The Dangers of Building Your Own HTPC and Living Without Cable TV

As I reported earlier in FYI: DIY-FIY (Do-It-Yourself, Fix-It-Youself), my HTPC started crashing intermittently, the worse kind of electronic failure to troubleshoot.  I tried everything to fix it.  Eventually I decided it must be something wrong with the motherboard, so I bought a new motherboard and new CPU, one of those new AMD A6-3500 CPU/GPU combos.  For a few weeks it worked beautifully, much better than the old machine, but then it started acting up.  This time something different, it just wouldn’t boot.  In the rebuild I used a new, but old hard drive for the boot drive so I could save my recordings off the old boot drive, and use it as a second drive.  The only parts from the original machine was the case, 2nd power supply and the original memory.  I had two theories.  One, the used hard drive was bad, or two, the original memory was my problem all along and it had gotten worse.

Now all of this is very aggravating.  I had gotten used to having a home theater PC connected to my den television and now I’m making do with off the air broadcasts, Netflix discs and streaming, and a Roku box.  This still provides more TV than I have time to watch, but it doesn’t let me record shows.  However, this time around I have a backup DVR.

I bought a HD HomeRun Dual network TV tuner.  It was a snap to install.  Just plug in the over-the-air antenna, Ethernet cable and power cable and run a small install program on each of my PCs.  Now I can bring up Windows Media Center on any computer in my house and watch live TV, or record TV from two tuners.  Very slick.  So I can still record shows while my HTPC is broken but now I have to watch them on this computer.  This also simplifies my HTPC setup because it no longer has a TV tuner card in it.  And because I bought the new A6 with Radeon HD 6530D graphics it doesn’t have a video card either.  The new HTPC worked much better and drew less power.  Great until it started crashing.

I was so happy when I got the HTPC going again.  I thought I’d have years of worry free service, but dang, I must have jinxed myself, because the new HTPC is completely dead now.

The other day I ordered some new memory and just tried it out, but it wasn’t the fix.  I’m now hoping it’s the old hard drive, and not other bad motherboard.  So sometime in the future I’ll have to take everything apart again and start troubleshooting all over again.  Another troubling idea is the HTPC is being damaged by electrical spikes.  But this is a long shot.  However, the 2nd hard drive went out just before the machine started crashing.  I’ve bought a UPS to protect it in the future.  It already had a good APC surge protector.   

But I’m putting off fixing the HTPC off for awhile.  I want to get some other things done this weekend.

This is a real lesson in building your own computers.  Normally you buy a computer and it comes with a 1 year warranty.  You can even buy extended warranties.  If something goes wrong you take it back and someone else fixes the machine or gives you another one.  When you build your own machine and it stops working you’re the one that’s got to fix it.

More than that, this whole affair of giving up cable TV has taught me a number of things.  Comcast got me addicted to DVRs, so giving up cable means learning to live with live TV or building your own DVRs.  I’ve starting to wonder if DRVs are worth all the trouble.  I love the simplicity of only having 5 channels I care about, instead of over 200.  But even then, how much do I even care about those 5 channels?  The absolute gem is PBS. 

When my HTPC died I had 200 documentaries I had recorded from PBS that I wanted to watch.  This is very revealing.  Why hadn’t I just watched those shows when they aired?  TV documentaries are like the books I buy but don’t read.  I keep thinking I’m going to watch those shows or read those books, but my to-be-watch and to-be-read lists just get longer and longer.

Last night my friend Janis was over and we were just going through the Netflix menu on my Roku.  I’ve got 196 shows in my queue waiting to be watched, and we found dozens of foreign movies we wanted to watch in the suggestion lists.  There is no shortage of TV to watch.  Then why do I want to hoard TV shows on a DVR?   Isn’t this like going to a restaurant and buying a meal with the intention of eating sometime in the future?

I have a hang-up about controlling time.  My DVR infected me with a time control disease.  I think hoarding books is a time control disease.

