Copyright 2009-2012 by djg. All Rights Reserved.

Wonky Gibbon Ramblings


Archive for the ‘Video’


D-Link DNS-320 NAS, DebianSqueeze and Twonky Media Server 7

Posted on November 28, 2012 by danny

I gave myself a bit of a shock today by working out something in Linux that actually worked, all by mself! Obviously to any proper linux person it’s little more than a child’s first steps – but it was quite satisfying!

So …

Having got the NAS loaded with all my media files, I enabled the UPnP MediaServer that came with it – to discover it was total crap. And promptly disabled it again.

But the word on the street, is that the Twonky Media Server is good, so I thought, put that on it.

And indeed people have put it on the DNS-320. This post covers much of what needs to be done, providing a link to a build of Twonky for the ARM processor and instructions on how to configure.

The only problem, is that all the instructions are for the lightweight ffp Linux install – rather than debiansqueeze which I’m using (because of the subversion project posted about previously).

Nevertheless – I followed the instructions, and with a few variations … got it to work … which surprised me!

The main thing I did was to strip off every occurrence of /ffp wherever I saw it in a path eg: /ffp/opt/twonky/ became /opt/twonky/
I did this both with the instructions in the blog post and with the content of the two scripts downloaded by those instructions ‘twonky.sh’ and ‘twonkyserver-default.ini’
Note: Two things to be aware of here: 1) Don’t edit these files with Windows Notepad, it messes up the line feeds at the end of each line such that linux doesn’t like the result! The free editor Notepad++ can probably handle it. 2) The debiansqueeze equivalent of the /ffp/start directory is /etc/inet.d so drop the twonky.sh file in there.

twonky.sh
#!/bin/sh

# PROVIDE: twonky
# REQUIRE: LOGIN

. /etc/ffp.subr
name="twonky"
start_cmd="twonky_start"
stop_cmd="twonky_stop"

twonky_start()
{
# Add a route for twonky to be published via UPNP
route add -net 224.0.0.0 netmask 240.0.0.0 dev egiga0 >/dev/null 2>/dev/null </dev/null &
cd /opt/twonky
mkdir -p /opt/twonky/data/ &
# Twonky requires one handle per monitored filesystem if inotify is
# used. On many devices, this is set to 8192, which might be too low
# if music or photos are scanned. Therefor this value is raised to
# the doubled amount. If more is required, change the value below.
# Thanks Michael for reporting this!
/sbin/sysctl fs.inotify.max_user_watches=16384 >/dev/null 2>/dev/null </dev/null &
# The line below is without logging (logs are written to /dev/null).
# If you want logging, exchange it with the line below the current one.
/opt/twonky/twonkystarter -logfile /dev/null -appdata /opt/twonky/data/ >/dev/null 2>/dev/null </dev/null &
# /opt/twonky/twonkystarter -logfile /opt/twonky/data/TwonkyMediaServer-log.txt -appdata /opt/twonky/data/ >/dev/null 2>/dev/null </dev/null &
}

twonky_stop()
{
# Kill Twonky
if [ -n "`pidof twonkyserver`" -o -n "`pidof twonkystarter`" ]; then
echo "Stopping twonkyserver"
kill -9 `pidof twonkyserver` `pidof twonkystarter`
fi

if [ -n "`pidof twonkyproxy`" ]; then
echo "Stopping twonkyproxy"
kill -9 `pidof twonkyproxy`
fi

if [ -n "`pidof twonkywebdav`" ]; then
echo "Stopping twonkywebdav"
kill -9 `pidof twonkywebdav`
fi
# Remove the route
route del -net 224.0.0.0 netmask 240.0.0.0 dev egiga0 >/dev/null 2>/dev/null </dev/null &
}

run_rc_command "$1"
twonkyserver-default.ini
#!/bin/sh

# PROVIDE: twonky
# REQUIRE: LOGIN

. /etc/ffp.subr
name="twonky"
start_cmd="twonky_start"
stop_cmd="twonky_stop"

