Windows 7 WMC HTPC

I've recently delved into trying to build an all-purpose HTPC media center box, the hardware aspects of which are discussed here. On the software side of things, I chose to use the free Windows 7 RC with Windows Media Center. This blog entry discusses the challenges and lessons learnt along the way.

Windows 7 Ultimate RC (build 7100) is available for free download directly from the Microsoft web site, and comes with the latest version of Windows Media Center (WMC for short). WMC allows you to watch & record live TV (with a compatible hardware tuner card), listed to live FM radio (again, with a compatible tuner), play your digital music files, watch slideshows of all your pictures, and watch your digital video collection. To top it all off, WMC has a sleek interface and is relativelly hassle free to configure and use. I've tried other free alternatives such as XBMC, Elisa and MediaPortal but none matched the ease-of-use and sleekness of WMC.

As stated above, WMC will let you play digital videos from your local video library. The formats it supports are the same as Windows Media Player (WMC11), which has improved somewhat over the years but still isn't very good. I tried to play some anime mkv files I had lying around and they wouldn't even start. I had mixed results with other avi files. But to cut a long story short, the default codecs are not going to cut it for a HTPC build. I want to be able to play everything, not just some files that WMC likes. And I don't want to do transcoding or use converters to re-encode video files, that defeats the whole purpose. And I'd prefer to do everything from within the WMC interface, rather than switching to external players.

To cut to the chase, you need to install a good codec pack to support mkv packaged videos and other less MS friendly formats. The Shark007 Codec Pack does just this. It installs a minimal FFDShow package with everything you need to play most things. After installing it however, you need to use another tool to change the default WMC DirectShow codec filters to use the new FFDshow codecs. This DirectShow Filter Tweaker is the perfect tool for this. Download the latest version and run it. It will show you a list of all compatible codecs installed for each video format and let you pick the defaut DirectShow filters for use in WMP and WMC. Change everything you can to FFDShow and you should be able to play almost anything straight out of WMC now.

The next issue I ran across was choppy/staggering playback of Live TV in WMC. This seemed strange as my tuner card (Leadtek PxDVR3200 H) worked perfectly with the WinFast PVR2 software and my HTPC could do perfect playback of 1080p Blueray content without a hitch. The problem appears to be MS WMC codecs once again. The solution was to install the CoreAVC codec pack (not free) and use the Tweaker tool from above to change the defaults to use these codecs in favor of MS or FFDShow wherever available. This resulted in perfect, stutter free HD Live TV playback with no more pixelation, skipping frames or other artefacts (used to appear every 5 or 6 seconds).

I also tried playing a plain DVD in WMC (I think it was The Spirit) and it came out completely pixelated and full of artefacts. Not sure what the problem was here, but again, using the DirectFilter tweaker application from above and changing everything to either CoreAVC or FFDshow fixed the problem.

The last challenge was playback of Blueray discs and Blueray rips. My Blueray internal drive came with a copy of Cyberlink PowerDVD which does a great job of playing Blueray movies. It also comes with a WMC-like addon which can be accessed from the Extras screen for playing Blueray movies from within WMC. Blueray rips on the other hand are much harder to get going. Note that I'm not condoning piracy or anything like that. My local video store has a 2-for-1 deal during weekdays, meaning I end up with 2 overnight Bluerays and I only have time to watch one. Having a HTPC on which I can copy one Blueray to watch the next day or during the weekend is very convenient. I've already paid to watch this Blueray, and I don't share it with anyone so I don't see any problem with this (even though technically it's probably still illegal).

Anyways, copying the Blueray files from the disc onto the hard-drive is easy enough, but playing them back is challenging. Previous versions of PowerDVD had the option to select a local folder containing BD files to play but this feature has recently been removed for copyright reasons. The option is still there in my version of PowerDVD, but it doesn't do anything. Using VLC, GOM Player or SMPlayer to play the individual .m2ts files does not work either because if you copied them straight from a BD then chances are they're still encrypted.

The only solution that I've found is to make an ISO image of the BD using ImgBurn (free). Once you have the ISO image, mount it with Slysoft Virtual CloneDrive (also free). This simulates having the actual Blueray disc, but CloneDrive cannot decrypt the encrypted files either, so you also need Slysoft AnyDVD HD. This will remove any encryption or region locking from any DVD/BD in any physical drive or any virtual drive. AnyDVD is not free, but if you want to play rips, it's the only solution I've found working. The savings on overdue late fees in my case quickly makes up the small cost.

For reference, my DirectShow filters are currently set as follows:
  • H.264/AVC - CoreAVC
  • XVID - ffdshow
  • DIVX - ffdshow
  • MP4V - ffdshow
  • VC1 - MPCVideoDec
  • MPEG-2 - Cyberlink (PDVD7)
All-in-all, my first impression of WMC was very positive as everything seemed to just work. This however turned out to be an illusion and I've had to replace all MS codecs in favor of other open-source or third party solutions to get decent playback and decent format support. WMC thus only provides the pretty interface and not much else. This is very dissapointing, especially considering once W7 goes RTM, users will have to pay good money for a licensed version of WMC. And if it's to be used as a HTPC, most other feature of Windows 7 will add no value. So then what's the incentive to pay the absurd price for W7 when you get a broken product that you have to spend a lot of time tweaking and spend more money on CoreAVC and AnyDVD to get things going the way they should? The only thing that keeps me using it however is that I haven't found a better alternative yet (will be trialing Cyberlink PowerCinema soon to see what it can offer).

UPDATE: PowerCinema 6 has a great user interface and seems very sleek but unfortunatelly it does not detect my WinFast Px-DVR3200 H tuner so not much use to me. List of supported cards can be found here. If you're lucky enough to have one of those, download the 21-day PowerCinema trial and give it a go.

UPDATE2: Even after installing all the codecs I still had some jitter and visual artefacts whilst watching Live TV in WMC (no issue watching it in PVR2). A few days ago I took out the CD that came with my J&W 780G MINIX motherboard and installed the graphics drivers from there. No more jitters for two days so far. Hopefully the problem has gone away for good now (Windows 7 had already detected the onboard Radeon 3200 HD card and downloaded its drivers via Windows Update so I assumed they were the latest and greatest. Perhaps the drivers on the motherboard CD are J&W customized? Who knows...)

Comments

  1. hi,
    i have one question, how you installed this card under windows 7? im using windows 7 64-bit and i cant install with drivers for vista 64-bit from leadtek website
    thx tom

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hmm, not sure if I can help. I'm using 32bit Windows 7 and had no issues installing the Px-DVR3200 H drivers.

    I also used a Px-DVR1300 at some point which Windows detected and installed itself. Possibly a 64bit issue.

    Maybe drop Leadtek a line with your problem but I doubt they'll be keen to help as W7 is not officially released yet.

    ReplyDelete

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