I am tempted to simplify my TV watching yet again and give up the DRV and HTPC.  I’d miss playing Rdio and Rhapsody through the den stereo, but I’ve also rediscovered the greatness of just listening to a CD again.  CDs sound so much better than streaming music and MP3s.  I’ve been going retro in the last several weeks.  I’ve been buying DVDs of old westerns and watching one every night before I go to bed.  It shows I can live without cable TV, or even HTPC TV, or even broadcast TV or even Netflix.

Which makes me ask:  Does it matter what’s on TV?

JWH – 7/21/12

FYI: DIY–FIY (Do-It-Yourself, Fix-It-Yourself)

This tale is for people who are thinking about building their own PC.   I’ve built my last three PCs, so this is the story of the first one I’ve had to fix.

My HTPC is crashing intermittently.  As anyone who fixes electronic doodads knows, intermittent problems are the most annoying.

I use my Home Theater PC to record TV shows from over the air broadcasts because I gave up cable TV a couple years ago.  Basically, a HTPC is a computer customized with a TV tuner card that acts like a DVR, but runs under Windows 7, so it can serve many useful functions while connected to a high definition TV.  Think of it as a desktop with a 56” screen.

If I was a Comcast or U-verse subscriber and my DVR went wonky, I’d just have them replace it.  As it is, I’m the repairman.  And since I also built the computer myself from component parts, there’s no warranty but me.  That’s the thing about a Do-It-Yourselfer, you have to be a Fix-It-Yourselfer.

The first time the HTPC crashed I thought the power supply had just gone out, so I replaced it.  $39.95 plus shipping.  Even with a new power supply I discovered my machine was just as dead.  That indicated one of the essential components was keeping the machine from booting up.  I reseated the memory, pulled the TV tuner, audio card and video card and the machine started working again.  I added back the TV tuner and video card and it still worked.  The sound card was a recent purchase so I thought maybe it had flaked out.  I reconnected everything back to the TV and it worked for a day.

Next I pulled the add-on video card and it worked for two weeks.

I let it sit a week turned off.  I didn’t feel like messing with it.  But going a week without a DVR is annoying.  But it’s also instructional.  I can go a week without recording TV, without watching the 5:30 NBC Nightly News delayed to 7:12pm (or 9:32pm, or 8:05pm) while eating dinner.  If I miss the news the world seems to go on just as fine, or poorly, without my conscious observation.

Today I pulled the HTPC from my entertainment center and reorganized my remaining components.  I brought the HTPC and antenna back to my man cave.  It’s now running again without me doing anything other than switching from HDMI cable to TV, to DVI cable to computer monitor.  But I don’t trust it.  However, I’m going to keep it back in my room until I can figure out what’s the actual problem.  And while I do that, I’ll see what life is like without a DVR in the den.

A home built computer is merely a computer assembled from component parts:

  1. CPU
  2. heat sink
  3. motherboard
  4. memory
  5. power supply
  6. hard drive
  7. TV tuner
  8. optical drive
  9. add-on video card

The first seven are required, the last two optional because I have on-board video.  The computer crashes by freezing up, with the power light still on, but with a screen dark, and the TV saying no video signal.  Those are my clues.  Some possible failure points:

  • CPU glitch
  • heat sink is failing and computer overheats
  • something is flaking out on mother board
  • memory failure
  • TV tuner failure

Now the normal electronic detective work requires swapping each of those components with a known working replacement and test until I found the part that’s failing.  That however, would require having working extras of each, and I don’t.  I have two other computers, but not with matching parts.

Because a HTPC is powered on 24×7, I have wondered if power fluctuation could be causing the problem, but my system has been running for two years without failure, so that sounds iffy.  Since I’ve moved my machine to another room, I’ve changed a couple of factors.  I’m using a different power outlet, and I’m not using the HDMI port.  I now have to wait until it fails again.  When or if it does, I’ll move the TV tuner card to my regular desktop.  If TV tuner card fails in the other machine, then I need to buy a new TV tuner card.  If it doesn’t, I’ve got to come up with the next theory.  It could take weeks to track down this problem.