twonky_start()
{
# Add a route for twonky to be published via UPNP
route add -net 224.0.0.0 netmask 240.0.0.0 dev egiga0 >/dev/null 2>/dev/null </dev/null &
cd /opt/twonky
mkdir -p /opt/twonky/data/ &
# Twonky requires one handle per monitored filesystem if inotify is
# used. On many devices, this is set to 8192, which might be too low
# if music or photos are scanned. Therefor this value is raised to
# the doubled amount. If more is required, change the value below.
# Thanks Michael for reporting this!
/sbin/sysctl fs.inotify.max_user_watches=16384 >/dev/null 2>/dev/null </dev/null &
# The line below is without logging (logs are written to /dev/null).
# If you want logging, exchange it with the line below the current one.
/opt/twonky/twonkystarter -logfile /dev/null -appdata /opt/twonky/data/ >/dev/null 2>/dev/null </dev/null &
# /opt/twonky/twonkystarter -logfile /opt/twonky/data/TwonkyMediaServer-log.txt -appdata /opt/twonky/data/ >/dev/null 2>/dev/null </dev/null &
}

twonky_stop()
{
# Kill Twonky
if [ -n "`pidof twonkyserver`" -o -n "`pidof twonkystarter`" ]; then
echo "Stopping twonkyserver"
kill -9 `pidof twonkyserver` `pidof twonkystarter`
fi

if [ -n "`pidof twonkyproxy`" ]; then
echo "Stopping twonkyproxy"
kill -9 `pidof twonkyproxy`
fi

if [ -n "`pidof twonkywebdav`" ]; then
echo "Stopping twonkywebdav"
kill -9 `pidof twonkywebdav`
fi
# Remove the route
route del -net 224.0.0.0 netmask 240.0.0.0 dev egiga0 >/dev/null 2>/dev/null </dev/null &
}

run_rc_command "$1"

NB: These scripts are provided for reference only – more current versions may vary.

Also – I didn’t bother with this line [[ $(ls -1 /mnt|grep -c HD_a2) -eq 0 ]] && sed -i -e ‘s!/HD_a2!/HD/HD_a2!g’ -e ‘s!/HD_b2!/HD/HD_b2!g’ /ffp/opt/twonky/twonkyserver-default.ini
in the instructions – it does a search and replace – but it doesn’t seem necessary.

Finally the ‘twonky.sh’ script makes use of a script called ‘ffp.subr’ which I think is used to start and stop the twonky service. This doesn’t exist in Debiansqueeze. There is probably some native way of achieving the same thing – but I don’t know what it is so instead, I went and found the download for ffp – unpacked it, and retrieved the script. There’s nothing specific to ffp in it so I dropped it into the /etc directory. You do need to go through the file and remove /ffp off the start of any paths that it appears in.

Then as instructed, I ran the twonky,sh script to start the service and connected via a web browser – and OMG!!!! IT WORKED!!!! First time too, which usually only happens to people who are either (a) lucky or (b) liars.

Once I had configured the server through the web page, I left it to get on with the job of indexing my media collection. This was a task that UPnP service that came with the NAS had taken all night to do. Twonky seemed to do it in minutes. Not only that, connecting using Windows Media Player, it downloads the metadata from Twonky so much more rapidly. Streaming of both audio and video is very rapid and smooth as is seeking to a certain spot in the video. All in all – very impressed with Twonky. It’s good.

There are three reasons, changing all this stuff worked:
1) All the scripts use the sh shell which is of course available in both ffp and debiansqueeze (ie the syntax was the same)
2) The folder structures of ffp and debiansqueeze are very similar.
3) Can’t remember – it’ll come back to me.

The only reference for this post, is to thank (again) Uli author of the http://nas-tweaks.net site
for this page http://nas-tweaks.net/384/installation-of-twonky-server-7-on-nas-devices/

NVIDIA Graphics Driver Installer Fails: The system cannot write to the specified device. 2

Posted on July 03, 2012 by danny

Just in case anyone runs into this problem and starts losing the plot!!

I was trying to install an earlier version of the NVIDIA display drivers for my graphics card today on Windows 7. Ones that MediaCentre would play nicely with.

Boy did I have to jump through some hoops!

Had to delete the version that Windows Update had downloaded otherwise it kept reinstalling them after the reboot – which was really annoying. Not trivial – you have to remove them from here:

C:\Windows\System32\DriverStore\FileRepository\nvdsp something something something. To delete them, you first need to take ownership of them (google that) and then once you have ownership set the permissions to provide full control. THEN you can remove them.

Then when I ran the NVIDIA installer it failed whilst trying to install the graphics driver component. Grrrr!

