The Otaku's Guide to Building a HTPC
by Justin Sevakis,
Layer 5: Installing Vista
$170 later I found myself staring at the OEM install CD for Vista Ultimate. (Only Vista Home Premium and Ultimate have Media Center built-in.) Wondering what the install procedure would be like, I popped it in, and was relieved to discover that, for the first time, a Windows installer was actually fairly slick and well-designed. Installation took some time, but didn't require the babysitting that XP did. Perhaps all the nightmares I had heard had been blown out of proportion; a result of Microsoft hate and nerd rage. Or maybe all the issues have been resolved, now that Service Pack 1 was out.
For a few minutes, things were okay.
Layer 6: Vista Media CenterOut of the box, Vista's Media Center launches with a simple press of the big green button on a Media Center remote. To my surprise, it's actually pretty neat. It had a built-in DVD player that upscaled better than most stand-alone players, downloaded free channel guides for over-the-air TV, and interfaced with all my devices fairly seamlessly.
One other pleasant surprise were the plug-ins that various people have developed. One, "My Netflix", allows you to use your Netflix account to stream remarkably high quality video through Media Center. Another, "Media Control", lets you control things like subtitle and audio tracks in files directly with your remote control. Media Control is invaluable, but is difficult to set up. There's also a commercial plug-in called MCE Tunes that let you view your iTunes content -- even stuff you bought -- right inside Media Center, which I haven't yet tried.
There are also a number of really awful plug-ins, many of them official ones presented right within Media Center. TV Tome and several other web content plug-ins are buggy and offer cheaply produced and boring internet TV programs. Reuters' video page was clearly screwed up when presented on a widescreen display. Other plug-ins offer to show you stuff from YouTube and DailyMotion, and not one of those really worked at all. AOL's prominently featured plug-in is wonky at best. Even NPR's plug-in doesn't seem to work right. My personal favorite terrible plug in, however, is MyWeather, a weather plug-in that delivered laughably wrong data. (During a sweltering heatwave, it cheerfully informed me that it was 73 degrees outside.)
Of course, this being a Microsoft product, offers from Microsoft partners are pushed like crazy, showing up right in the main menu and seemingly impossible to delete. Clips from NBC Nightly News and MSNBC are available, which I don't particularly mind. Others are more of an annoyance. One initial offering, "The Great Debate" offered utterly useless, badly staged and not-funny videos where two people debated things like whether or not Paris Hilton is overexposed. Recently, it was replaced by a trailer for the movie Hancock, and now it's an offer for Virgin Mobile Festival. I can also watch a (really cheesy) commercial for Microsoft's Media Extender devices. If you know how to delete these, please tell me how.
As for the interface, it's definitely pretty, though I have to admit, having files displayed as side-scrolling "tiles" in three rows is quite possibly the least intuitive navigation method one could imagine. One can only tell folders apart from files by their color: files are light blue, whereas folders are lighter blue. File names are often too long to be displayed in their entirety (and are sporadically replaced by fairly useless screenshots), so one must highlight it in order for the full name to be displayed at the bottom of the screen. Occasionally the entire interface will jerk to a halt as Media Center tries to generate thumbnails for all the files. It's really a case of form over function. If a "list mode" was available, I'd use it, but alas.
Minor quibbles aside, three things prevent Vista Media Center from being truly decent software. The first and biggest one is stability. The DVD playback freezes up when I try to scan backwards, requiring a visit to the Task Manager to force-quit Media Center. (Microsoft's horrid DVD player also refuses to upscale with a Component video connection, and has no way to switch audio or subtitles!) Watching a digital TV channel that breaks up or playing certain types of video files can result in system freeze-ups. I still have to reboot way more often than I should. Initially the system would just hang for up to a minute at a time, then suddenly spring to life again, though thankfully a recent patch seems to have fixed this problem. Vista still keeps losing track of my Mac-based file server.
Once, after watching a movie on MyNetflix, the entire system "forgot" how to use its perfectly working internet connection. I put it to sleep, and noticed the next morning that it had turned itself back on in the middle of the night to let me know that it couldn't download updated TV listings. Gee, thanks. At one point, the system was waking up at midnight every night, and I could not for the life of me determine why. (How did I solve the problem? Reinstalling Windows.) I guess Vista does suck after all. This is only a small sampling of the issues I've had.