However, the next stage might get expensive.  At work I have a pretty good intuition for efficiently solving computer crashes, but 95% of the time, the snafus are obvious, or within a few guesses.  To solve problems in a timely manner requires guessing the right choice quickly.  My problem with the HTPC has been the exception.  With an intermittent failure, detecting the problem can take a very long time.  And I’m not even sure there’s not more than one problem.  Pulling the add-on video card might have solved the original problem and I’m now seeing another problem.  Or it could have been a minor glitch in one system causing a bigger glitch in a second.

For many people, this kind of fix-it-yourself sleuthing is aggravating.  I’m calm about it because I’ve learned to be calm with this kind of work.  I’ve got my HTPC in my room, and I’ve been playing back recorded shows, recording shows with the DVR and everything has been working fine.  I just have to wait for another crash to tell me something.  By the way, watching TV close up is very enjoyable.  I see a lot more details.  I’ve got the HTPC monitor next to my desktop monitor so I’m just an arm’s length in front of the screen.

Dealing with the problem is teaching me something else.  I’m wondering if I need so many computers in my life.  I’ve got over 200 shows recorded on my DVR, mostly PBS documentaries.  I record far more than I watch – maybe that’s telling me something:  Do I watch enough TV to need a DVR?  When I gave up cable I missed the onscreen guide and the DVR.  I just hate missing something I want to see.  If I have a DVR recorder, I record everything I want to see, but probably only watch as much as I would if I didn’t have a DVR.  We think we’re addicted to convenience and our gadgets, but are we?

In terms of actually watching TV I actually enjoy streaming Netflix the most.  I love having a compelling series like Breaking Bad or Survivors (1975) to look forward to watching each evening after I’m too tired to do anything else.  I use live TV for news and PBS documentaries.  If I had other sources for those shows I wouldn’t need a DVR.  (I also use the HTPC to play streaming music on my big stereo in the den – but that’s another story.)

I could solve my current problem by just putting my TV tuner into my desktop computer.  But I won’t make that decision until after I fix the HTPC.  I don’t want to give up solving this puzzle.

JWH – 6/3/12

Living in Real Time

If you’ve ever gotten used to having a DVR (digital video recorder) for your TV, you’ll know what I mean about living in real time.  The HTPC (home theater PC) I built to record TV shows stopped working the other night.  I went out to the living room to watch the news and my computer was dead.  No news.  No electronic TV guide.  I had to watch TV in real time by clicking around the channels to see what was on.  I ordered a new power supply, but that apparently wasn’t the problem.  I took everything apart and put it back together and it started working again.  Then it stopped again.  Maybe the memory is flaky – I don’t know.

Every now and then, the electricity goes out and I’ll have to live without power for a few hours, and on some occasions a few days.  Sometimes I’ve had to live without internet.  Time seems to flow at a different rate when you live without electricity, the internet, cable TV, or TV without a DVR.  Some people go crazy when they don’t have their smartphones. 

All our gadgets alter our sense of time.

dali-persistence-of-time (1)

I recently read Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy and I was struck by how little technology they had in their lives, and how slow information flowed.  The Russians were having a war with the Turks and the news came by telegram to newspapers.  Each day people waited for new news of the war, and discussed the latest telegram.  People in the 1870s Russian traveled by train, horse, cart and carriage.  If they wanted to know what a friend was doing they had to wait days for a letter.  It took weeks and even months to travel from one place on Earth to another.

Time works different when I have to be in my den chair at a specific time to watch a TV show.  Normally I like to watch TV starting after 10pm, until about 11:30pm.  I watch recorded shows, Netflix or a DVD/BD disc.  I rarely watch TV live.  Watching TV in real time is a total pain.

