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Media Center DIY – Not for Wimps

June 13, 2005

Digital Media Thoughts posted recently about issues with various MCE plugins, and Chris Lanier has been talking about the issue of supported hardware in MCE.

What all of this comes down to is that building your own MCE 2005 system is not for wimps.

While the OEM version of Windows Media Center Edition 2005 is readily available from various online suppliers, there are a lot more moving parts in an MCE system than there are in your average XP install, and getting them all correct can be non-trivial.

This is the reason why packaged MCE systems seem so much more expensive than the cost of the parts involved would make you think.

It’s easy to get an MCE system about 75% functional.

Take a reasonably fast processor, some RAM, a little hard drive space, a DVD drive, and a mid-quality video card built in the last couple of years. Add one of the less troublesome tuners (one of the Hauppauges for example), a MCE remote, and the OEM MCE 2005. Stir in a few drivers, and you’ve got a working MCE system.

Sorta.

Perhaps it works mostly, but with the occasional hesitation during playback. Or closed captions don’t work. Or everything works, but it crashes occasionally while watching live TV or playing back a video.

As always, the devil is in the details.

These kind of problems might not bother your average nerd who likes to fiddle with stuff (until it crashes and doesn’t record something he really wanted), but for a reliable piece of consumer electronics gear, it doesn’t cut it.

Tivos just work, and other PVRs should do the same.

I built an MCE 2005 box a couple of months ago that was working fine. Well, not totally fine (closed captions weren’t working), but mostly fine.

I decided that in part of my de-Tivoing process, I wanted to make this a dual-tuner box, so I replaced the Hauppauge PVR-250 with a dual tuner PVR-500 MCE.

That’s where the fun started. I started to get crashes during video playback and live TV, particularly when another recording was starting in the background.

This looked like an NVidia driver problem (I was running an FX5700LE video card), so I fooled around with drivers for a week or two. Old versions, new versions. I still couldn’t make the problem go away.

I also fooled around with my DVD decoders, and discovered I was using an ancient and unsupported version of NVDVD. Updating this fixed my closed captions, but didn’t solve the larger problems.

Finally I bothered to look at the supported hardware lists, and sure enough, this was an unsupported video card.

So, I ordered an ATI Radeon 9800 Pro (which is supported) to replace it with — there being no shortage of NVidia driver problems right now, this looked like the way to go.

Replacing it was simple — remove the NVidia drivers, pop out the card, pop in the new one, install the ATI drivers and configure the display.

TV seemed to be working fine, but DVD playback was badly broken — glitches all over the video. My first assumption was that it was an issue with the NVDVD decoder, so I downloaded and installed the Intervideo DVD player trial.

This fixed the DVD playback — sorta. I had some odd stuff (like white letterboxing bars), but it was kind of livable.

Until TV recording and live TV started failing.

Doing a little research, I found out that the last two generations of ATI drivers don’t work with NVDVD, so I dropped back to the last working version, switched back to NVDVD, and everything’s working again.

Sorta. I get weird flashes of cyan bars in the letterbox area of DVDs when chapters change. I also had a couple of odd lockups yesterday.

And so it goes.

This isn’t that big a deal for me — I’m a nerd, and I do like fiddling with stuff like this. It’s also not that big a deal for me if it misses something — this is my personal PVR, and the main box in the living room (a Dishplayer 942) gets the important recording schedules.

If most anyone else I know owned this box, it’d be a horrendous problem, however.

Building an MCE box is not like building another XP box. If you stray from the recommended hardware, you may have a lot of grief, and some replacement parts cost. You should also count on spending a lot of time working out how different versions of nearly every driver in the system interact. You can plan on spending a fair amount of quality time online tracking down problems. It’s not undoable, and there are worse pastimes, but again, it’s not for wimps.

If you want an MCE system that runs right out of the box, it’s probably worth spending the extra money to buy a pre-configured system although I’d check reviews and opinions on vendors and models before plunking down my money. Some vendors have more attention to detail than others, and in building an MCE box, the details count.

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