Then I tried installing it from Device Manager using “Update Driver” – and got this error message: “The system cannot write to the specified device.” – which lead me to believe that it couldn’t write to the card, or something in the windows directory – probably due to more bloody file permissions or whatever. And then I realised … that it wasn’t NVIDIA’s fault at all. My “Temp” folder was on a partition that was practically full. The installer couldn’t unpack the files. I cleaned out the temp folder – and hey presto – the drivers updated very happily indeed.

Net result – my kids can now watch “Peppa Pig” when they get up in the morning and I can sleep in. Praise your deity du jour!

Flickery HD on Freeview 0

Posted on July 03, 2012 by danny

So I’ve been having problems with HD on FreeView for ages. Sometimes it would just about work but other times the screen would go black for up to 4 seconds at a time – though the audio would continue uninterrupted. Some channels seemed worse than others – but then a channel that had been okay one day – would turn to crap the next.

I have top end Black Gold tuners and a more than adequate graphics card – so I put it down to reception. It had the feel of a reception problem, comments on other forums seemed to corroborate that, and I noticed that MediaCenter reported the signal strength as being around 66%.

However – I had an SSD failure last week so I had to replace the drive – I usually move the pagefile to a spin disk – but this time I left it on the SSD.

HD works. No flickering.

I never considered it would page – I thought 2GB RAM would be enough. But clearly it is not and the system is using the pagefile.

If it really is paging video data, which as we know is lots of data, it could wear the SSD out fairly quickly, even with the levelling algorithms they use. I shall investigate the quantity of traffic and report back…

Orbitsound – T4 Review 0

Posted on May 31, 2011 by danny

The marketing bumph for this is mostly keen to tell you about the incredible sound technology built in to the T4, how it’s spacial technology provides a stereo sweet spot wider than an outsize sombrero and all in a package the size of a pint of milk.

Well I’m here to tell you that the sound isn’t that great. It’s okay, sure. But it’s not great. The bass lacks punch and the mid is overbearing. Well what did you expect? As Scotty will say (come the 23rd century) “you cannae defy the laws of physics” and I put it to you that for this listener this remains true. It is very hard to get decent bass out of small speakers – the mid will tend to dominate.

Which begs the question? “Why do I love the Orbitsound – T4?” becaue I have to tell you, I do – I really do. In fact, I think it’s a fabulous piece of kit.

The size of a couple of pints of milk – you get all this:
– DAB and DAB+ radio
– FM Radio
– Internet Radio (inlcuding Podcasts such as from the BBC)
– Support for UPnP Media Playing
– iPod suport
– Aux in
– EQ
all for about 70 english pounds.

But it gets better. For a device this size, the UI is REALLY good. This if for two reasons. First the display can manage 6 lines of about 25 characters so the developers had plenty of space to work with. Second, the UI is quite rich. A display this size, allows a nicely nested menu system. Selecting a podcast from the BBC is not the keyhole surgery of the two line display of the Revo Mondo say (that I’ve known and loved for the last few years) – it’s actually pleasurable. For someone who listens to a lot of talk radio / podcasts (Radio 4 darling!) it’s a boon.

The switch on / boot time is practically instantaneous and the time to find and connect WiFi to the router if using Internet Radio or UPnP is very quick compared to other devices.

The controls are arranged around the top surface and there’s no remote control which does make the T4 only really suitable for smaller spaces in the home such as a Kitchen or as a bedside radio. As you return to a function previously used it automatically retunes to the last station selected, or in the case of an iPod, unpauses it (when you move from the iPod to something else, it pauses it again – nice touch).

In fact given the size and style of the device, you could actually use it as a device to drive an external HiFi in a similar role to something like a Revo Mondo and it wouldn’t look at all out of place and the sound quality would be well, HiFi. And given that the thing you really want on a remote is a volume control, the lack of a remote then isn’t a big deal.

My only other gripe is that the floppy wire aerial is a bit position sensitive when listening to DAB – but that’s a small detail.

All in all – I’m impressed. The developer who coded up the firmware gave a damn and it shows. There are just lots of nice little touches as though the engineers had actually used their own product (heaven forbid!) This is a good piece of kit at a great price. Well done Orbitsound! Can’t say I understand your marketing though.