Now there is Netflix/DVD/BD time, DVR time and real time.  Netflix and discs are old stuff just waiting to be watch whenever I feel like it.  DVR is recent stuff, waiting to be watched when I feel like it.  And real time is always now.  DVR time lets me time shift and actual watch more TV.  I seldom feel like watching TV in real time, but PBS has several amazing documentaries every week I want to watch.  I’m over 100 documentaries behind in my DVR watching because they produce them faster than I can watch.  Those shows just wait for me on my 1.5 terabyte hard drive.  My HTPC watches TV for me.  Watching TV on my time schedule seems to make time go faster.  I never have enough.

I’m wondering what my life would be like if I don’t fix my HTPC.  Will I confirm to TV time, or will I just abandon the TV and only watch Netflix and discs?  When I was young this would have been an impossible situation.  Young people have to see movies opening night.  They have to watch new TV shows when they air.  There’s an impatience to see things first.  Years ago I had to be home Sunday nights to watch shows like The Sopranos and Deadwood live on HBO.  Then I gave up HBO and waited about a year for them to come to DVDs.  I think I could do that because I had gotten older and had the patience to wait.  I no longer had to live in TV time, in real time.

Are DVDs real time, or slower than real time?  The illusion is all this technology is speeding up time and real time is slow.  That’s how it feels, but is it really?  Is watching 2 hours of TV really any different if you’re watching it live, DVR, DVD or Netflix?  It’s still two hours of TV?  Somehow watching TV with commercials in real time seems very slow.

I remember when I got my first punch-the-clock job when I was 16, and had to work after school and didn’t get home until around 10pm.  This was back in the second year of the original Star Trek and I hated missing that show.  But work broke me of the TV habit for many years.  The DVR allows us to maintain the TV habit without having to show up on time.  Maybe I just need to kick the habit completely and live in real time.

JWH – 4/26/12 

How To Turn Smart TVs in Genius TVs, But Will They Become HAL 9000s?

In recent years TV makers have been adding features from the Internet (Netflix, Pandora, etc.) to their sets and calling them Smart TVs.  Let’s imagine the trend continuing so that we have Genius TVs – what features would they have?  Do we really want them?

Right now we have many devices, services, apps, sites that all work in different ways.  Smart devices are ones where two technologies blend together, like Bluetooth consoles in cars recognizing Bluetooth smartphones so you can have hands free phone calls while driving.  To make them smarter, they can also be GPS screens, rear view videos, engine monitoring, radios, CD players, etc.  Genius devices are one that blend in many technologies and make them work together.  Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Broadband, USB, TCP/IP are all enabling technologies that bring electronic devices together.

In a way, all of this is very scary because we’re making machines smarter and smarter.  If you’ve ever read John Varley’s classic story, “Press Enter ■” you’ll know what I mean, but for right now we’re all rushing headlong into convergence of intelligent machines.  Most people love their gadgets but often get overwhelmed in how to manage them.  That’s why inventors work so hard to let machines talk to one another so they can figure out how to work together without human intervention.

This also reminds me of scenes from the dystopian film Fahrenheit 451, based on the classic Ray Bradbury novel, and of course, Big Brother screens in Nineteen Eighty-Four.   I’m in love with gadgets, but such gadgets haven’t always been portrayed well in science fiction.  And there was HAL 9000 of course.

fahrenheit-451_2

Our machines are getting smarter to make it easier for us to be dumber.

Here’s an example.  When I sat up my new Roku I had to add each channel I wanted, and for each channel the Roku would give me a code that I had to enter in at a web browser.  For Netflix I went to http://www.netflix.com/roku and entered the code, and then went back to the Roku to see that I had been validated.  In the future I could validate my identity with the Roku, and then it could go down its lists of channels and automatically check with each service to see if I had an account and configure the Roku device for me.  The smarter Roku would know more about me, and have access to my accounts.

With a Genius TV, I should be able to identify myself and it should configure itself automatically for everything I like to do with its designed features.  It will be a video phone, and so it will get my contacts from the cloud, so I can say, “Call Connell” and it will know who I want.  Or I could say, “Take me to the next episode of Breaking Bad I want to watch” or “I want to look at all the photographs of my father” and it would know what I want to do.  Of course, I’ll be developing a symbiotic relationship with my Genius TV.

