Christopher Pratt (cpratt) wrote,
Christopher Pratt
cpratt

HTPC round 5

I could swear I just experienced an auditory hallucination of Barry Manilow singing Looks Like We Made It. Hm. Must be late...

Anyhow, chelloveks, here's the story so far:

I installed a bunch of software on the PC. Strangely, for the first time, installing Office 2003 was not easy. Apparently if you touch any other software that uses a Jet database [my SWAG only], it all slows to a crawl and dies on itself. Ick. I did figure it all out, and now the PC has all of the usual software on it: Office, MapPoint, Money, and MSN. Good.

Disconnected everything and moved the box into the other room. Hooked up the ATI component video dongle and booted it up.

First thing to know if you do this: It is not even remotely clear what resolution you should be running your TV at. Unlike monitors and DVI inputs, with component cables, it's a crap shoot what you'll wind up with. I couldn't figure out what resolution to run the TV at, so I guessed it'd be somewhere between 1080 and 2000. Good guess, more or less. It worked right out of the box.

However, the i in 1080i [the highest resolution HDTV runs at] most definitely stands for interlaced. I had flashbacks to Windows 3.0 - remember how difficult it was to find video hardware in 1991 that would run in noninterlaced mode? Well, feh. 1080i looks like ass if it's the Windows desktop you're watching.

Anyhow, I finally pushed the green button. Windows Media Center Edition [MCE] remote controls have a green button with the Windows logo on it, and this is what you push if you want to run Media Center.

I was blown away. When you first start it up, it goes through a typical setup spiel - but this one has HD video involved. Whoa. Instead of just saying "widescreen or regular, projection TV, plasma, or computer display, etc.," you're treated to a full on multimedia experience complete with video clips of groovy people playing pool. When it comes time to set up things like contrast on the TV, you see video loops which were designed to help you set your TV correctly [e.g. keep lowering the contrast until the moving black X disappears into the background]. Again, whoa. Beautiful, man.

Now that everything was set up and running in 1080i, I thought I'd watch a DVD.

That didn't work. All I got was a copy protection error. Apparently DVDs do not work at anything other than 480p when dealing with component video out. I imagine it would have worked with a DVI connection to my set, but my set is old and has no DVI. So, that totally sucks.

I dropped the resolution down to something I thought was close to 480p and tried again. That worked. So, I tried to move the resolution back up, but only saw 800 x 600 in the ATI pop-up list in the taskbar.

Bad move. That put the TV in a state where it just turned itself off. I had to drag in a PC monitor from the other room, reboot the PC, and use the secondary display to reset the primary one to 1080i. Bleah. That sucked. It's pretty clear that component video is a total kludge: this stuff works perfectly with an actual computer monitor, presumably very well with DVI, but barely at all with component video.

Anyhow, once the set was back in 1080i, I figured I was pretty much done. Media Center is beautiful. It's cool being able to browse your pictures and music on a beautiful, high definition, 57" TV set - the quality was amazing. I had no idea those pictures Dan took in Australia had such high quality to them. Windows Media HD movies were also stunning, complete with 5.1 sound. Ooooh. Even ordinary MPEGs play well. The only annoyance is that QuickTime is not supported, and no one appears to be willing or able to fix that. That sucks; it would be nice to have your QuickTime movies show up with all of the other video formats, but nope, that's a no go. I tried playing them separately with Apple's player, but that doesn't work very well [the main problem is that anything that is not part of Media Center is barely usable on a TV set - the resolution is too high. As a result, standard Windows apps are teensy tiny and very hard to use. Oh, and there's a significant overscan problem: you lose about 5% off the top and the bottom of the desktop, so you'd better be familiar with keyboard shortcuts like Alt+Space M to allow you to move windows down where you can get at them.]

Terminator 2 Extreme also looks fantastic; again, the only problem there is that you have to use the InterActual DVD player, which was not designed for Media Center and is as a result fiendishly difficult to set up, especially as it insists you download an updated player before it will play the Windows Media HD version of the movie. Still, it was amazing seeing that quality of video at home.

To sum up:

- The Creative card's input jacks are very close to each other. The Radio Shack cables I got yesterday just barely fit in them, but their plugs are too wide. I think it'll be OK but I am vaguely concerned that something is getting bent by the girth of the plastic pushing everything apart.

- Although you can get MCE working with component video, it's not convenient. Better to use a DVI input.

- I wish I could find software to get around the irritating Macrovision controls that prevent me from watching DVDs on this system - it's lame that you can't watch DVDs at 1080i, only at 480p.

- Creative's sound card will take a while to figure out. I can get it working fine using the SPDIF; however, with analog out, it seems to always want to muck with stereo sources under the guise of "enhancing my audio experience." No thanks; if it's stereo, I just want to hear stereo.

- Similarly, Creative's player won't play the only audio DVD I have: the new Steely Dan album. Hm. No workaround for that one. CyberLink WinDVD wants to play that DVD as straight DVD, not DVD audio, so that doesn't work either.

- All in all, this is very impressive software, but part of me wonders where it fits in. Because the resolution is high and the display is interlaced, it's nearly impossible to use a Media Center PC as a PC, at least not if it's connected to a honking big PC. I imagine it'd be best if you used it as a PC at your desk with a LCD monitor, but had a projector connected to the secondary video input on your PC so that you could use the PC to display a "TV image" on the wall or something. It works great as a quasi-TiVo on steroids, but as a PC? I'm of half a mind to get out my Power Mac and set it up with Remote Desktop just so I can use the PC.

Next week: the tuner card arrives and I see if the video recording functionality is all it's cracked up to be.

PS: For the record...

1080i - 1920 by 540 [as this is interlaced, it winds up as 1920 by 1080, or widescreen]
720p - 1280 by 720
480p - 720 by 480
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