Batch Convert WTV files to DVRMS and MPEG 23

Posted on August 19, 2010 by danny

When Microsoft released Windows 7 / the TV Service Pack for VISTA, they changed the file format from dvr-ms, as used in MCE 2005 to a new wtv format.

What does this new wtv format do for us that dvr-ms did not? Well that’s probably a subject for wikipedia, but for those of us watching Freeview in the UK – not a lot.

However what it does do, is stop us using other nice utilities such as DVRMSToolbox plus wtv files are half as big again as the dvr-ms files they replace. So a 3GB wtv file is equivalent to a 2GB dvr-ms file. Or to put it another way, that 1TB drive you bought so you could keep lots of shows, is now only worth 666GB. Which sucks.

So I want to convert my wtv files to dvr-ms files.

A very easy solution is simply to right click on the wtv file and select the option “Convert to .dvr-ms” format. However this has to be done one right click at a time (there’s no multi select) and rapidly becomes very tedious.

DVRMSToolbox with a bit of profile tweaking and using it’s FileWatcher feature can be made to do it automatically for you – but it is a bit fiddly to setup, and you have to have FileWatcher running continually.

However you can automate the whole process using DOS batch files. And if you want it to run periodically, use the Windows Scheduler service to kick it off, say, daily in the middle of the night.

So what would such a batch file look like? Well – this did take a couple of hours and a bit of research as my DOS batch scripting skills aren’t all that great – hence why I share it here.

ConvertAll.bat
@echo off

echo "Create wtv file list..."
dir /b *.wtv > d:\wtvlist.txt

echo "Process wtv file list..."
for /f "usebackq delims=" %%a IN (d:\wtvlist.txt) do call wtvrunner.bat "%%a"

echo "Cleaning Up"
del d:\wtvlist.txt

Drop the batch file into the directory you want to convert.

It works by creating a temporary file list in a txt file and looping through each entry in that file and passing it to a second batch file called “wtvrunner.bat”.

The wtvrunner.bat file then calls the standard windows utility for converting from wtv to dvr-ms (the same one used by the right click method above), converts the file and (if the output file was successfully created) deletes the wtv original. It’s a good idea to delete the wtv files as you go along rather than with a single del *.wtv at the end as it greatly limits the amount of free disk space required to convert a batch of files.

wtvrunner.bat
SET infile=%~1
SET outfile=%infile:~0,-4%
SET "outfile=%outfile% - DVRMS.dvr-ms"
echo %outfile%
c:\windows\ehome\WTVconverter.exe "%infile%"
IF EXIST "%outfile%" del "%infile%"

(NB: wtvconverter.exe is not available on Windows XP. Copying it onto an XP box doesn’t work either as it relies on other Windows 7 assemblies. So this is really Windows 7 only).

That works well then. Double Click the ConvertAll.bat file and a whole directory of wtv files gets converted to dvr-ms files.

However for other reasons, my workflow required me to then convert all the dvr-ms files to mpg files. So now I needed to add to the scripts to use DVRMSToolbox to do the conversion from dvrms to mpg.

So now ConvertAll.bat looks like this:

ConvertAll.bat
@echo off

echo "Create wtv file list..."
dir /b *.wtv > d:\wtvlist.txt

echo "Process wtv file list..."
for /f "usebackq delims=" %%a IN (d:\wtvlist.txt) do call wtvrunner.bat "%%a"

echo "Create dvr-ms file list..."
dir /b *.dvr-ms > d:\dvrmslist.txt

echo "Process dvr-ms file list..."
for /f "usebackq delims=" %%a IN (d:\dvrmslist.txt) do call dvrmsrunner.bat "%%a"

echo "Cleaning Up"
del d:\wtvlist.txt
del d:\dvrmslist.txt

This introduces a third batch file called “dvrmsrunner.bat” which handles the conversion of the dvr-ms files to mpg’s using DVRMSToolbox. This looks like this:

dvrmsrunner.bat
SET infile=%~1
SET outfile=%infile:.dvr-ms=.mpg%
"C:\Program Files (x86)\DVRMSToolbox\DVRMStoMPEG.exe" /if="%infile%" /of="%outfile%" /p=16384 /act="ffmpeg"
IF EXIST "%outfile%" del "%infile%"

Again this deletes the input files (if the output was successfully created) as soon as the conversion is finished to save space.

Job done.

NB: Scripts updated to only delete input files on success.

