Month: August 2009

Windows 7 Media Center on Acer Aspire Idea 500

We had a catastrophe recently. Our Windows Vista media centre developed a puzzling problem. It refused to boot up, complaining of no boot disc. But if I went into the BIOS and put the SATA boot drive back to the top of the boot drive order and reboot, it would boot up fine.

For a while.

Then, it started randomly hanging, then restarting, and giving the ‘No boot disk’ error again. Until it got to the point where it wouldn’t get through the boot sequence before rebooting.

Clearly, it was unhappy.

I’ve had hardware issues before.

The PSU has failed twice, in exactly the same way, in the last two years. Others have reported the same symptoms, so there’s definitely some problem, and a replacement PSU has solved it both times.

This is different, though. It looked like a faulty drive, although this drive was new this year.

Whatever the reason, we were without TV. We don’t watch live TV. All our TV viewing is through the Media Centre. Or iPlayer (mostly the kids use iPlayer on their netbooks when they don’t want to watch what’s on the big telly).

So I clearly had to do something.

I decided to put a new drive in. I had a spare 500G SATA drive with some archived TV, so I cleared all that off onto the 1.5TB external (which is now getting full itself) and put it into the Acer.

Then I booted up with the Win7 RC in the drive.

About 30 minutes later, Win7 was running. All was not rosy, though.

Windows 7 issues with Acer Aspire iDea 500

A default install was missing some drivers. I was using a TV as a monitor (easier to do where the machine lives) and the output was black and white and quite fuzzy – clearly NTSC rather than PAL. And there was no sound coming through the TV speakers, despite Win7 thinking a sound driver was working. And Device Manager was telling me that the TV Tuner card was unrecognised (not surprising – it’s an obscure OEM device from Yuan).

Luckily, I had two things on my side: Windows 7 uses the same driver model as Vista; and I’d gone through a complete install of Vista on this machine (it originally came with XP Media Center Edition) and I’d made sure I collected all the drivers I’d had to install to get things working. I’d even burned them onto DVD and remembered where I’d stored the DVD. Most unlike me, I have to admit.

So I grabbed the driver disk and installed away.

Graphics

The machine has an Intel 945GM integrated graphics chipset. I installed the drivers from my DVD, but it didn’t make much difference. The Intel drivers have a pig-ugly custom configuration control panel which allows you to set things like the TV mode, and I’d already set the mode to PAL_I, but I tried again, and this time, after a reboot, the colour image reappeared. I’ll come back to the graphics driver, but for now, that was OK.

Sound

No sound from the TV output (through a scart socket). I remembered having a similar issue with Vista, so I installed the Realtek drivers, and the sound was restored. (I had a plan B – a small USB speaker – but I’m glad I don’t have to use that plan.)

TV Tuner and Media Centre

I installed the Yuan drivers I’d used for Vista, and Device Manager showed that it believed they were correct, so to test it, it was time to start Media Centre for the first time.

Media Centre installation in Windows 7 was a little quicker than Vista. It seemed to ask fewer questions, and it recognised my tuner (it’s a dual digital/analogue tuner and both channels were recognised). I chose the default settings, and the only question it asked was my postcode, for the tuning and guide data.

After the requisite 15 minutes of searching for channels, it found around 91, which might even be more than I’d got before (the number of available channels tends to change, so that’s not perhaps surprising).

Then it started for real. I checked the guide, and started watching BBC One. After the usual tension-filled 5 seconds while it detects the signal, it started playing perfectly. Fantastic!

First Impressions

Media Centre strikes me as an unloved project. It could easily be a key selling point for Windows. other platforms’ alternatives are nowhere near as polished. And yet, it doesn’t seem, from the outside, that the project gets much development attention. Windows 7 MC still looks a lot like Vista. Some screens are almost identical. As such, the differences are often small, but telling.

Guide

The guide has been slightly redesigned. The grid is flatter in design, but doesn’t really show any more information. And some navigation features are missing. When you click on the channel name, it switches to the channel specific display, showing more upcoming shows. In Vista, Left and Right would cycle through the channels. In Win7 this doesn’t work. I used to use this all the time, so its absence is annoying.

Clicking on a specific programme in the channel listing brings up a very different Programme Info page. It still has the key options for recording the show, although the buttons are redesigned, and much smaller. This seems an odd choice, and on the tiny 14in screen I was using, it’s not that clear. However, I understand that they’re probably targeting much larger screens, so it’s probably unfair to complain.

One definite gripe, though is the behaviour when recording shows. I occasionally like to scroll through the channel listings and marking upcoming shows to record. In Vista, this was a couple of clicks. One click to bring up programme properties. Another click to record. and you’d be back where you were.

In Windows 7 it’s slightly different. When you click the Record button, you’re taken back to the channel listing, but the focus is on the button to the left of the listings, rather than on the show you were recording. This makes it a lot more difficult to just scroll through recording shows.

There is a shortcut, though, and I’m not sure if this worked in Vista. If you hit the Record button once, it will set the programme to record. Hit it again, and it sets it to record the series. Hit it a third time and it cancels the recording. This is nice, and if I remember it, it will be even quicker than before.

Live TV

There are two apparent improvements here (at least, to me). Firstly, I was surprised to see a ‘press the red button’ logo appearing. So I did, and I got the BBC’s interactive text service. I’ve never seen this on Vista, so I think it’s new in Windows 7. Nice to have, although it’s not a service I make use of myself. Sadly, they don’t record the stream, so the red button isn’t available on recordings. That might have been cool.