The second one is set-up. Although Media Center itself is quite easy and user friendly, Vista itself provides no easy way to tweak all of the myriad settings to provide a decent set-top-box experience. By default, Vista requires a password when you wake it up from sleep or restart, throws up a screensaver while you're watching a video, and tries to autoplay most kinds of discs you insert. Expanding all the system font sizes to be legible on a TV doesn't work for some programs, and renders others weird-looking or unusable. All of these settings can be tweaked, but unless you really know your way around Vista, you'll likely spend some time Googling for instructions. I also had to manually edit the registry (the extremely sensitive place where every setting for everything is stored) to get Media Center to figure out what to do with the (very common!) MP4 and FLV files. And I haven't even gotten around to setting up a single emulator (a requisite part of my former XBox experience).
Layer 7: Feeling BluThe third problem is Blu-Ray support, or the lack of it. Until recently, to play Blu-Ray one must use PowerDVD, which doesn't integrate in any way with Media Center. There are a few badly written plug-ins that try to provide some of this functionality, but every one of them fails miserably. Even worse, driver issues kept me from using Blu-Ray at all initially. More on that below.
PowerDVD can use the Media Center remote, but whoever added that feature did such a crappy job that they entirely forgot to add a way to change audio tracks (despite leaving several buttons completely unused). Pressing the "info" button, which triggers an options screen in Media Center, instead launches the help viewer, which is completely useless on a TV, and requires a mouse to get out of. Time and volume display are waaay too tiny to read on a TV, even a high definition one. As for actually controlling the thing, I resigned myself to buying a wireless keyboard and mouse.
But I had bigger problems. Vista took the liberty, at first boot, of downloading and installing a video card driver that PowerDVD didn't like. Any attempt to play a Blu-Ray disc was met with an error screen. PowerDVD's little utility that's supposed to tell you if you're all set up for Blu-Ray simply crashed when I ran it. ATI's technical support department had me run a few tests before spitting out a couple pre-generated "try this" lists that were absurdly unhelpful.
ATI's Catalyst Installer wouldn't touch the old drivers Microsoft installed, and neither would Device Manager. I ended up having to reinstall Vista from scratch to solve the problem. You can imagine my delight when I discovered that ATI's newest drivers broke Netflix Instant Play. (Netflix Tech Support helpfully suggested I install an older version that didn't even support my video card.) ATI eventually fixed the bug that was causing all this, but having authorized Netflix to play on so many different installs of Windows, I was barred from trying again for a few weeks. Fricking DRM.
I've recently discovered a new BluRay player software called ArcSoft TotalMedia Theatre, which finally offers the Media Center BluRay experience I was so hoping for. It supports everything, is updated regularly, and can will also play regular DVDs without all the pain caused by Microsoft's player. It doesn't always offer smooth Blu-Ray playback with my video card, but it's a lot better than the alternative. Someday after I get a better TV I'll update the card.
Requiem: My Own Private Hell
I now own a full-fledged Home Theater PC. I've done everything I can for it, kept everything updated and read up on everything I can find. It plays mostly everything, but forces me to yank out the keyboard and mouse several times a day, requires frequent restarts, and is generally a buggy piece of garbage. Including software, I have spent almost $1,000. Somehow, I feel entitled to a set top box I don't want to throw out the window. As I write this, the damn machine just woke up out of sleep mode behind me for NO REASON AT ALL. AGAIN.
Unfortunately, I'm out of options. In terms of digital content delivery, it's the wild west out there, and nobody is currently capable of delivering an experience that can just play everything and not crash. Being an anime fan makes it even harder: no professional solution supports the open source MKV file format, or most of the common subtitle formats we encounter on a daily basis. Legal distribution methods are an even bigger mess, with Microsoft DRM causing headaches nearly everywhere it's implemented. Even Apple, usually the company that jumps in there and provides something functional and easy to use, is too intent on locking the user into their own proprietary iTunes world for their AppleTV device to be very useful.
I find myself pining for XBox Media Center, still the bastion of stability and usability in my book. It seldom crashes, loads quickly, and has the best file support I've ever seen. It also has the best user interface of any open source software I've ever used. I still have an XBox in the bedroom, but the aging system's lack of horsepower makes it a nonstarter for my main entertainment area.
The good news is that the XBMC team has recently released its first public beta version for Windows, Linux and Mac. It's really not quite there yet (MCE remote control support is still wonky, it doesn't support styled subtitles, and I can't get network playback working to save my life), but it's already way more reliable and fun to use than Vista Media Center. Once it can launch outside programs, making it possible for Netflix, TotalMedia Theatre and a DVR program to be integrated into the experience, we will have an undisputed winner. Words cannot convey how I long for the day where this can replace Vista Media Center, and perhaps downgrade to XP.
Until then, I'll be doing a lot of swearing. Good thing I don't have kids.
Doing it yourself
Wanna give it a shot? Here's everything you'll need to buy/download to get everything working on your Windows-based PC:
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