Windows Media Center 2005 – First Look

May 1, 2005

The parts arrived for my overly-cooked PVR, and I got a chance to assemble it and install Windows Media Center 2005.

My first impressions?

Umm… Wow!

Regular readers probably know that I’m not typically inclined to say nice things about Microsoft products, but in this case, I may have to make a rather large exception.

Here’s a (rather lengthy) first look at MCE 2005.

Installation Notes

Software – Microsoft Windows Media Center Edition 2005

Hardware –

  • CPU – AMD Athlon XP 3000+
  • RAM – 3 x 512MB DDR400
  • Motherboard – MSI K7N2 Delta2-LSR (NForce2/Socket A)
  • Case – SilverStone Lascala SST-LC13-B HTPC Case
  • Power Supply – Thermaltake Silent PurePower TT-420AD
  • Hard Drive – 1 x Western Digital 160GB SE Ultra ATA
  • Hard Drive – 1 x Seagate 200GB SATA
  • Video – BFG GForce FX5700LE
  • Tuner – Hauppauge PVR-250
  • Keyboard – Airboard
  • Remote – Microsoft Media Center 2005 OEM Remote

Everything but the case, motherboard, power supply and remote were repurposed from the previous incarnation.

The HTPC is hooked to a basic RCA DRD435RH DirecTV Receiver via SVideo, and to a JVC 32” TV via SVideo. Audio out is (currently) stereo out to a Home Theater receiver.

Notes on hardware

I was impressed with the MSI K7N2 Delta2-LSR motherboard; for $65, it’s a nice bargain. All cooling (other than the CPU) is done by passive heat-sinks (I’ve had problems with cheap fans on bridge chips and I avoid them if possible). 

It seems to have a nice NForce2 implementation (I’m allergic to Via chipsets), offers 5.1 out, and SATA RAID.  It also came with an extra card header with two USB 2.0 ports on it, in addition to the two in the rear and the connector for two front ports.  The connectors were actually correct for the case’s front panel USB and audio connections, something that’s fairly rare in my experience. 

I was slightly disappointed by the lack of Firewire support.

The case is not bad—with three built-in fans, it runs cool and quiet.  The counterweighted front cover hides access to the front panel connectors, floppy and DVD.  A large aluminum power-on button and blue power/drive LEDs are all that are shown when the cover is closed. 

On the downside, assembly is TIGHT, with the drive cages (one for 3.5, one for 5.25) over the left rear corner of the MB.  With the motherboard above, even with the 3.5” cage out (removing the 5.25 required more disassembly than I wanted to do), there was barely enough clearance to plug in the power supply connector.  Be sure to add your RAM and CPU/Fan before attempting to mount the MB.  Drive cables also need to be connected before replacing the 3.5” cage. The case does not include a reset switch, which is a shame, as it could have been hidden behind the front panel. The milled aluminum power switch does not push in and return as smoothly as it should. 

All in all, not bad, but it could have been better for the money involved.

Notes on OS Install

The Windows MCE 2005 OEM OS installation had few differences from a normal XP installation.  MCE 2005 comes on two CDs, and you are prompted for the second one during the “post-reboot” phase of the install.  One oddity is that when it wants the first disk back, it asks for the “Service Pack 2 CD”, instead of the “CD Marked 1” or somesuch.  Service Pack 2 is pre-installed.

After installation, the look is somewhat more refined than your box-stock XP look, with a lot more shading on controls, and a background that’s a “detailed up” version of the “Green Hills of XP” (blech).  Post installation tasks were also normal—install motherboard drivers, go to Windows Update, lather, rinse, repeat until all updates are in.  There is a Media Center specific rollup that gets installed after the first group of updates.

Last but not least, I installed the Media Center drivers for the PVR-250 from SHSPVR’s driver collection.

Notes on Media Center 2005 Install

Once the OS was in and updated, I installed the Microsoft Media Center 2005 Remote, and the “IR-Blaster” from the back of the remote receiver to the Satellite receiver.  The remote receiver is well thought-out, with 15 feet of USB cable to allow you to keep the PC away from the TV and still have the receiver in the right place.  It comes with two IR-Blasters (for control of set-top boxes) which connect to the back of the remote receiver, also with long cables (I didn’t measure these).

Once the receiver was in, pressing the remote’s green button launched Media Center, and I headed to Settings, TV. The tuner setup was much better than most I’ve ever used.  It auto-detected the PVR-250 (although it never called it by name), had me click a few buttons on the Satellite remote to detect the box being used, and asked a few questions regarding number of digits in channel number, and whether I had to press “Enter”.  After that, it verified that it could change channels, verified the system (DirecTV, Dallas locals), and went online and got the guide data.

