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HOW TO: improve the performance of Vista Media Center

I've been running Vista Media Center (VMC) on two machines for a while now, and so far I have to say that the experience has been pretty good, but not all smooth sailing.

Just like XP MCE 2005, VMC is very dependent on the capabilities of the hardware platform, the setup of the operating system and any third-party software which has been installed.

So, I decided to put together a piece detailing the problems I encountered and how I got around them - what worked and what didn't.

System Hardware

Intel is positioning its Viiv technology (both hardware and software) to be the platform of choice for HTPCs. One of the machines I use, an Optima Viiv Media Center, is one such device. My experience so far is that it doesn't make a lick of difference whether your HTPC is Viiv or not. My second machine is an Asus P5N32-SLI-Deluxe-based system, without a whiff of Viiv in the air, and it performs just as well.

The only real advantage of Viiv is that it guarantees a certain base - you know pretty well what you're going to get and how it's going to work. This sometimes does help in taking the guesswork out of where to start troubleshooting any hardware problems. Also, Intel's product support is outstanding, so an Intel-centric system is no bad thing. But don't assume that just because a system is Viiv that it's going to handle VMC any better.

One thing though - Intel isn't exactly known for its graphics adaptors, and even though the latest 3000 and 3100 GMA adaptors are a damn sight better than their predecessors, you should get a dedicated ATI or NVIDIA GPU. The visual difference, especially with something like DVD playback, is so wide that it is always justifiable spending the extra dollars (both my systems are running ATI X1600 GPUs). You don't need anything especially powerful (in fact, the more low-power the better, because of the reduced heat output and fan noise), but the card itself is essential. You then get the added bonus of ATI/NVIDIA graphics driver support.

If you want to make sure that the card is up to scratch, a good way to test it is to download some HDTV content and test the playback. You can grab some for free from Microsoft's WMV HD Content Showcase site.

And finally, always always always have the latest BIOS release for your motherboard. This really can't be overstressed. VMC relies so heavily on the motherboard's capabilities, especially for features like sleep/resume, and BIOS updates tend to fix more problems than are specified in the README.TXT. On my Optima HTPC, there was a very nasty problem where if I put the system into sleep and then woke it up (using the MC Remote), the system would wake up but the PCI-E slot wouldn't. As a result, there would be no graphics until I hard powered the unit off AND pulled the power cord to flush the hibernation state. Highly irritating. A BIOS update not only fixed the problem, but the system's responsiveness to the remote commands improved out of sight.

All motherboard manufacturer maintain up-to-date BIOS releases for their products online. However, if you're unsure what model your board is, use a software probe to find out, rather than pulling the system apart. CPU-Z is a terrific utility which I use often, and will give you all the info you need.

Operating System

Drivers, drivers, drivers. Drivers. Absolutely the most important aspect of any stable Windows-based OS and especially so when considering HTPCs. When considering VMC, always use the most up-to-date manufacturer drivers available BUT it is worth reading the changelogs just to make sure that there are no caveats relevant to your system. Of course, this is worth doing no matter what, but sometimes there are unexpected omissions in a driver release, such as one of ATI's drivers not containing proper HDMI support or a particular LCD resolution, so they recommended using the earlier driver. Rolling back drivers is painful, so watch out for warnings like that.

The one exception I'd make to always using the latest manufacturer drivers is for TV capture cards. Microsoft has their own Unified AVStream driver and I have to say that it's remarkably good. I have a Dvico FusionHDTV DVB-T Plus card, and although the drivers were always stable enough, performance in XP MCE2005 and VMC were nothing short of woeful. When I built the Asus system using that card, I didn't install any of the drivers, but instead let Vista sort it out using Windows Update. Of the five hardware devices associated with the card, it installed the Unified AVStream on one, an “unused device function" on another, and ignored the other three completely (which I had to set to “Ignore" in Device Manager). TV playback on VMC using the DTV-B Plus is now the best I've ever experienced. Ever.

So try out Windows Update for your capture card first, and if Microsoft has an associated driver, try it out.

And finally, DirectX. You wouldn't think that DirectX has much impact on VMC, but apparently it does. I had one highly annoying problem where navigating the Video Library (or any library, really) caused a DLL crash and VMC to restart. Every single time. Not fun. Driver updates, OS patches…nothing worked. A full update of DirectX on the other hand (the machine was a bit behind in updates) and voilá, all problems gone.

So it seems that DirectX has quite a say in rendering the VMC screen, which makes it worth your while keeping it up-to-date. Of course, that's true of any Windows-based system, but as I don't play games on the HTPC, it just didn't occur to me. I find that the best way to update DirectX is to go to the Games For Windows website (the DirectX section) and click on “Download the latest DirectX". This takes you to the latest build of the DirectX End-User Runtime Web Installer. I find this approach the best to take because DirectX builds change fairly often so you'll be guaranteed of getting the latest one, and because the web installer analyses your system and installs only what's required. Of course, if you're going to be doing this across a number of machines, then grabbing the latest DirectX runtime files is probably the way to go.

Third-Party Software

On an HTPC, third-party software usually means codecs, guides or add-ons. There's no real practical limit to how many extras you can install, but bear in mind that when you launch VMC with all these extras you are increasing the amount of points of failure. Much depends on the quality of the add-on, so it's absolutely vital to read up on the application and see what other people's experience has been (ie: don't be a guinea pig for other people).

A good rule of thumb, especially for codecs, is that the lighter it is, the better it is. For example, if you want to use VMC to play back Quicktime movies, don't install Apple Quicktime. Install Quicktime Alternative instead. This is especially true of that horror of the software world - RealPlayer. Install Real Alternative and get the benefit without the pain. Similarly with DivX (and we all need DivX) - you only need the codec, not the Player and all the other paraphernalia. Therefore, keep it light and simple and VMC will thank you by not crashing through a destabilisation of the entire OS base.

A great resource for codec is Codec Guide. Here you'll find links to just about everything you need, as well as the K-Lite Codec Pack, arguably one of the best codec bundles out there.

VMC add-ons are designed to enhance functionality. I can't really comment on them as I don't tend to use them, but a couple of the more popular ones are epgStream (a free Australian-based EPG) and MyMovies (a DVD library with an online metadata database).

Is VMC Worth It?

Unfortunately, to get any HTPC off the ground takes time and effort - there's just no getting around that. What I have found is that although Vista's Media Centre has its problems, it's far, far better than XP MCE, but I think that this has less to do with the quality of the application but rather the quality of the underlying OS. Windows XP, bless it, just can't measure up to Vista in the stability stakes, and as long as the hardware platform is good and there are no dodgy drivers lurking in the wings, VMC is an excellent media experience and well worth the effort

Author: James Bannan
Source: APCMag

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