated in one solution, with a super easy-to-use remote via the TouchPad Pro. This is the Holy Grail of the so-called "Home Theatre PC!"

From my reading, I seem to have three choices:
  • AppleTV
  • Linux MCE (MythTV)
  • Windows Vista Media Center

Here's one gentleman's comparison of Linux and Windows MCEs. Though biased, it is interesting:

Here's what I'm thinking in terms of requirements:
-should be relatively simple to setup: oops, this rules out MythTV
-needs to play cable TV (both std/high def): oops, this rules out Apple TV
-needs to play most common media formats MP3s/MPEGs/DIVX/Quicktimes/DVDs/Blu-ray
-needs to integrate iTunes*

* Yes, you may be saying that Windows Media Center does not integrate iTunes and you'd be correct. However, thinking about how this would work, it should be a relatively minor step to switch applications from Media Center to iTunes via whatever controller or remote you'd choose to use. Also, further investigation showed me that solutions from both sides of the fence (Linux/Windows) seem to have some basic level of iTunes integration or at least being able to access the media files at the system level. More on this later.

From this short list of requirements and some reading that I've done over the past couple of days, I'd say the most likely contender is Media Center running on Windows Vista. I'm no huge Microsoft fan, but if a software's features and functionality fit the bill, then you should use it.

Here is a nice walkthrough to Windows Media Center features:

How to Connect Your TV to a Windows Media Center PC:

Finally, here's five things you didn't know you could do with Windows Media Center:

The Problem
One of the stickiest wickets in that requirements list is how best to integrate your cable SD/HDTV viewing and recording. It would also be nice if this was simple to setup. From my reading so far, it doesn't look like any PC-based home theatre/media centers are easy to setup by any means. At least computer companies are starting to address this by using a PCI card that integrates with your cable TV providers service, also known as a digital cable tuner card. A CableCard is a PCMCIA like card built into new-generation televisions and PCs that allows digital cable reception without a set-top cable box. Here is a nice primer on CableCards:

Here is some basic information about cable TV tuners via HP forum:

This was a very informative read about the regulatory background of the CableCard:

And Chris also has a good FAQ on the CableCard. Be aware that in its current form, CableCard does not allow you to use On Demand or Pay Per View services. Apparently, this is because those features require two-way communication that is not present in today's CableCard solution. This is unfortunate, because it means that today, in August of 2008, we still do not have a complete Home Theatre solution. (Well, I guess I can live without ONE feature).

Possible Solution: Dell XPS 420
From this article, I found that the Dell XPS 420 might be a solution that integrates a CableCard and might fit the bill.

Here's Dell's full specs:

An excellent FAQ on the XPS 420:
Chris Lanier's blog

As a cable card is only distributed to consumers if they purchase an entire new system, the unfortunate thing is that the CableCard solution locks individuals into buying a preassembled machine versus building their own. But given some evidence from intrepid individuals like Keith Combs, this might not be all bad. Here is his very informative blog entry:

Also, his six month checkup is a nice follow through:

Another solution: HP m9300t
Another solution is from HP, the HP m9300t Series

Here is a page on HPs site devoted to more general information about the HP m9200 line of products.

Decisions, decisions
Before purchasing any solution, I plan on building out a Vista box, just to see how far I can get, without the cable tv tuner part.

Let you know how I do in a follow-up post,

Update 8/9/2008
Vista Ultimate install and first impressions

Update 8/8/2008
Digital Tuners
I happen to be perusing blog articles about people who have built their own media centers and I see this Hauppauge digital tuner card has come up a number of times. The FAQ page has some good info on it.
For more basic information on what TV Tuners can and cannot do, take a look at this post from AVS forum/

Update 8/15/2008
Vista View Saber card, Media Center and TV Pack install

Update 9/15/2008
Viewing YouTube Within VMC

Sunday, August 03, 2008

best windows shortcut chart

This chart showing Windows keyboard shortcuts is so good it merits its own post:
Awesome list of windows shortcuts!
Feel free to drop me a line or ask me a question.