If you’ve ever used the program Zite on the iPad you’ll know how a program can consolidate your interests with articles appearing on the Internet each day.  I should be able to tell my Genius TV that I’m interested in learning about how people lived in Boston from 1850-1875 and it would go get me diaries, photos, newspaper articles, books, etc., and format them in an interesting way to process all the data.  This goes way beyond Google.  I’m talking about a digital Jeeves like in the P. G. Wodehouse books who is smarter than me, and who can take care of all my needs.  Siri is the first step to a Genius TV.  But what if we all had our own personal Siri that really knew us?

A Genius TV must be completely Internet aware, not just design to work with a few services like a Roku box.  It needs to be voice activated.  It needs to integrate with my Internet provider, phone provider, my TV provider, broadband provider, my cloud services, my home security provider, utility provider, security cams, home network, cameras, and even local over-the-air TV and radio.  I mean, this sucker’s got to be aware of everything.  Before we all run headlong into this future, I really do recommend reading “Press Enter ■” if you can find a copy.  [There are no legal copies I can link to, but just remember my warning.  There are dangers to the future we’re all heading into.]

We won’t have an Einstein level Genius TV for years, but TVs on sale today are getting smarter all the time.  So this essay should help you think about the possibilities the next time you buy a new TV.  The simple way to look at it is to think about what devices that you own now that you can eliminate.  Think how smartphones have eliminated so many older gadgets, well the same thing will happen to smart and genius TVs.

Here’s all the devices that’s connected to my current entertainment center in my den.

  • 56” TV
  • Blu-ray player
  • CD/SACD player
  • Receiver
  • Roku
  • Home Theater PC
  • Old game unit
  • Ethernet switch
  • 5 speakers

I picture a Genius TV being a larger wall mounted screen with maybe or maybe not a visible speaker bar, and that’s it.  Elegant and simple.  It can see me and I can talk to it.

I can buy the physical setup now if I’m willing to give up CD/DVD/BD discs and go without the computer and better sound I get from the receiver/amp.  Right now Smart TVs don’t have PCs built into them.  My current HTPC is bigger than the receiver, but I could buy one that’s smaller than a Mac Mini.  Music, movies and radio are all available via a computer now, so I could do a lot of consolidation now by buying a smart TV from Sony or Samsung, and a Zotac mini-PC.

I could fake the start of a Genius TV by buying a Smart TV and adding a small computer like this one,

Zotac-ZBox-mini-PC

However, a real Genius TV will have a fully functional computer built-in.  An iPad screen has more pixels than a HD TV, and smartphones and tablets now have 2 and 4 core CPUs.  They are small and getting smaller and cheaper.  Adding one to a TV set is a no brainer.  Just think of of a smart TV as a 60” iPad.  Once you have a computer inside your TV you are connected to the world.  You don’t need a stereo receiver to get local AM/FM radio because you can get internet radio from all around the Earth.  TVs are built with 5.1 surround sound now, so we can jettison the receiver.  See how it eliminates older devices?

Most people have already given up CDs and DVDs, and BDs never really caught on.  But we’ll also give up game discs, paper photographs, and even paper personal records, books, newspapers and magazines.  The closer we get to Genius TVs, the less clutter we should have in our lives.  We’ll have different size screens.  Now’s the time to ask if this is good or not, because we’re already moving in this direction as fast as inventors can invent.  Machines have eaten our music, and they are about to eat our books.

Contemplate everything you use a TV or video screen for now.  How could you converge all of these activities into one elegant device?  One that would integrate or replace your other devices.  You’d still need a smartphone, and maybe a tablet, but all the TVs and computers in your house could be replaced by a Genius TV in each room, like the wall screens in the houses in the classic film Fahrenheit 451 shown above.

What all do you do with your TV, computer, phones and other gadgets in the house now?