References:

Jim 2.5’s Blog – Article on DOS loops
John John’s post from this thread on looping through lists of filenames that have spaces in.
This article on dos string manipulation for replacing .dvr-ms extension with .mpg
macdad’s post from this thread on stripping off three character file extensions from file names.

Not all TV Cards are Created Equal 2

Posted on December 30, 2009 by danny

Question

So, what is the difference between one TV card and another; given you can buy dual tuner cards that will allow you to record two channels of DVB-T for next to nothing – what do the more expensive cards give you?

This has been bothering me since my last post on my Windows 7 MCE. Indeed its been bothering me ever since I did my original tests with Windows 7 RC1. That build seemed rather better in terms of responsiveness than the actual Windows 7 one did. There are of course lots of differences between the systems. One was RC Ultimate edition, the other the released Home premium, different disk drives as well – but one thing I had overlooked was the TV Tuner Card. Due to a problem with the Black Gold Signature cards (you can’t use two together under Windows 7 as you could in XP), when I built the final system I replaced the single Black Gold card I had used in the RC with a new Dual Tuner card from Peak.

In terms of the recorded programs, the Peak card has produced excellent results – but in this very underpowered, single core setup it has struggled to encode data when the machine was doing other things such as fast forwarding a different program being watched simultaneously.

Putting the single Black Gold tuner back in to the system, revolutionised it. It’s as quick as Windows MCE 2005 ever was.

Answer

And that’s the difference, the more expensive cards do much more of the encoding effort, relieving the burden from the CPU. Freeing it up to be responsive to user requests (such as “Fast Forward my program please” or “can I see the Guide whilst my program still plays please”) without crashing.

Conclusion

Which brings you to a simple choice:
It’s relatively easy to build a great PVR around an old motherboard, CPU and Windows 7, if you add high end TV tuners (encoders) and an average Graphics card (decoder) because all the heavy duty processing isn’t being done by the old hardware. It’s beeing done by dedicated high end video encoders in the TV tuner, or in the dedicated MPEG2 decoding pipeline of the Graphics card. Which rather bursts the balloon on the sense of acheivement to be honest. But for a machine which lives under the TV which is only used as a telly, does make a lot of sense.

But if you want a more versatile all round machine for which watching TV is only one of it’s role, then you just have to get something with a lot more CPU muscle, preferably with multiple cores so that it’s responsive. You then don’t need high end encoders and cheaper cards such as the Peak, will more thasn do the job. Stability might still be an issue though – as an asside, I notice that the machine is much less prone to crashing now. Fast Forward (when recording something else), was a bit risky previously. Makes sense really. Dedicated hardware encoders and decoders always do just that – encode/decode video. A CPU by contrast can be nagged by any one of a zillion different systems to interrupt what it’s doing and just quickly do something else. Which is all fine until it hits something that is time, or timing critical. Bang.

It still hasn’t cost that much. A new Black Gold Dual Tuner card is £80 which even when added to the cost of the new graphics – is under £100. Which is cheaper than buying a new motherboard, RAM, CPU – and you’d still have to buy the graphics card anyway. But it’s not the saving you’d hope for – particularly when you consider that you can buy good dedicated dual tuner PVR’s for less than double the price of the Black Gold card.

Squeezing more Performance out of Windows 7 Media Center 0

Posted on December 12, 2009 by danny

So then, the wife isn’t that happy with Windows 7 Media Center. It deosn’t always respond to her remote control commands (usually when its recording something else) which is annoying.

So here at Gibbon Towers, it was time to do some work to see what was going on in terms of system resources. Hmmm – first thing was that there wan’t much free RAM left on the machine. Never a good sign. So time to turn off whatever I could to free up some RAM and some CPU clock cycles.

Switching off Features

Started off by switching off a bunch of Windows Features. In Windows 7 there’s a proper app to do this, not just an uninstaller. Just type “Windows Features” into the start menu. Rather cleverly, it properly unloads and disables them so that they use no system resources whatsoever rather than uninstall them altogether. Which means that when you want to re-enable them at so,me later date – you haven’t got the arse of trying to find the DVD. Result!

