My Top Five Tips for Building a Windows Media Center PC

August 15, 2007

MCE 2005Over the past few weeks I’ve been experimenting with several different streaming media devices in my home theater with varying degrees of success, ultimately I came back to the idea of a HTPC. This all goes back a few years and my “Rule of Three”, the rule of three pretty much goes like this, if I fail on something (for whatever reason) and fail a second time, the third times usually the charm. My first go-round with a Windows Media Canter HTCP was with an early version (2003’ish) that only worked with certain (MCE approved) hardware, of which I had none. Needless to say that little experiment didn’t amount to much more than a lot of wasted time.

Later I gave it another go with an interim version of Windows Media Center (not quite MCE 2005 but newer than the initial release) and while that project also failed to deliver the desired result I could at least see the light at the end of the tunnel. Flash forward a few years later and I’ve finally got something I can work with, namely MCE 2005. What about Vista you say? I picked MCE 2005 over Vista due to the fact I just don’t feel like subjecting myself to Vista’s DRM; not yet anyway, maybe some other time when I’m feeling especially masochistic.

At least with MCE 2005 the overly stringent hardware requirements are gone and the platform itself is much more stable and forgiving. After some recent hardware upgrades to my girlfriends PC, I had quite a few things left over. Long story short those leftovers and $185 worth of new equipment later and I have a “new” HTPC that can record high definition, playback 1080i HD files with zero stuttering, and run all of MCE 2005’s features like a top. So here’s what I learned in the process, this third time around.

(1) Read, Read, Read: It may sound simplistic, heck it even may sound clichéd but it was absolutely critical in getting my MCE HTPC to do everything I needed it to do this time around; notice I said need not want. This will tie into number two but needless to say you have to know what you’re looking for before you can find it. Sorry for going “Bono” on you, couldn’t resist.

(2) Set Realistic Goals: But I want my HTPC to do everything! Well as long as that everything doesn’t included something Windows Media Center refuses to do and or you’re a coding genius, you’ll be just fine. My larger point here was to say that setting realistic goals helps tremendously in the beginning because in all honesty this isn’t as simple a process as you might think. Codecs and applications don’t always play as nicely together as we might like, which dovetails nicely into number three.

(3) Keep it Simple, Build Slow: Again, keeping your goals realistic doesn’t necessarily mean a simplistic system, you can and should move onto adding additional and more complex playback options but always keep in mind that MCE is like a traffic cop. Keeping watch over a 4-way (6, 7 or 8 for that matter) intersection, one road (read source or function) can interact with another, before you add that third section, source or function make sure the first two are playing nicely together.

In other words, that MPEG2 codec that your video decoder uses may work just fine for DVD playback but before you go and pop in that TV tuner card, go back and make sure your video files still playback correctly. The potential for negative interaction goes up exponentially every time you add a new source or function, make that your mantra.

(4) Arm yourself, Recover From Setbacks: The more complex your build gets, the possibility that you’ll hit a snag (or two) will increase. One area in particular, codec interdependency and interaction, gave me the most grief. Simply put I had too many codec’s trying to accomplish the same goal and it was causing glitches in my file playback. It wasn’t until I ran across Microsoft’s “Windows XP Video Decoder Checkup Utility” that I found out I had multiple codec’s, two of which were apparently conflicting with one another. At least that’s my guess as once I nuked one of them, my playback glitches vanished.

(5) Backup Early, Backup Often: The motherboard I used for my build sports an optical S/PDIF output and I knew early on that I wanted to keep everything in the digital domain and have my receiver do the audio decoding. The only problem was I just couldn’t get the mofo (pardon the non-technical term) to work correctly. Stereo PCM was easy enough but if I ever got DD 5.1 playing through Windows Media Player it borked (two in a row) the audio somewhere else.

Needless to say once I got the audio running consistently across multiple applications, the thought of losing hours of work getting there due to yet another codec or source conflict didn’t sit very well. This is why I say backup early and often. Whether it be a full disc image via Norton Ghost or a simple system restore point through Windows, getting back to where you started from before a setback is critical given the finicky nature of some of these builds.

Summary: So after a few weeks of on again off again building, tinkering, and tweaking, I finally have a functional HTPC that accomplishes all the tasks I had originally intended it to do. To be quite honest it actually turned out better than I expected save one last minute what-if scenario. As you know, MCE uses Windows Media Player as its video playback application and as such you’re limited to video formats that WMP can play natively. This is fine for MEPG2, AVI wrappers, MPEG4 and even VC-1. There is however that “other” format that just doesn’t want to play nice with WMP, Quicktime.

Believe it or not it is possible to (in theory at least) play Quicktime files in WMP by installing “Quicktime Alternative” and doing a bit of registry modification, but I just can’t get flawless, smooth playback with that method. It seems as if I’m getting a healthy amount of dropped frames although the audio is fine. This is exactly what I was talking about when I said some things just don’t like to play nice together. Granted I’m trying to do something totally unsupported but it’s that last (for now) little thing left to tackle, so much for setting realistic goals and keeping it simple.

Update— Oh wait! I just ran across something that may be just what I was looking for, yep two U2 puns in the same post. So far I’ve tested Quicktime HD in WMP here on my laptop and it’s working fine, just need to try it on the ol’ HTPC this evening. If I haven’t bored you to tears already, check back later on for the final verdict on this codec-wonder-pack.

Update— Well it took restoring my MCE 2005 install back to a point prior to having installed Quicktime Alternative, but I now have flawless Quicktime playback from within Media Center 2005. Apparently the way Quicktime Alternative addressed the directshow filters was the culprit, the Vista Codec Package did the trick.



Posted by Bryan Greenway | | Filed Under HTPC, Media Servers


Comments

  • arcanes

    Very nice article. I have been wanting to build a HTCP rig for a long time, and your experience with it is appreciated. I have a simple question to ask you: now that you have a HTCP, what do you use it most for? and are you also using the HTPC on the tv like a PC monitor(like for browsing the web)?
    Thank you.

  • arcanes

    Very nice article. I have been wanting to build a HTCP rig for a long time, and your experience with it is appreciated. I have a simple question to ask you: now that you have a HTCP, what do you use it most for? and are you also using the HTPC on the tv like a PC monitor(like for browsing the web)?
    Thank you.