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Born Again MCE 2005

October 30, 2005

I am talented at destroying Media Center PCs… If you’ve got a media center you want trashed, send it to me…

I’ve been slowly fighting my terribly unstable (OEM) Media Center PC back to something approximating normality. I had a big breakthrough a week or two ago, when I replaced the motherboard audio with a PCI audio card, and added yet another fan. This only left my long standing problem of lockups when background update was enabled, which meant I had to switch it on to run windows update and guide updates manually, and then switch it back off.

Life was good. Until Thursday night, anyway.

I sat down to watch a little bit of recorded TV, and it blew up rather spectacularly. Reboots ended up either locking up in POST, or getting a blue screen of death as soon as Windows loaded…

Smells like a hardware failure!


Yesterday, I started basic troubleshooting. First, I pulled all non-essential (for booting, anyway) boards. Same failure. I removed a bank of RAM. It boots right up.

Aha! We’ve got some bad RAM; that’d explain a lot. Leave the bad stick out, put the boards back in. Still works.

Fire up Media Center… Runs fairly well with half the RAM out. Record two programs simultaneously, play back a third. No problem. Let’s go for the hat trick and try a enabling background update, and try a guide update. Works like a charm.

We have a winner!

Well, we had a winner. Right up until I did something I know fully well not to do (regardless of how many times I’ve gotten away with it), and tighten down the screws on the boards I’d removed while the machine was running.

Bam. System crashes. No post, no nothing. Something bad happened. Try everything, still no post. Power supply maybe? Motherboard? Or the trifecta — everything on the bus?

Tried replacing the power supply. No luck.

Now it’s decision time; this is an AGP/Athlon XP motherboard; a good one in it’s day, but it’s well into legacy-ville. It should be replaced with an Athlon 64/X2 64 PCI-Express motherboard. But that means a new motherboard, processor, video card, and likely RAM. Right idea, but lots of money, coming up on the holidays no less.

Alternatively, I could try replacing the motherboard with an equivilent, but if the video card and/or processor are gone, then I’ll either spend a lot more money on legacy hardware, or be that much further into bad money before going with newer stuff.

Time to punt.

I grab my desktop machine (I’m a Mac guy, but I keep a P4 Shuttle XPC on my desk to test stuff under Internet Explorer), and stuff the video card and the PVR-500 from the MCE box in it, just to see if they’re fried. Nope, they’re fine.

After thinking about it awhile, I decide to go ahead and install MCE on the Shuttle. The machine is plenty fast, and the on-board audio is decent (it’s a fairly high-end Shuttle), but onboard disk space is a little short (a mirrored pair of 150 gig SATA drives), and there’s no additional slots to add my next planned addition, an HD tuner or two.

A 250 gig external firewire drive solves the first problem (and actually seems fast enough to handle a couple of simultaneous streams of SD video). As for the second problem, that machine isn’t attached to an HDTV yet, and isn’t likely to be anytime soon if I drop a lot of money on the Media Center.

So, we’ll coast with this for awhile… It seems to work fine, and appears stable thus far, running Rollup 2… At least I’m getting fairly fast at configuring MCE…

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