Switching off Services

I then set about switching off all the Windows 7 Services not required for watching or using the Media Center application (NB: we don’t use Media Extenders either) in Windows 7 Home Premium Edition. Thus I disabled the following services:

  • Background Intelligent Transfer Service
  • Desktop Window Manager Session Manager
  • Distributed Link Tracking Client
  • HomeGroup Listener
  • HomeGroup Provider
  • IP Helper
  • Peer Name Resolution Protocol
  • Peer Networking Grouping
  • Peer Networking Identity Manager
  • PNRP Machine Name Publication Service
  • Print Spooler
  • Themes
  • Windows Media Player Network Sharing Service

For more information on what services do what, in Windows 7 (and how safe it is to disable them) – the Black Viper website is superb.

Given that we’re not going to have Extenders in other rooms, not going to use the new HomeGroup functionality (you still have networking without HomeGroup), I switched off Aero and all the Theme stuff (Media Center doesn’t use them) – and I’m not going to do any printing. All of which makes sense because the machine really does just live under the telly, playing video, in our house.

Doing all of this had an immediate and dramatic impact on responsiveness. In fact the remote control is back to MCE 2005 levels of useability which is excellent. And looking at the system resources there’s much more free RAM in the system (it released hundreds of MB).

Other Changes

I then did a comparison of CPU’usage of NVidia’s PureVideo decoder against Microsoft’s decoder by having them in turn play back the same video file. According to task manager, PureVideo was about 10% more intensive on the CPU;. Since I can see no difference in quality – I’ll go with Microsoft then.

XVID had become a car crash again. Turned out that Windows had managed to undo the hack I applied form the previous host to get it working. Reapplying the hack not only fixed XVID but also improved responsiveness, particularly when recording another program at the same time.

I also upgraded the CPU from an Athlon XP 1600+ to a 2100+, because err… I could. And it only cost £5. And it made absolutely no difference whatsoever.

Setting up Power Saving Modes

Finally the guy at Slick Solutions has produced a new version of his MCE Standby Tool for Windows 7 – which I can’t recommend enough. Get that from a link somewhere in this post http://www.degroeneknop.nl/forum/index.php/topic,4989.75.htmlhttp://www.degroeneknop.nl/forum/index.php/topic,4989.75.html Really sorts out the power management. If you think it’s good, make a donatation to him.

Conclusion

So after spending a few quid (most notably on both a TV card and a Graphics card) – the whole system does now work. It works well when playing back, or recording one or two channels together. It still struggles when doing all three together particularly when using the remote to fast forward or rewind).

For reference the two biggest improvements were turning off the unwanted bits of Windows, and applying the codec patch from the GreenButton website.

When I find some time I want to do a comparison of CPU usage on the Black Gold card vs the PEAK one. I have a feeling that the Black Gold one takes on more of the work of encoding whilst the PEAK one leaves more to the CPU. But that’s just a guess at the moment.

A Random Gotcha

NB: One other problem that fooled me a bit was that the disk became full. Until I freed up some space that murdered performance as well.

Windows 7 MCE – The Ongoing Saga 0

Posted on November 13, 2009 by danny

Well as mentioned in the earlier post, as soon as Windows 7 was released, I rushed out and bought a copy and installed it on the Media Centre.

There have been quite a few problems. Some known – some unknown.

TV Cards

I already knew I was going to have to replace the TV cards as the Black Gold ones couldn’t be used as a pair under either Vista or Windows 7 due to a design flaw either in the cards or the revised driver model used from Vista onwards. So I bought a new PCI Dual Tuner DVB-T card from Peak (that takes just the one slot). And that resolved that. The new card is much slower to tune than the Black Gold, but once configured, is much more responsive to changing channel during viewing. Its been very reliable ever since and the quality of recording is identical (ie: excellent).

Graphics Card

The next problem was the Graphics card. Again as previously mentioned, the drivers for the GeForce 5200 FX from Nvidia are a bare minimum. Many of the controls that were available under Windows XP were not present under Windows 7 (& Vista). Worse, even though I set 720×576, the display was still a bit smaller than the TV display with some strange curved geometry, and there was no way of growing the display size as there had been under XP. Some of the graphics and video playback was also a bit jittery. I was pretty sure that any graphics acceleration capability on the card was also inaccessible and usused. A search on the NVidia website showed that they’d just released Windows & drivers for all cards from the GeForce 6 series and up. Reading between the lines then, there’s no chance of anything for the 5200. It really is outrageous that in 2009 this card is still sold new and yet you can’t get full drivers for either Vista or Windows 7 – just crippled ones. Thus, the only solution was to upgrade – which as the motherboard has an AGP slot was going to be a challenge. However – I mamanaged to find a new GeForce 6200 with an AGP interface and 256MB of RAM for about 30 quid, so bought that. This resolves the problem, particularly once MCE starts and expands the screen slightly (resolving the Geometry problem).

