Windows 7, MCE & WinFast DTV1000
I recently installed Windows 7 RC on my home desktop to see what all the fuss is about. Microsoft is offering a one-year unrestricted license-free evaluation of Windows 7 Ultimate for everyone to download and try straight from their site. And I do suggest downloading it straight from Microsoft as there have been reports of hijaked torrents floating around (Windows image is pre-loaded with spyware/trojans).
The installation process was very smooth and Microsoft has made some much needed improvements compared to XP. Namely, you just answer a few simple questions on startup (like picking a partition, choosing to format, etc.) then the installer runs unattended until done. I'm not sure if Vista is the same, I've never bothered with it, but it means I don't need to muck around with nLite/vLite to make unattended disks.
Once I was up and running I went over to the control panel to check what devices were not installed. Disappointingly, my Gigabyte wireless card was undetected and I had to use my laptop to get the right driver and transfer it across on USB. Not much you can do without internet access...
The other device not detected was my WinFast DTV1000 T card. This was easy enough to install by simply downloading the Vista 32 drivers from the Leadtek site. I also installed the PVR2 software package, but strangely when scanning for channels nothing would get detected. I uninstalled and reinstalled all the drivers and PVR but still no luck in finding anything.
This led me to try some third-party media center solutions (I've been meaning to do this for a while anyways) but had very little luck with getting anything to work:
- Boxee - Windows version not ready yet.
- XBMC - Downloaded and installed but would throw an error on startup. Tried different compatibility settings and selecting to run as administrator but nothing worked. Some suggested updating video card drivers. Did that but still nothing.
- Elisa - Downloaded and installed but would not start. No error or anything, just nothing happened when executing the program. Tried different compatibility settings and administrator mode without success.
- Media Portal - Installed and managed to get it started. Finally! But...interface was very slow and would constantly hang. Didn't have the patience to find out why. I couldn't get the TV Tuner working either and this product just reminds me of MythTV, too much configuration involved (I don't want a client/server TV architecture, just let me watch something damn it!).
After giving up and uninstalling all these apps I finally turned to the pre-installed Windows Media Center and what do you know...it detected my tunner, scanned and found all channels and I was watching TV within a minute or so. No messing around with settings or configs required. It just worked.
Seeing as how this is the only way for me to watch TV on my PC, I decided to stick with MCE and trick it out to do all the other things I expect out of a good media player, namely:
- mcShoutCast - lets me listen to online streaming radio stations listed with ShoutCast. Great! Don't need Winamp anymore.
- Yougle - Taking streaming media to the next leve, Yougle integrates directly in MCE and gives you access to YouTube, MSN videos, Google Videos, ShoutCast, and many other services. I had trouble connecting to YouTube with it but ShoutCast and MSN videos worked fine.
- TwistedPixel - While the standard WMP visualizations may have been all the rage in 1995, they're pretty horrible to look at by today's standards. TwistedPixel is a slight improvement, but still no where near as good as the iTunes Magnetoshpere visualizer... If anyone has something decent for WMP/MCE please let me know!
- Codecs - For when you want to download and watch videos in non-standard codecs. This package says it supports almost everything but I was unable to get an mkv file running in WMP. Will have to chase this up later.
- WinFast Remote - This little app sits minimized in your system tray and lets to bind your WinFast remote keys to generic keyboard keys or windows actions like volume up, mute, execute applications, etc. Using this I was able to get my remote working pretty well with MCE and it lets me do just about everything.
All in all, MCE is not a bad product, especially when tweaked with addons and codecs. My next step is to build a dedicated HTPC box with a mini-ITX mobo or maybe a micro-ATX... Combine this with a nice small case, an internal blue-ray drive and TV tuner and an MCE remote and you have the ultimate home media center!
UPDATE: The new WinFast DTV1300 PCI Express cards are now marketed as Vista & MCE ready, meaning you can now use their remote control directly in MCE without the WinFast Remote application I posted above. These new remotes are identical to the DTV1000 version, but have an extra 4 buttons on the bottom for volume up/down and channel up/down in MCE. The good news is that if you install the latest PVR2 software, you can enable MCE control even with the old DTV1000 series remotes, even without the 4 extra buttons. To do this, just right-click the PVR icon in the sytem tray, go to settings, tick MCE remote and click ok. You can still change channels via the EPG guide, and you can mute the volume but you can't volume up/down. Maybe if someone works out a way to change the key bindings in the native PVR software this could be made to work as well...