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

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