Here’s where I hit the one hickey in my install, and it was more of a problem with my critical reading skills than anything else.  It looked like we were up and running, but attempting to watch live TV gave me an “Error Starting Decoder”.  I read this as “couldn’t find the tuner”, and chased down some blind alleys for a little while before I realized that Windows Media Center Edition ships without an MPEG2 decoder, and you have to install one yourself before you can watch TV or a DVD.  Installing the NVDVD drivers from my video card driver disk solved this problem, and live TV came right up.

User Experience – First Thoughts

Most people will not be building their own Media Center (although it seems trivial, if you are careful to select from the (fairly broad) list of certified components and have a bit of PC assembly experience), so their first experience will probably be hooking it up to their TV and set top box, and switching it on.

Designing a “10 foot” user experience is a bitch.  I’ve been there and done that a few times, and getting it right is far harder than it looks.  Windows MCE 2005 gets it right, in spades.  It makes the stock SageTV interface eat hot death, and even the “MCE Skinned” SageTV interface is just a pale imitation. The cable company PVRs I’ve seen (mostly ComCast) aren’t even in the hunt.

The wife (or other non-geek in your life) acceptance factor should be awesome.

In fact, this is the first PVR UI that I actually like somewhat better than Tivo’s, at least on limited use (I’ve only spent a few hours with it).  The only place I’d downgrade it slightly is that I really, really, like Tivo’s guide better than anyone else’s.  The Windows MCE 2005 guide isn’t bad, however, and I’ll doubtless get used to it.

One feature that I found spectacular was in the handling of meta-data.  Program information includes box cover pictures for movies, cast and crew information, and reviews.  I particularly enjoyed “surfing” the cast and crew feature. 

For example, I turned past “Heavy Metal” (the animated movie) and noticed that one of the voices sounded like Harold Ramis.  Sure enough, it was.  Clicking on the actor name, I got a list of his movies (with box cover art), and clicking down on each of those got me cast and crew, reviews, etc., as well as a “Next Playing” date if it was upcoming in the guide data.  You could then select it to record. 

Even better, if you find a movie that’s NOT in the guide, it’ll offer to record it for you whenever it finally turns up.  I set several movies still in theaters to record, and even one that hasn’t been released yet.  Only time will tell how well this will work, but I’m psyched.

There were also some interesting features in the “Record Series” (aka “Season Pass”) function.  Aside from the usual first-run/repeats and number of episodes to keep settings, it allowed you to select a fixed time, anytime, or “anytime, but only one a day” as a recording time. 

Again, time will tell how well it works, but at the moment this looks like a great feature—finally I can tell it to get an HBO series, but (since it will air multiple times during the week) let it “float” so that other less time-flexible recordings can override specific airings.

Likewise, the “anytime, one a day” feature is nice for some of the inevitable programs that air over and over, and have crappy metadata that would otherwise cause duplicates.

Picture quality is very, very good—again, much like my experience with Sage, better than a DirecTivo, although I still can’t say why (the DirecTivo avoids an MPEG2 decode/encode pass that this machine must make).  I suspect it’s still a matter of the MPEG2 codec in question. 

The current decoder (NVDVD) is a little “soft” for my taste, and I hope to play around and see how well it works with the Sonic codec, which is usually a bit more appealing to me.  Playback is smooth, with no jerkiness and no audio sync problems, both on live TV and recordings.

Controls (pause/ff-rw/skip fwd-skip bk) work very well, with no odd delays or artifacts, although (like any PVR) it takes a little getting used to their own ideosyncracies.

The only bug I found was with captions—enabling captions (such as automatically on mute) caused immediate jerkiness and instability.  I don’t know why this is, and I plan to spend some time tracking it down.  On the other hand, I’ve never had a computer-based PVR that actually had working captions, so this isn’t much of a loss.

Early Conclusions

I’m very, very impressed—and I’m damn hard to impress on the PVR front, as well as on the Microsoft front. I’ve got a lot left I want to do with this—adding a second tuner and picture source and playing with some of the billions of plug-ins, as well as getting in some serious couch-potato time using it, but so far, I’m not in any hurry to disconnect it and go back to Sage, as much as I’ve loved it in the past. 

Only time will tell how bad the DRM issues are, and whether the feature-candy overcomes my antipathy towards their proprietary formats. 


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