  • Watch over-the-air TV
  • Watch cable/satellite/broadband TV
  • Watch DVD/Blu-ray discs
  • Watch Roku, AppleTV or similar Internet TV devices
  • Play video games with Xbox, Wii, Playstation
  • Use a computer connected to your TV or display
  • Skype
  • Video picture frames
  • Play family videos
  • Look at family photos
  • Listen to AM/FM/satellite music with a receiver hooked to TV
  • Listen to subscription music via the internet
  • Listen to ripped music on a hard drive
  • Watch pay-per-view TV
  • Run computer programs
  • Use tablet/smartphone apps
  • Use smartphone
  • Read books
  • Take an online course
  • Play DVD courses from The Teaching Company, or other educational training
  • Record shows with DVR
  • Medical monitoring
  • Web cameras
  • Security cameras

Okay, you get the picture.  Now think of the electronic components involved:

  • Screen with 1920×1080 resolution
  • TV tuner
  • Ethernet networking, wired or wireless
  • Cable/satellite tuner
  • Roku/AppleTV/etc. tuner
  • Computer
  • Sound/speakers
  • Hard drive
  • DVD/Blu-ray drives
  • Lots of clickers to control each device
  • Computers, tablets, ebooks, smartphones, GPSes, etc.

But let’s simplify this system.

  • 1920×1080 screen (or 2048×1536 or 4096×2160)
  • Electronic brain – or TV/CPU
  • Soundbar

Like the old component stereo systems of old, it’s easier to build and maintain a system from parts, that way you can upgrade or replace any part without replacing the whole.  The TV/CPU would have components itself.  Power supply, motherboard, memory, SSD drive.  It’s time to get away from optical drives, so let’s just assume our Genius TV won’t use DVD or Blu-ray, but the TV/CPU could have a slot for a drive for be backward compatible for those people who collected thousands discs and can’t part with them.

hal-9000

Den and living screens would be wall mounted, and they would include a video camera.  I picture soundbars now, but even they could be shrunk or hidden so all we see is the big screen.  That leaves us to imagine the TV/CPU.  They could be designed to easily hide in various kinds of furniture or also wall mounted.  They would need two wires, one for the power and the other for TV/Internet, which is now coax, but that wire could be redesigned into a wireless network.  Computers are becoming powerful enough, and wireless networking fast enough, that we might only need one TV/CPU brain to control all the screens in the house.  Our Genius TV could be completely hidden away, near where the fiber optic cable comes in from the street.

Of course, the controllers (clickers, keyboards, mice, game controls, motion sensors) for each screen in the house would be wireless, and we’d need them until which time we perfect human-machine verbal communication, and the video cameras that watch us can read our every movement and intent.  One day it will be just intelligent screens and people.

I think TVs should have full computer power, but not need Apple or Microsoft operating systems.  They will use those OSes for the foreseeable future, but eventually that will change.  I picture Genius TVs more like giant tablets with personalities.  The current iPad has more screen resolution than a HD TV.  Imagine if your TV had a library of apps like you find at the Apple or Android app store and could talk to your as easy as you talk to your friends?

Isn’t it time we have a world standard operating system?  So any screen size can run the same apps?  Once the screens become Geniuses, it won’t matter what OS they run, they will be smarter than us anyway.

If all our data is in the cloud, would we even need a SSD drives?  Wouldn’t 16-32gb of local memory for each screen  handle it all?  After the optical drive disappears won’t hard drives disappear next?

Can you imagine the opening menu on this Genius TV?

  • TV
  • Movies
  • News
  • Magazines
  • Music
  • Audiobooks
  • Internet
  • Apps
  • Videophone
  • Games
  • Photographs
  • Videos
  • Documents
  • Security
  • Medical

Or would we even need a menu if it was completely voice activated?   Most people can’t imagine the possibilities.  I’m sure I’m just barely scratching the surface of what’s possible.  Could you have have imagined the iPhone back in the 1990s?  Look at the video on this page about Pebble watches.  It’s a Bluetooth watch the integrates with your smartphone.  This synergy between two devices, watch and smartphone, creates surprising spinoffs.  Combing TVs, computers, internet, cable TV, phones, AI, etc. will produce some surprising spinoffs we can’t foresee now.

