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

Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-1250 and Terk HDTVa Antenna Pro

My wife gave me and my computer a Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-1250 TV tuner card and a Terk HDTVa antenna for Christmas.  I had to do a lot of research before I gave Santa my wish list, but I must have been a very good boy this year because that research paid off perfectly.  I want to build a HTPC for my den, but I thought I’d experiment first by adding over-the-air TV to my computer.  My previous TV tuner card experience consisted of working with an ATI HD-Wonder card on three different computers over the last three years.  What I learned by playing with that TV tuner card is making TV work on a computer leads to high blood pressure and a desire to seek the simple life.  And I’ve found many a blogger that confirmed this lesson. 

I was very worried that Santa would bring me another lump of coal, but I got a cool toy instead!  I knew it helped to have a computer and graphics card with a certain level of oomph and I was worried my old HP Pavillion a6000n with an AMD Athlon 64 X2 4200+ and NVIDEA GeForce 8500 GT graphic card lacked the horsepower.  I kept reading Best HDTV Tuner for PC’s over and over, looking for clues and advice, and finally figured I needed a tuner card with a PCIe connector to increase the bandwidth between the card and computer.  I was going to go with their highly rated AVertTV HD Duet, but after comparing the buyer’s comments at Amazon with it and the Hauppauge 1250, I decided to go with the cheaper card. 

Both cards are designed to be simple, tuning either over-the-air TV or clearQAM cable signals.  Make sure you have a PCIe slot free if you buy this type of card.  Best HDTV Tuner for PC’s actually seem to prefer USB tuners, but I was afraid to try them because of poor bandwidth issues with my old PCI based card.

I made a very lucky guess because I popped the 1250 in my PC running Windows 7 Professional and the 1250 was recognized and installed automatically.  In fact Windows Media Center did such an excellent job of configuring the card that I decided not to install the Hauppauge media center software or even try out any of the other media center applications, like XBMC, Boxee, SageTV or MythTV.  I’ll save that research for when I build my den HTPC.

The Terk HDTVa antenna also worked out well.  We have two local channels here in Memphis that still transmit on VHF that causes lots of trouble for indoor antenna users.  I tried the Terk without amplification and couldn’t tune in channels 5 and 13, but the Terk tuned them in great after plugging in its amplifier.

The bundled Hauppauge remote did not work out of the box with Windows Media Center, but I went to the install CD and manually ran IR32.exe and bingo the remote was recognized.  I would love to find a way to get this remote to work with other Windows programs.  I’d like to be able to sit in my reading chair and change music from across the room.  I’d especially love to be able to remote control Lala.com.  However, this brings up another issue for dealing with building a HTPC, and that’s the user interface and how visible it is from across the room.

Even sitting right at the computer with mouse in hand, getting to a particular TV show, photograph, film or song takes a lot of clicking.  Windows Media Center works hard to help, offering many ways to search.   I was delighted by searching for albums by their release year.  I also liked searching through my music by album cover.  However, with over 1200+ CDs, it’s hard to find a particular CD.  This isn’t an Achilles heel of Windows Media Center, but a central problem of all media managers.  Try finding a song from 1200+ CDs in iTunes with a remote from across the room.

The ultimate solution is either to have voice commands like in Star Trek, or have a handheld controller like those from Sonos or remote control programs that work with the iPhone or iPod touch.  Having a touch screen UI on the remote is the way to go now.

One thing I immediately liked about Windows Media Center is it allowed me to list only my preferred TV channels in my guide.  I mainly watch PBS, CBS, ABC, NBC and extremely rarely CW and FOX.  I blocked another dozen plus local channels, and I may block CW and FOX.  This makes my onscreen guide very easy to read.  However, I haven’t found out how to make it jump to a particular time and day.  It will take me awhile to explore the depths of Windows Media Center.  From reviews I’ve read, Windows Media Center is a great program, but some of the other media center applications offer tremendous customization (but with steep learning curves).

Windows Media Center is like a super Windows Media Player, with a  UI that scales up with big lettering for watching on a TV set.  When I build my HTPC for the den, and start using it from across the room, while sitting in my La-Z-Boy with a remote in hand, I’ll know then whether Windows Media Center succeeds or not.  I gave up cable TV to save money and have a very simple TV lifestyle, so any solution I keep must be frustration free.

And any HTPC I build must be simple to use too, and so far Windows Media Center and the Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-1250 fits the bill.  Right now I have a Blu-Ray player, DVD-recorder and CD/SACD player in my den setup, along with a receiver/amp.  I’d love to build a HTPC that replaced all four boxes so all I had was the HDTV and HTPC.  That would save electricity, reduce my pile of remotes, and may make my TV watching more simplistic.  As I get older, simple often means elegant.

My goal for having a TV tuner in my home office PC is so I can record the news and documentaries and watch them while checking email and web surfing.  Setting up recordings was a snap with Windows Media Center  The image quality is excellent for HD broadcasts, so I might even start watching short shows like The Big Bang Theory at my computer too.  I doubt I’d want to watch movies or hour dramas while seated at the computer.  And if I don’t like watching TV at all on my computer screen I’ll yank out the 1250 card and put it into a new HTPC box for the den.

JWH – 12/25/9