Vista Media Center: An Update

As I noted earlier, my Vista Media Center experiences are not that good to write home about. But things are changing. I was finally able to narrow down the problems to the NVIDIA drivers used with my graphics card. The latest NVIDIA drivers for Vista have vastly improved the performance on my pretty low end graphics card. The stutters have almost vanished. The one place where video still stutters is when I expand my 4:3 SDTV feed to the panaromic 16:10 mode using the media center’s zoom functionality.

The audio driver for my motherboard is still in beta. Once a final version for those drivers are available, I think all the problems will vanish. I am saving some money for my Home Premium upgrade.

Building a Media Center PC on Budget

As I noted in an earlier post, I dropped my idea of using PS3 as a media center and started a project to build an MCE PC. My budget is little tight. So I carefully chose the mobo and the processor so that I can go for an upgrade late 2007. Here is the list of components that I shortlisted and the reasoning:

Tuner card: Hauppauge WinTV PVR 150 MCE kit. For MCE, you need a tuner card with onboard MPEG 2 encoding. None of the cards available in the local market had hardware encoding. I was searching for Hauppauge tuners everywhere and couldn’t find it even in Later, I came to know that Microsoft India is selling hardware upgrade kits for MCE along with Media Center OS through its retailers. The hardware upgrade kit is nothing but an OEM Hauppauge 150 PVR with an IR blaster and MCE remote! For a list of Microsoft retailers in India, refer here. If you cannot get a Hauppauge tuner card, search for a MCE certified tuner card.

CPU: AMD Athlon64 AM2 3000+. For a moment, I was thinking of choosing Core 2 Duo platform, but then I realized I don’t need that much power for a MCE machine. I went back to my old favorite, the Athlon64. The AM2 3000 + is a pretty decent processor for MCE needs. By selecting a processor for AM2 socket, I made sure that I can upgrade to a cheaper dual/quad core processor by the end of 2007, which will give a new lease of life to this budget PC.

Motherboard: I selected the Midrange Asus M2N-MX motherboard which has a 5.1 channel audio onboard and a PCI express slot for the graphics. The only caveat in choosing this motherboard is that it has only 2 PCI slots, which I have already filled up with the wireless card and the PVR card. Any further upgrade can only be done through USB ports.

RAM: Transcend 1 GB 533 MHz. This is more than sufficient for now. It will be due for an upgrade when I upgrade the processor.

Hard Drive: Seagate 250 GB 7200 rpm SATA. I won’t be recording a lot of TV shows. I think 50 GB will be sufficient for my recording needs. I will use the rest for my Music collection, home videos that are currently scattered all over the place in multiple DVDs and plenty of digital photos which I shot over the years.

Graphics Card: GeForce 6200 128MB DDR2 TC. This low end graphics card can also share 128 MB RAM from your main memory, which is plenty to boast about for a PVR machine. The DVI output is a must if you are going to use a LCD monitor/TV.

Networking: D-Link DWL-150G PCI card. Though the motherboard has onboard Gigabit Ethernet, I won’t be using it since I have setup a wireless router at home.

DVD Drive: Sony dual channel/dual layer DVD-RAM drive. This drive can write in all possible DVD formats. Must for archiving some old recorded TV shows etc.,

OS: Windows XP Media Center 2005. My initial plan was to install fedora core 6 with MythTV, but I was slightly put off by the long installation and setup procedure for MythTV, especially considering that EPG for India is not available through XMLTV. I wanted to get things up and running pretty quickly, so I selected MCE 2005, which is a surprisingly cool OS with a nice user interface. I may eventually migrate to MythTV, but it is MCE 2005 for now.

Other Software: Putting together the hardware took about an hour, but getting the software running took a few more hours because of search for codecs and other software. Beware: XP MCE does not ship with a MPEG 2 decoder, which is a bit of a surprise and also a blessing in disguise, because you can now use hardware accelerated MPEG 2 decoder shipped by NVIDIA. Costs money though.

MSN India provides the EPG. Though some channels are missing in the guide, the EPG is fairly informative and useful. Some screenshots below. (Note: High-res images)

The Guide

EPG for a regional channel

While I am pretty happy with the MCE install, I also tried the Vista media center and it produced some very disappointing results. The audio and video stuttered when going into full screen mode, which is quite surprising for a system that has pretty decent specs given Vista’s system requirements. Maybe it is because of some of the beta drivers that I used for audio and graphics. We will know in the coming days when the final versions are released.

Update 21 Feb 2007: The latest NVIDIA beta drivers and the beta audio drivers for my motherboard have vastly improved the Vista Media Center performance on my PC. I will update once I have the final drivers.