One thing that’s sweeping the country right now is online education.  At first in colleges but also for K-12 schooling too.   If you seen TED talks and Khan academy videos, imagine what a Genius TV could do for education.  Combine it with Skype and Google Hangout and home schooling becomes more social.  But instead of studying with children from the same school, or district, it would be possible to find other students anywhere in the world to form a study group.

If you have a 14-year-old kid who is fascinated by chemistry, you can hook them up with other 14 year-olds also fascinated by chemistry, and have them watch lectures from the very best chemistry professors in the world, and then have them remote view chemistry laboratories that are doing real chemistry.  Suddenly a TV becomes a lot more than a TV.  And computers become more than computers.

What happens if politics becomes truly participatory?  Why let just 100 senators vote on a bill, when anyone who is interested could participate?  TV has always been passive.  The Internet and computers are active.  Combining live events with the internet and TV screens should produce endless forms of real-time two-way/multi-way social networking.

What happens when your computers, TV, utility meter, security system and medical monitors mind meld into one system?  Is it a computer?  Is it a TV.  Do we need a new name?  Let’s not pick HAL 9000.  We’ll interact with large wall sized screens, so we’ll think we’re talking to a TV, but one that’s very smart.  Not some box that just passes on hundreds of video feeds.  As we add more intelligence to these devices won’t they seem more intelligent and individual?

Read Wake by Robert Sawyer.  No, I mean it.  You need to be prepared for the future.  There are science fiction stories that can help you imagine this future better than I can.  Read Rudy Rucker’s The Ware Tetralogy.   People are all nuts over vampires, zombies and werewolves right now.  Those undead creatures aren’t real and won’t happen.  Intelligent machines are happening.  Pay attention.  We’re all gadget crazy, but what happens when our TVs do become geniuses?

warescover

JWH – 4/16/12

Optimizing a Windows 7 HTPC

This year I built a Windows 7 HTPC and cancelled my Comcast cable.  My wife hates living without the Comcast DVR and bitterly complains that the HTPC with Windows Media Center doesn’t offer the same level of functionality as the DVR.  She’s right, the Comcast DVR worked almost flawlessly, and it was nearly instantaneous performing all its duties.  My Windows 7 machine, with a AMD Athlon X2 240 and 4gb of fast memory, should be nimble enough to handle the job, but it often acts sluggish, or even freezes up.  So I went on a quest to improve my HTPC setup.

Optimizing a Home Theater PC (HTPC) means four things:

  • Ease of use
  • Functionality
  • Performance
  • Features

Pitifully, my more powerful computer comes up short against the Comcast DVR box.  Of course this is competing a general purpose operating system, Windows, against dedicated hardware.  With hundreds of thousands of people cancelling their cable and satellite TV plans there is a big push for a home brew solution and many are turning to the HTPC concept.  Right now HTPCs are a pain in the ass to setup and use, but will that always be the case?

If you haven’t gotten addicted to the DVR way of TV watching, I’d recommend just getting an Internet TV or a Roku box and call it quits.  But if you want to record shows then you’ll want to get to know Windows Media Center and Windows 7.  There are many other solutions but you need to be a hardcore hacker to love them.

Googling seems to suggest that Windows 7 shouldn’t need any performance tweaking or services pruning if you have a dual processor with 4 gigabytes of memory, which I do.  However, I do have a 1.5 terabyte drive and it had gotten almost full with recorded shows.  So I deleted about 400 gigabytes of recordings and things picked up quite a bit.