Another addition, which might only be new for the UK, is subtitles. These are available on the newly expanded ‘info’ menu which now opens a bar across the bottom of the screen and has several sections. I haven’t checked whether the subtitles are recorded – I presume they are. Old recordings from Vista MCE do not have subtitles.

Another tiny improvement: On Vista and XP, when recording BBC TV, there was always a recording glitch just as the programme was about to start. I’m not sure what that was, but it was ever-present. All my recordings have a slight glitch about 5 seconds after the channel ident starts. It’s probably something particular in the transport stream that the recording was choking on. But it’s gone in Windows 7 (well, on the programme I just checked).

Recorded TV

This is where we spend most of our time, and it’s never been a perfect environment in Vista.

I have some archived TV. Quite a lot of it.

Not sure how much, but over 5 terabytes of it, spread across lots of external drives.

Vista had… issues with this.

Vista has a nice feature – More TV folders – which allows the Recorded TV page to get files from more than one directory – something XP couldn’t do.

But Vista had performance issues. The more files and folders you added, the more time it would take to open Recorded TV. It got to be almost a minute before the screen would appear. I had to remove rarely used folders because it was so interminable. Every Time I’d go to the root Recorded TV page, it would spend >30s doing something before it would show us the page. It was quite bad. I’d almost have time to make tea while waiting.

Naturally, I was keen to see if Windows 7 had addressed this issue. I wasn’t hopeful, as I’ve never seen this issue mentioned as a problem with Media Centre. I plugged in two or three of my larger hard drives, and told Media Centre to monitor all the folders containing TV. Then I hit Recorded TV.

There was a pause. But not a long one. Recorded TV appeared. It didn’t yet have all the files, but it was up and showing me what it had.

I left it a while, indexing. Then I tried again. Again, there was a pause, a little longer, but still acceptable. Three seconds or so.

It’s also pretty-much instant going into groups of programmes when sort by title is on, and instant again going back up to recorded TV. Vista would have its long pause every time I went to the Recorded TV root. Windows 7 just seems to snap back.

I’m very happy with this improvement.

Playback

There’s one issue I haven’t sorted out. Playback of old recorded TV (recorded in Vista) judders. Every couple of seconds, the picture pauses then quickly catches up with itself. The sound is fine. At first, I thought it was a video driver issue, with the driver not being able to keep up with playback. But Live TV was smooth, and playback of a newly recorded progranne also looks smooth.

I know that they’ve moved to a new file format, so the old dvr-ms format is now a legacy format, but it’s all MPEG2 in the end, so I’m at a loss what the problem could be. Also, I know I’ve played back dvr-ms files on other Windows 7 machines, and not noticed such issues. I watched ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ on a projector, played from a Samsung netbook, and it was fine, so it’s hard to know what the issue might be.

Conclusion

I’ve held off from going to Windows 7 on the media centre until now on the basis that it basically worked, and was in use every day. An upgrade or rebuild always takes time and might not even work, so I didn’t want to do it on a whim. So in a way, the machine’s problems were a good thing.

Windows 7 installation was quick and easy. My preparation of a driver disk paid off, and all the drivers I needed worked. I was worried about the tuner card, as I know that some very popular cards have had issues with Windows 7, but mine works fine.

The performance improvements in Recorded TV will make a huge difference.

And I hope I can get to the bottom of the skipping on old recorded programmes. It’s going to bug me otherwise.

I’ve yet to look at the extender features. I’d like to be able to access recordings across the network on any PC, but I haven’t set up a homegroup yet. I’ll also try once more to set up my XBox as an extender, something I was unable to get working on Vista.

To sum up. Windows 7 Media Centre is worth the upgrade, if your hardware works. It’s still the same Media Centre, just better.

Update: 29 August 2009

At the same time as the Vista media centre dies, our TV died. Sort of. The switch on the front broke, and would no longer lock on. It’s a 6 year old 32in CRT TV that’s frankly showing its age, so I’ve been expecting it to die at some point. It was a bit of a coincidence it broke the same day as the MC, but that switch has been dodgy for a while. It’s funny how these things happen together, though.

So I wasn’t too upset that we needed to buy a new TV. Which we did today. We bought a Samsung 40in LCD TV. Something like this one. I toyed with buying a 50in plasma, but it was an extra £220, and 40in is still significantly bigger than our current TV, and probably as big as we want. It fits in the space where the old TV was, in the corner of the room, and we’ll probably put it on the wall eventually.

But how does it get on with my fairly old Media Centre? I was worried that it wouldn’t drive the HD resolution screen fast enough, that it would be choppy or slow.

I needn’t have worried.

I rebooted the Media centre, plugged in the HDMI cable, selected the right input on the TV and waited.

I’ve never been so pleased to see the ‘Starting Windows’ screen.

It detected the TV’s resolution (1920×1080) and I had a perfectly working display.

Except there was no sound.

After much fiddling and swapping, I’ve concluded that the HDMI cable I bought doesn’t carry sound. Probably. I’d have to try it with another known, working TV/Device combination to be sure.

Luckily, the TV has an input that takes this possibility into account (for DVI, VGA or video-only HDMI inputs) and I ran an extra audio cable to the TV and finally got sound.

And because it’s now using a native widescreen mode (instead of the square mode I was forced to use with a standard def TV) it now switches from widescreen to 4:3 when necessary. No longer does Jon Stewart look tubby.

And the best result by a long way is that playback of old recordings are no longer stuttering. They’re as smooth as they used to be on Vista.

So my new conclusion: Windows 7 Media Centre, plus an HD TV is made of win. I’m very, very happy.