Technical disasters: Today’s edition: Media Center aka Home Theater PC

I came across Paul Andrew’s blog about his Media Center PC today, which made me think I should write down my experience as well, to keep it for myself as a reminder to not attempt this again.

I was on a Fujitsu-Siemens Scenic 600 for the last 4 years which I bought used from Siemens Remarketing and I’ve been quite happy with it, running Windows Server 2000 ENU on its 600MHz PIII with 256MB RAM. I only had problems keeping my OfficeJet t45 running when SP4 came out, IIRC.

But moving ahead, running Visual Studio 2005 Express editions brought the system to a crawl and I didn’t want to spend the money upgrading it.

So I decided to get a new PC, and, as it is en-vogue, a Home Theater PC that would server as server, TV, office and development machine at the same time.

Again, updating the old PC would have required a new CPU, new RAM, thus a new motherboard and a replacement for the peculiar DFP flat panel/graphics card combination.

I should have written out my requirements and start shopping for a off-the-shelf machine.

Instead I went with this combination:

  • Silverstone LC17,
  • Sharkoon SilentStorm 430 Watt,
  • Asus P5B-E
  • Intel® Core 2 Duo E6600 boxed,
  • G.E.I.L. Ultra DIMM 2 GB DDR2-533 Kit,
  • Asus Extreme AX1300PRO Silent,
  • Technotrend TT-budget C-1500 DVB-C
  • Samsung HD400LJ,
  • TSScorp (Samsung) SH-S182D,
  • Samsung SyncMaster 205BW,
  • Microsoft Wireless Laser Desktop 6000
  • Labtec Pulse 385,

I also have two legacy devices, that I do not want to replace right now:

  • HP OfficeJet t45
  • Siemens Gigaset 4175isdn

Operating Systems:

  • Windows Vista Home Premium ENU (Performance index 4.1, limited by graphics performance)
  • Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 GER

In short terms, this combination is a recipe for MCE desaster.

The long story began when I was building and maintaining PC’s myself in the early days for cash: Back then, I swore to never do open a PC case again.

So, instead of buying off-the-shelf, I had it assembled by the supplier, whose name shall remain untold to protect the innocent. So it is a all-or-nothing buy or no-buy.

In real life (as opposed to the virtual world of product imagery), the Silverstone LC17 is a very ugly case, basically a mini-tower turned 90° to look like a desktop. And it is by far the loudest device in the entire history of home appliances.

Also, the use of blue LED should be put under severe penalty for living room devices, except for lighting purposes. No, I do not think the stand-by indicator falls under this exception.

This also applies to the Samsung SyncMaster 205BW, which is a nice device once you hide the power/stand-by indicator under a very intransparent cover. From most angles, most colors look good, including ClearType, although there is room for improvement. Only for gaming, it might be a bit slow. 

All other hardware is fine (as far as I can tell). It’s the software that drove me nuts.

No drivers for Windows Vista Home Premium. As far as Asus, Samsung, Technotrend, HP and Siemens are concerned, Windows Vista does not exist. None of their software installs correctly, even in XP compat/admin mode.

The reason is simple: Their software also creates an abundance of problems under XP. I don’t know if they have been testing any of their software on a dual-processor machine, but I wouldn’t think so.

The underlying cause: No hardware vendor really cares about software unless it is sold separately.

Also, upgrading from XP to Vista only works with the same language. So does the File and Settings Wizard.

The Asus BIOS is ugly and disturbing, the firmware update does barely work under XP and I don’t trust it.

Samsung’s DVD-drive firmware update software is From Hell.

Technotrend drivers and applications are a mess. They have two flavors, broadcast-driver architecture (BDA), including a capture and a tuner driver and another branch based on network driver architecture. BDA does not work with QAM-256 at all, especially when the digital cable signal is weak. The network driver works fine on the same signal, but can only be used with their own TV application. The remote control cannot be used with MCE or anything else than TechnoTrend’s own applications. Technotrend’s applications do not work reliably in Windows Vista, they hardly do on XP.

Given the cumbersome and non-intuitive ways of organizing the number of digital TV and radio channels, or searching the EPG, or using timeshift and recording, none of the  TV apps (TT-BDA, TT-DVB, XP MCE, Vista MC) comes close to a good digital PVR/TV set combination.

It’s just to long a path from TV station via cable provider to PC hardware to drivers to OS to application to user interface.

So for me, TV and PC do not seem to converge well anytime soon.

But then again, what does anyway?

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