Then I saw a sale at NewEgg for a MSI R5570 ATI graphics card with 1gb of memory.  I was using the built-in AMD785G chipset and figured this 5500 level ATI card should be a lot better than their old 4200 level graphics.  I bought and installed the card and got these results in the Performance Index:

4200 5570
Processor 6.3 6.3
Memory 5.9 7.2
Business Graphics 4.4 6.7
Gaming Graphics 5.5 6.7
Hard Drive 5.9 5.9

From these numbers I thought I would see a dramatic improvement in using Windows Media Center, but I didn’t.  It was slightly better, and that might have been perceptual, especially because I cleaned out so many files.

However, the new video did make one dazzling change – sound.  For some reason the built-in graphics and HDMI cable on the motherboard wouldn’t play sound through the HDMI cable.  The new card does, and the sound, after updating all the drivers, sounds dramatically better.  And it’s allowed me to simplify my setup.

Before I had a HDMI cable going to the TV for video and a optical S/PDIF cable going to the Pioneer receiver for sound.  And on my LG Blu-Ray player I had a HDMI cable going to the TV for video and an another optical cable going to the Pioneer for sound.  This tended to confuse the LG at times.  If I’d play a CD and then switch to a Blu-Ray it wouldn’t always automatically use the appropriate cable.

Now, for both the HTPC and Blu-Ray, I have one HDMI cable each for both video and sound.   I have one S/PDIF optical cable passing sound from the TV to the receiver.  Much more elegant wiring.  I couldn’t do this before because the motherboard graphics wouldn’t pass sound over the HDMI cable.

And I can keep both the Blu-Ray and HTPC on the same sound source (TV).   That’s less confusing for my wife.  All she has to do is turn on the receiver without worrying about which channel to use for audio – all devices now play through the TV sound channel.  The HTPC now sounds wonderful, getting multichannel sound from the HTPC, but I don’t know why.  Why did a new video card help the sound?  I’m wondering if the HDMI driver I have now is just way better than the S/PDIF driver???

Also, this new setup means we don’t have to use the receiver if we don’t want to.  All sound goes through the TV, which can optionally be boosted by the receiver.  My wife hates turning on extra devices and using three remotes.  She’s gotten used to controlling the TV with the wireless keyboard which is a big stumbling block to using a HTPC.  If we can do everything within Windows Media Center then all we have to do is power up the TV and receiver and tap any key on the wireless keyboard to wake up the computer and then everything can be controlled from it.  It’s not as convenient as the DVR remote, but then we get a lot more functionality from using the computer with a 1920×1080 screen.  She can browse the web and play Farmville is she wants.

Probably if I keep the number of recorded shows down to a smaller list, performance within Windows Media Center will be better, but using the HTPC doesn’t snap like using the DVR.  Plus Windows Media Center doesn’t work like the DVR.  The Comcast DVR would always start recording whatever show you tuned to in case you wanted to pause or rewind.  Window Media Center doesn’t do that.  Now, that feature could be added to a future version of Windows Media Center and that sure would be nice.

However, the NUMBER ONE improvement Windows Media Player could offer is built-in Blu-Ray playback support.  All the Blu-Ray software I’ve tried or studied just doesn’t do the job – and it’s just plain inconvenient to leave Windows Media Player once you’ve standardized on it for your HTPC.  If Windows Media Center offered Blu-Ray support I could ditch my LG Blu-Ray player and simplify my setup even more.

Hulu should be integrated into Windows Media Player too, like Netflix.  However, I prefer the Netflix interface in my LG Blu-Ray player over the one in Windows Media Player.  Hell, I prefer the Netflix web interface to the one inside Windows Media Player, but if I’m watching a recorded show and then wanted to watch an episode of TV from Netflix, switching to the LG is extra work.  It would be far more elegant to just click on Netflix within Windows Media Center.

I really hope the next version of Windows Media Center is a quantum leap forward.  Right now using a HTPC is fine for guys like me who don’t mind goofing around with technology, but it annoys the hell out of my wife, and she’s more of a typical TV user.  Windows Media Center needs to be optimized for her.

JWH – 11/29/10