Two other problems I hit in the Graphics card area.

First the NVidia PureVideo totally crashed the machine with the original GeForce FX 5200 (weird as it worked with Win 7 RC1). So I had to go with the Microsoft ones which seem to work a bit better than in Win7 RC1. Retesting the PureVideo with the new 6200 card – the good news was that it no longer crashes. The bad news is that (subjectively), it’s no better or more responsive than the Microsoft ones. On that basis I went with Microsoft.

The second, was an accidental Black Screen in MCE. I caused this by twiddling with the AGP aperture size. I reduced it to 16MB thinking that with 256MB onboard it wouldn’t need much extra RAM from the system. Wrong! MCE became a black screen. I could hear the sounds of it loading along with occasional swishes of colour but then, just an unhappy black screen. Setting the Aperture Size back to 256MB resolved the problem.

Networking

Elsewhere, I ran into problems with the Realtek network card which was causing a boot lockup (if the network cable was plugged in). The card doesn’t seat quite perfectly in the PCI slot (the bracket is slightly too long at the bottom). Forcing the network speed down to 100Mbps rather than allowing it to negotiate 1Gbps seems to resolve it. But I can’t help feeling that filing down the bracket would solve the problem properly. That or a more expensive card. And it’s annoying because you really want 1Gbps bandwidth in a Mediacenter if you’re going to use the video data elsewhere.

XVID

The slow XVID playback problem was resolved using help from The Green Button website in this article. Whoever worked that out – is a genius!!

This inadvertantly solved much of another problem I was having with responsiveness. No idea why. Whenever I was watching a program and went to view the guide (say) using the remote, the guide would display and then the system would lock up. The program would continue to play in the background – but the system would become totally unresponsive for minutes at a time. The DivX hack in the article helped this problem hugely (though it’s still a bit slow).

And hey presto – one working Windows 7 mediacenter, running on kit that’s mostly about 7 years old.

As I said before, it isn’t ever going to work well with HD content – but it works just fine for standard TV content.

Can old Hardware run Windows 7 Media Center? 1

Posted on September 25, 2009 by danny

When the RC of Windows 7 came out – I was minded to investigate whether the same hardware I built to run MCE 2005 (ie: XP) could run Windows 7 Media Center (particularly as time goes by my MCE2005 system gets less and less stable) ? I never bothered to upgrade to Vista because it was clear that Vista was too processor hungry but with Windows 7 making waves for being as quick if not quicker than XP, I wanted to investigate.

The post for the original MCE2005 build is here

The original spec was:

  • Soltek 75DRV2 Motherboard (circa 2002)
  • AMD Athlon XP 1600+
  • 1.0 GB Ram (can run on 512MB – but gets sluggish once you have many recordings to index)
  • NVidia GeForce FX5200 Video card (fanless) with TV output
  • A Seagate Barracuda 7200 320GB hard drive
  • Twin Black Gold Signature TV cards to encode DVB-T (Freeview) signals
  • Gigabit LAN card

Well, in summary – yes it can – but there were a number of problems, mostly revolving around drivers.

After installing Windows 7 on a spare 80GB drive, audio and networking worked immediately. Also it can playback XVID natively so no XVID instal required. Nor does it require a third party mpeg decoder in the way that MCE2005 did. It has one built in, out of the box.

NVidia Graphics Card

The graphics card is old (though you can still buy it even new in 2009) – an NVidia GeForce FX 5200. The only drivers currently available were released back in 2006 (for Vista) and they do just about work. Worryingly NVidia have only so far released proper Windows 7 drivers for their more recent cards. I hope they expand support for older cards in due course but it doesn’t look promising.

Configuring the card was tricky, a lot of the NVidia Control Panel that had been available in XP was gone. I believe the Windows 7 driver model (inherited from Vista) has changed meaning those features would have to be reimplemented – if indeed it is even possibel to do so. Luckilly – I was able to select the correct resolution of 768 x 576 (PAL) once I had set “TV0” to be the main card output. The refresh rates available are way low (29Hz or something) – but I haven’t found away yet to tell Windows 7, that the display is a TV (a non plug-n-play device) and that it should be using 50Hz. That said it doesn’t seem to flicker – so it’s a low priority to fix.

