Preview: Windows 7 Media Center

May 16, 2009

windows_7If you’ve resisted the temptation to “upgrade” your windows based HTPC to Vista this long, hopefully what follows will reinforce that decision. Windows 7 could be as little as 5-6 months away and given the fact that Microsoft didn’t release a QAM/ATSC tuner update to the public (its technically only available with new OEM builds), the wait may very well be worth it.

I decided Microsoft’s recent Windows 7 RC1 was a good time to check out the sights and sounds and specifically what might be new or different with media center in Windows 7. Before we get into the specifics of Win7 MCE I should bring you up to date on my systems specs, I’m running a AMD 64 5600+, 3 GB’s of ram, a NVIDIA 9400GT video card, a 250GB SATA drive and a LG Blu-ray/HD DVD drive.

I started out by formatting the SATA drive, then I popped in the disc and quickly noticed the installer was a near clone of Vista installation process sans a few colorful swatches here and there. The installation process was quick and smooth; after the final process was complete the desktop was instantly recognizable, intuitive and familiar to anyone who’s used Vista.  That’s not to say the interface was unimproved over Vista, it’s a lot more polished and yet at the same time, softer, almost organic and certainly more pleasing to the eye.

One nice surprise was the fact my motherboards SPDIF output was detected and ready to go, no muss, no fuss. This was not the case with my Vista install. Futzing around with sound drivers proved to be a somewhat frustrating and time consuming experience, if this early look at driver handling is what can be expected with Windows 7 I’m all for it. The actual MCE setup was a breeze, I chose the express setup and punched in the usual TV data, region carrier, etc. This portion of the setup allows you to distinguish your QAM settings from your regular analog cable carrier settings.

After the scan was complete I suppose I was a bit let down to discover that I had a whopping grand total of 4 HD channels via QAM, and those were just ATSC re-maps. Of course, I did have the usual cadre of basic cable stations but I find myself watching very little SD these days. What little HD I was able to view did look quite nice, the image quality appeared to be every bit as good as what I get with my cable box.

From there I shared a networked video folder and watched a few clips. Xvid and Divx played just fine right out of the box, but it was time to fix a black level issue that had been nagging at me for weeks. My next move was to install new Nvidia video drivers after which I changed the video card settings to full (O-255) Dynamic range and the YCbCr color format, the image looked much better.

After getting the image quality up to scratch I installed Vista codec pack 5.2.1 and in addition to the Xvids and Divx files I was now able to play MKV’s and Quicktime files. While playing around with a few video files I noticed that Windows 7 media center includes a resume function. Now, resume is hardly a new innovation but it was a very welcome addition, especially with my viewing style.

Now, it wasn’t all peaches and cream but do keep the following comments in context as RC1 is just that, a release candidate and not a final product. Among the few little oddities I experienced was slow channel guide response and slightly more CPU overhead than my Vista HTPC build. In addition to that I was unable to test out Blu-ray and HD DVD playback as Windows 7 didn’t want to play nice with my playback software.

If you’re familiar with BD/HD playback via a PC, you’ll know there are a few hoops to jump through first (HDCP compliance) and it would appear Windows 7 doesn’t make the cut yet with Cyberlink advisor, although I’m sure that will be patched soon enough. I’ve read that third party driver installation is blocked during the third phase of the beta but I don’t know if that carried into the release candidate, if so that would explain the incompatibility.

Overall, Windows 7 is a slick operating system even at this stage of development, I can see that Microsoft listened to the criticism of Vista. Win7 feels like the operating system that should have been launched instead of Vista.  I’ll definitely have to revisit Windows 7 closer to launch to get the full picture (no pun intended).

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