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Media Center PC Part 3

by on Aug.19, 2009, under TV

After a few months of research into the options for media PCs, I finally found an option that I wanted to go foward with.  The only thing left to do was put all the pieces together and see what the puzzle looked like.

To start, I needed a computer.  Not wanting the expense of building one from scratch, I had an Emachines Media Center PC lying around that I figured would fit the bill for a testbed.  After my research, I knew that I would be using Windows 7, so I wiped the Windows Media Center 2005 off the hard drive and installed Windows 7 Ultimate RC.  It also came with only 512MB of RAM, so I bumped that up to 2.5GB with sticks I had around the house.  From here, I hooked it up to the tv using the d-sub connector and commenced to testing.  Windows 7 installed without a hitch and recognized all of the hardware so no drivers needed to be installed.  An antivirus download and an update later and I was ready to test Media Center.

Media Center ran well for the most part.  It was a little sluggish on screen transitions, and starting videos was time consuming, but other than that, it ran okay.  I had already figured on upgrading to a PCI Express video card, and this confirmed that it was needed.  I also needed to get a tuner card, and I decided on a cheap NVidia GeForce 8400 and a Hauppauge WinTV HVR-1600.  I also ordered a Media Center remote because the tuner didn’t come with one that worked with Media Center.  I also was dismayed to find out that the board didn’t have an S/PDIF connector on it (the MSI boards that Emachines installed appearently were stripped down versions, this one doesn’t have S/PDIF in or out or the extra surround sound connectors on the board).  So I found an old SoundBlaster Audigy card and slapped it in the third and final slot (other than the PCIe x1 slot).  Now I will have digital audio that can run to my A/V reciever and surround sound speakers.

After installing all of the hardware, I also download Windows 7 Professional RTM through my MSND account and set forward to perform a clean install and get everything going.  The install went okay, although finding the correct drivers for the Audigy card was a little frustrating.  So with everything installed, I take the freshly installed cable from the back of the set top box Suddenlink installed and split it and hooked it up to the Media PC.

After running the TV signal setup in Media Center, I get… nothing.  No signal.  Great.  I take the lead out of the tuner card and hook it to the digital box.  Nothing.  Take the splitter off and hook it back to the digital box.  Cable.  Okay, so there must be enough signal loss when splitting that the tuner can’t read the signal.  So I dig out a signal amplifier and hook that up before the splitter, hook the leads to the tuner card and run the TV signal setup again.  This time I decide to run both the analog and digital setups.  Signal detected, channels added!  Whoohoo!

Only, the digital channels it picked up weren’t the digital channels it was supposed to pick up.  It seemed to pick up the analog equivalent of the digital channels and assign them to the digital numbers.  It was a mess.  Not only that, but I had no idea how Suddenlink mapped their digital channels.  Just to make sure it wasn’t a signal problem, I hook the split feed into my TV.  I run setup and it picks up both the analog and digital channels and maps them correctly according to Suddenlink’s channel guide, all without my intervention.  Huh.  Too bad my tuner card can’t do that.  Back to the Internet to look and see if I can find how the channels are mapped (my TV automatically mapped the digital stations to the 700 numbers, so I couldn’t go off of that).  Three hours later I finally find a site (thank you SiliconDust!) that shows the correct channel numbers along with their station names.  So I spend the next two hours manually adding the missing digital stations (my local HD channels) and combining and cleaning up the analog and digital signals it did pick up.

I now have an operational Media PC.  The guide is accurate and works well.  I also downloaded a utility that inserted the station logos.  Windows 7 Media Center is running very well with the hardware I installed.  Despite the troubles I had getting everything up and running, I am enjoying my unified media experience.  I have Windows 7 running on my main PC as well, and it has many Gigs worth of music and videos, so with HomeGroup I’m able to share those files with my Media PC.  All said, I’m enjoying it.

