Sunday, November 05, 2006

Vista Media Center RC2 on hp z552 -- update

So we (well, mostly, my long-suffering wife) have been living with Vista Media Center for a few weeks. Despite a relatively easy upgrade, my wife's patience was tried while I tried to work out three main problems: video stuttering (halting or jerky playback) while watching live TV, occasional loss of the wireless keyboard and remote control, and codec issues. I will discuss each as follows:

Stuttering Live TV

I believe this thread describes the same problem, and if you go to the very last page, I believe I finally solved it. The problem is that the video signal "stutters" or periodically halts while you watch live TV. A lot of answers were bandied about in the thread, including shutting off Windows Desktop Search and Windows Defender, but for me, it didn't go away until at one point Vista out of the blue suggested that my z552 was performing slowly, and that shutting off the Aero Glass interface would speed it up. I gladly did so and since then the stuttering has been gone. I still think leaving Desktop Search and Defender turned off can't hurt; I don't think the former can do much for you on MP3s and video files, and the latter should be unnecessary if you follow safe computing practices or mostly use the thing as DVR/stereo as we do.

Remote and wireless keyboard stop working

I saw this the night before I went on a business trip, and was able to fix it by hooking up a mouse, closing Media Center, and using the "keyboard connect" buttons on the front of the Media Center and back of the keyboard to make them talk to each other again. Then the next day, I got off the plane to find a voicemail from my wife asking for assistance. I walked her through the "keyboard connect" thing but was unsuccessful. (It is kind of timing-sensitive and sometimes just doesn't work.) She had to use the mouse as a remote for the remainder of her television viewing.

I have seen this problem recur a few more times since then, but, knock on wood, it seems to be less frequent. It is usually fixable with just the keyboard connect buttons. I hope that lessening the CPU and I/O load has let the keyboard connect more easily and that someday I can hide the mouse away as it is not an attractive addition to our media center cabinet.

Codec issues

I have been in codec hell since MCE 2005, and it continued to plague me in Vista. I believe I have finally solved it to my satisfaction. One of my primary problems with MCE 2005 was that HD content tended to have nearly inaudible dialogue (even turned up to 25) but then commercials, music, and action sequences would be too loud. So we would have to watch everything with a hand on the remote to be ready to turn down during music scenes. Remember, we have two computer speakers with a subwoofer plugged into our Media Center, no surround sound, no receiver, nothing like that. Sorry, we're audio Luddites in that respect.

I first installed an updated DefilerPak so that everything could be upgraded at the same time, but this broke Live TV and nearly all my AVI content. I uninstalled it and then reloaded just the latest version of ffdshow and AC3filter, but I still had problems with some AVI content which would sort of jerk and stutter during playback. What I did find (comment if you want me to post more on this, because I can) is that with later AC3filter builds, I can increase the center (voice) channel of 5.1 audio, which greatly lessens the volume differences between voice and other audio in surround sound audio. I let the stuttering be for awhile as the, er, jerky content was no longer being broadcast, but then MCE 2005 Media Center's UI starting showing a black screen while recording or when resuming from standby so that's what really drove me to upgrade.

Once upgraded, I had high hopes that Microsoft's default codecs in Vista might suffice, but the world of encoding HD and other content has always been ahead of Microsoft, and also is not fazed by licensing issues. So, thus I thought of ffdshow again, but discovered the newer ffdshow_tryout branches which are far more Vista-friendly and don't crash the thumbnail process as I described in my prior Vista Media Center entry. So I installed ffdshow_tryout and found that most of my content was now viewable and did not experience any stuttering playback. This included OGM content. One thing that didn't show after this installation was MKV (Matroska) content, which required the Haali Media Splitter to work. So far these codecs have been fine.

Two problems remained: one that has just now been fixed and one that I will have to work on. The first is the problem with black static or "fuzz" appearing in the brightest white parts of content other than live TV. This was reported all over The Green Button and quickly fingers were pointed at the ATI driver. I am happy to report that the latest driver has fixed this. (Apologies if the link doesn't work, ATI seems to have a shitty state variable system which renders the search feature unusable as clicking on each hit results in "your session has ended".) I no longer see these black spots and so it is clear that the driver update has resolved the problem.

The final remaining "codec" problem is that I have noticed that both video and audio from certain types of downloaded HD content is too jerky to be watchable now. This could perhaps be due to the driver update (I tested it after, unfortunately not before, the update) or that I have not tried to watch this content before. As I look at it, I see that the two really bad problems are with MKV content. Maybe I need to replace the Haali media splitter with something else? Stay tuned...



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