Firefox add-ons from Microsoft!

Yah. Thats true. But not the kind of add-ons that you would love to install in your firefox! These are for WGA validation extensions for Office 2003 and Windows. Earlier, for Firefox users, MS gave a small stand-alone application for genuine validation. Now they have created proper plugins.

I came across these interesting plugins when I tried to download some add-on applications for Outlook 2003. Type about:plugins on your firefox address bar to see if you have any of these plugins installed.

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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.

Vista: Should you upgrade?

Now that Vista is officially available for atleast two weeks, as we expected, the net is now full of articles and advices on whether you should upgrade or wait for some more time. Most of the advice come from people who have never used Vista for more than a few hours. It is all based on their past observations, which need not be correct all the time.

Here is my take on upgrading to Vista, which is based on my experience of trying it out in trial mode on various PCs for the last 2 months. Now, it is largely dependent on what sort of hardware you have. If you are using a laptop, you may want to wait. I observed that the power management functionality, even though claimed to have been improved by Microsoft, is very poor. The laptops I tested always ran hot and the whirring of the fan could be heard 90% of the times. When the machine is idle and there are no applications open, the fan was inactive. The moment you launch an application, no matter how small it is, the fan just kicks in, even if you have set the power management to “Save Battery”. All in all, I was pretty scared to run the laptops for long hours as it may cause damage due to the raising temperatures.

If you have an NVIDIA graphics card on your PC or laptop, just do not upgrade now. NVIDIA drivers are still in their early stages with even the latest beta versions exhibiting several issues. I am not a great gamer, but the MCE performance with the default drivers shipped with Vista leave a lot to be desired. I finally traced the stutter issues that I faced on Vista MCE to the NVIDIA 6200 graphics card that I used in my media center desktop. Updating to the latest beta drivers improved the performance a little, but the stutter has not vanished completely.

On the other hand, if you have a hardware that is atleast one year old, the drivers shipped with Vista are pretty stable. Some of the older desktops (upgraded to 1 GB RAM) exhibited good stability and performed well. Almost all hardware was detected and proper drivers were available.

In short, you can take the Vista plunge if you have a older hardware upgraded with enough RAM (read: atleast 1 GB). Just make sure that you are not using NVIDIA graphics card for now. Laptop users can wait for a little longer time so that some fixes are available for the power management issues. You don’t want to burn your lap, right? If you assembled a PC with the latest hardware, you may want to play the waiting game till your manufacturer(s) provide you with polished drivers for all your hardware bits.

Also note that this article is purely based on the hardware point of view. Vista definitely has more features and applications than XP worthy enough for an upgrade – but just make sure your hardware is ready for enjoying all the new features of Vista.

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 ebay.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.

Poor Linux Performance on PS3

When news about Linux support on PS3 was coming in a few months earlier, honestly, I was excited a little too much and started saving money for my console. A home computer running on a 9 core processor is no doubt a drooling proposition for any tech enthusiast. I even drew up a plan to use my PS3 as:

  • my main computing machine (I can happily relegate the Centrino to my Wife)
  • media center after installing mythtv on it (using a USB tuner)
  • and as a game console too.

Now that news about actual performance of Linux on PS3 has started pouring in, there is very little to cheer about.

  • The architecture is such that Linux cannot take advantage of all the cores in the system
  • The system compares in performance only to a low end G5
  • Initial reviews and comparisons do not show a better gaming experience than the XBox360.

So what next? Without second thoughts, I quickly dropped my plans for a PS3 and decided to build a media center PC over the weekend. And what a fun filled weekend it was! My Windows XP Media Center PC coupled with a Samsung 940BW wide screen has suddenly changed the TV viewing/multimedia experience at home! I have detailed post coming up later today with full details on how I built a Windows MCE PC from scratch.

Cost of a Vista Upgrade

My Compaq presario v2000 laptop is about 10 months old. It runs Windows XP SP2 comfortably. The specs are as below:
Pentium M 1.6 GHz
768 MB RAM
80 GB Harddrive
Intel 915 GMA 900 graphics

I tried 3 beta releases of Vista (5478, pre-RC and RC1) on it. Barring some issues like no aero support, huge memory usage and some multimedia glitches, it does run Vista in a OK sort of manner. But the performance is nowhere near as XP. I just did an estimate of how much it will cost me in case I want to upgrade XP on it to Vista ultimate. Vista itself takes about 10 to 12 GB for a plain Vanilla install and with the fact that there is only 3 GB of space left in my C drive, it becomes essential to upgrade my hard drive too. So here is the final result:

Kingston DDR2 1 GB RAM upgrade : Rs 7000
120 GB Hard drive 2.5"         : Rs 6800
Windows Vista Ultimate         : Rs 11396 ($259 for upgrade from XP Pro at exchange rate of $1= Rs 44)
                         Total : Rs 25196 (==$572)

That is the price of a new Celeron/Turion 64 based laptop in India!!   
Now, here is another interesting calculation.

Cost of Vista Upgrade                : Rs 25000
Sale price of my 10 month old laptop : Rs 25000 (Bought for about 49k)
Additional 12 k from my pocket       : Rs 12000
                               Total : Rs 62000.

INR 62K is the price of a new 17″ Core 2 Duo iMac in India. 🙂

Best free anti-virus ?

Softpedia came up with a list of best free anti-virus software. Unfortunately, the list is missing the best of them all – AOL Active Virus Shield. AAVS is powered by Kaspersky Labs anti-virus engine, which is rated by many anti-virus reviews as the No.1 in Virus detection rate. AAVS gets updated daily and is prettly low on resources. Though the AOL logo on the software may put many people off, it is only a slightly stripped down version of Kaspersky’s commercial product. Interestingly, it also has a built in spyware check tool, so you reduce the burden on your system by cutting down one more daemon process.

I was using AVG previously. When I ran AAVS for the first time, it detected a few minor viruses which were missed by AVG free edition! If you are searching for a free AV tool with low footprint and CPU utilization, look no further. Here is the download link to AAVS.