I have to wonder why Microsoft and others haven’t streamlined this and made it more available.  This type of frustration is only going to be overcome by enthusiasts and techies.  If Media PCs are going to take off, the complexity (which isn’t too bad now) needs to be reduced, and there needs to be many more options on integrating more TV feeds (digital cable (although there is CableCard, from what I have read it’s even more of a pain to set up and the equipment is many times cost prohibitive), satellite (DirecTV had a project going with a Media Center tuner, but that has been dropped.  Only Project Draco, which is Dish Network’s Media Center tuner, is still viable) and IPTV (still in it’s infancy, and there has been some success in getting U-Verse and Fios running in WMC) into the Media Center environment.

There is money to be made here, and I can’t fathom why there hasn’t been more of a push to go get it.

My only wish is that I had more HD programming.  My local HD stations suck. It’s severe storm season, and every time they do a weather watch overlay, the channel switches to an SD feed, so the shows that I should be getting in HD are now SD because the monkeys running the TV stations here can’t figure out how to overlay a digital image on a digital signal (except for the CBS affiliate, they seem to get it right, but who watches CBS).  Now that I know everything is working and my vision is complete, I will be doing incremental upgrades to the system, starting with a new case that is a little more pleasing to the decor than the old Emachines case.

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Media Center PC Part 2

by on Aug.18, 2009, under TV

My last post detailed my ambition to unify my media experience using Microsoft Media Center.  It also detailed some of my frustration (along with others) on making that possible.

It seems that in the last eight years since Media Center came out it’s been hit or miss on bringing together all aspects of your entertainment center into one box.  The digital transition and DRM (uhg!) has complicated things even more.

The first option that I looked at was cable.  The local cable company is Suddenlink, and to say their website is lacking is an understatement at best.  No information other than basic info on what services they offer and contact information.  So I contact Suddenlink and inquire on how much high definition programming would cost.  After picking my jaw up off of the floor, I decide to look elsewhere.

Knowing the DirecTV doesn’t have locals in my area, I turn to Dish Network.  Their site is much, much better than Suddenlink’s, detailing all of their packages and offerings, and how much they cost with and with out their promotions.  The cost for their hd offerings is reasonable, so I decide that I will go with Dish Network.  However, knowing that I will be tied to a contract for at least a year, I decide I need to do some additional research on the cost of tuner cards to integrate the feed into the media pc.  This is where things got confusing and frustrating.

The first obsticle I found was there is no tuner card for Dish Network (or DirecTV for that matter) that integrates their feed into a media pc.  There are sattelite tuner cards (DVB-S), but those only feed free stations and they don’t work with Dish Network (they, from what I can tell, are really only useful in Europe).  Okay, so I have to deal with their tuner box, that’s fine.  There is a neat little gadget called in IR Blaster that will handily interface with Media  Center and change the channel on a set top box as needed.  So I start searching for a high definition tuner card that I can hook up the Dish Network box and use Media Center with.  I find one.  Just one. Well, that’s not exactly true, I did find another solution that worked with certain set top boxes that was a do-it-yourself kit, but it was way more work than I wanted and it would only work if they gave a compatible box, which I couldn’t be sure of.

Anyway, the one box I found that could record high def signals was the Hauppauge HD-PVR.  Yay!  Wait, it’s not compatible with Media Center?  Boo!  Oh, it’s because Media Center doesn’t support the h.264 format?  But Windows 7 Media Center does!  Oh, but we don’t know when (if ever) we will support Windows 7 Media Center.

What?  You have the opportunity to be the first (and only) company to offer HD recording for satellite and cable users (for those that don’t have CableCard) and you are sitting on your thumbs when it comes to support in Media Center?

Uhg!  Okay, next.

There is a project that was announced about a Media Center tuner built just for Dish Network.  Project Draco shows incredible promise, and could finally mean an easy, ready made way to get your Dish Network programming into Windows 7 Media Center.  However, there is little to no information about the project other than a few tidbits that were released many months ago.  Not only that, but it probably won’t be available before the consumer release date of Windows 7 in October.

*Sigh*

Back to cable.  I choose to forego the HD for now because I don’t have a mint in my garage.  Doing a little more research and grilling a Suddenlink cable guy I find out that the local HD stations are available through the extended basic package, and that they multicast their digital signal with an analog signal, so with a tuner card with both NTSC and ATSC/QAM, I can get all of the cable stations I subscribe to in Media Center.  Finally, I’m getting close to my vision.

I call and subscribe to cable.  I look at the bright side: I don’t have a contract so if this goes bust I can cut my losses and cancel, and if the Dish Network tuner card does come to fruition, then I can switch over then without any hassle.  It’s a win-win of sorts.

The final post in this series will detail the massive headache it was to get the cable stations programmed into Media Center and the results so far.

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Media Center PC part 1

by on Aug.13, 2009, under TV

A little while back I started exploring options after I dropped DirectTV for telling me they carried local stations when they didn’t. I started thinking with the digital transition about to happen and local tv stations broadcasting in HD, why not try the free approach first and go from there.  Half a dozen different antennas and varying results later (of which the best was three stations out of thirteen), I decided it was time to start pumping TV back into the house through a provider.  I also figured since I was starting from scratch again, why not go the Media PC route.  That way I could record shows and then share them over the network to other computers in the house, something I wasn’t able to do when I had Dish or DirectTV.  I knew there were digital tuner cards for over the air broadcasts, and figured there would surely be cards that integrated into Windows Media Center for cable and satellite as well.  *BZZZZZZT*, wrong answer, for the most part.

Starting my research, I learn all about NTSC, ATSC and QAM.  I also learn that HD uses the h.264 standard.  Then I learn that Media Center doesn’t support h.264.

What?

Digging a little further, I find that MCE (media center edition) only recently started support for QAM based tuners, and that was with an OEM only update to MCE.

Oh, bother.

Seems Microsoft has been treating MCE like an afterthought.  I’ve enjoyed it for the most part on my XBox 360 to stream music and videos from my XP machine.  There are some limitations since I’m not using MCE on my XP box, but it wasn’t a big deal.  However, since I’m making this PC the hub for TV entertainment for the entire household, I want to make sure it works and works well.  If it doesn’t even port in the cable or satellite feed that I want in the first place, I’m done before I even started.

For the next two months I dig further into the dark pit that is Microsoft Media Center.  I read posts from customers and enthusiasts who want desperately to enjoy their vision of a unified media experience, and devise clever and complex ways to work around the limitations of MCE.  I read posts from disheartened former customers who have moved on thinking MS has abandoned them.  I read mixed reviews on CableCard implementations and hopes for a satellite solution.  I read a lot about hopes, but little about actual satisfied customer experiences.

Then Windows 7 RC is released, and hope springs alive.

I had been messing around with the Windows 7 Beta for a while on a virtual machine, but hadn’t looked into it in much detail.  While on my MCE research project, I find that MCE is going to be offered in all three of Windows 7’s versions (Home, Business, and Ultimate).  That’s a great leap from earlier versions where it was only offered on Home Premium and Ultimate for Vista, and it’s own version for XP based off of the Professional build (but with certain pro features disabled).  It looks as if MS is actually taking MCE seriously.

The next few posts will detail what options I looked at and their implementation into MCE, and then what I finally decided on.

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Success

by on Mar.29, 2009, under TV

Shauna called on Friday and I spoke with her and explained the situation. She requested that I email the confirmation email I received that said I would be getting locals, and shortly after I sent the email she called me back and confirmed that I was indeed told I would be receiving local channels. She said that DirecTV would be waiving the cancellation fee. Thank you Shauna.

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Update: A response

by on Mar.26, 2009, under TV

I got an email response from DirecTV today and they even called and left a message.  Below is a copy of the email I recieved:

Subject
—————————————————————
RE: Very disappointed with DirecTV

Discussion Thread
—————————————————————
Response (DIRECTV) – 03/26/2009 12:02 PM
Dear Me,

Thank you for your recent email. We attempted to contact you at phone # 806-XXX-XXXX in response to your email but were unable to speak to you directly regarding your concerns. We would very much like to assist you.

At DIRECTV we strive to provide the finest in satellite television entertainment and outstanding customer service. For further assistance, please contact us at 1-866-785-5524 between the hours of 7:30 AM and 8:30 PM MT.

Sincerely,

Sausha
DIRECTV Customer Advocate Team

I called back this afternoon, but Sausha had already left for the day, so I have a call back request in for 10:00 am tomorrow.

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