Black Gold Digital Tuners

The Black Gold situation is annoying (and is well documented on “The Green Button” website here). Black Gold seem unable or unwilling to update the drivers such that two of these cards can work side by side in the same box. You can only use one. So one has to come out. Which means I shall have to buy another single or dual tuner card (from another manufacturer I think too). Not the best customer servicer.

Anyway, taking out one of the Black Gold cards got the other to work.

Performance

Initially, performance was pretty shabby. So I turned off a lot of unnecessary Windows 7 stuff to get some speed back. This page has some good information on this. More detail on the services can be found from Black Viper.

In essence I turned off a lot of services and switched off Aero (which although many people say this makes little difference – it’s a shite graphics card! – and Media Center doesn’t use Aero anyway).

In the process, I accidentally turned off the Human Interface Service which killed much of the Remote Control. So undid that. Also – it does need the Windows Search service.

Having done that – performance was much better and the media center UI is perfectly responsive.

Things get a bit more sticky once you start watching live telly – it does take a bit longer than MCE 2005 to get itself initialised and going – and is prone to the odd starting playback stutter – but once running it’s solid.

Similarly playing back pre-recorded video whilst recording another channel seems to work well without glitch in the recorded stream. Again playback startup is a bit slow.

Because of the problems with the Black Gold drivers – I was unable to test recording two streams simiultaneously whilst playing back a third.

The only significant lockup was when using the back button on live tv, it took me back to the guide (which is fine) but then got stuck taking me back to the main menu. Odd. Pressing the green button seems to fix this most of the time.

The one signifcant difference in hardware between the XP and Windows 7 setup’s was the Hard Drive – because I’m using my fast 320GB drive for my live MCE 2005 system, I had to use a slower 80GB Western Digital drive for the Windows 7 test.
This may well be significant and explain some of the stutters – I can’t prove that at the moment though. Certainly the faster drive can only improve things.
The Seagate manages 63.05 MB/s and has a 16MB cache whilst the Western Digital only manages 43.47 MB/s and has an 8MB cache.

Migration of Existing Recordings

Although Windows 7 MCE uses a new storage format for recorded TV, it seems to playback dvrms files transfered across from MCE 2005 just fine.

But then, there is XVID.

Oh dear. XVID.

I encode a lot of stuff to XVID. Movie’s and home Camcorder stuff. Playing any of this, even from the local hard drive was grindingly slow. Playback was quaerter speed, audio normal speed and the UI is completely unresponsive. Installing XVID in the hope that it would take over from Microsoft’s codec’s didn’t help either. Some other config required here perhaps. But I haven’t yet googled a way how (and I ain’t smart enough to work it out for myself!)

Again, looking at the Green Button website – this seems to be a common problem. Here’s hoping it gets sorted by the October release. Certainly decoding XVID’s usually doesn’t require much processing power at all – so it seems odd.

Then there is the aspect ratio of the XVID’s on screen – which displayed just fine in MCE 2005, but are completely wrong in Windows 7 being stretched height wise. Ugh.

Some further research shows that the XVID’s play fine in Media Player. Weird.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that at the moment the system does perform better where TV is concerned when running MCE 2005 – but the performance in Windows 7 is certainly not unuseable by a long shot.

And there’s a lot to like in the new UI with all the downloading of artwork for movies etc… plus the general reorganisation of the UI. It all seems to work well, logically and is responsive. Support for features such as fasr forward/revwind in XVID’s and other Video file types is much improved. And the extra digital buttons we get in the UK (“press the red button now for etc”) actually seem to work which they never did in MCE XP.

It would also have to be said that my MCE2005 install is no longer that stable and is likely to crash if left by itself for a week. It remains to be seen how stable Windows 7 MCE is by comparison.

So in short – when Windows 7 comes out for real – I’m definately going to try to move over to it with this hardware.

Even if XVID playback is screwed – someone will work out a fix for that!

Mind you, you’re never going to be watching HD on this system! 🙂

Building a Windows MediaCentre PVR from (some) reused parts 0

Posted on April 16, 2009 by danny

I’m a big fan of reusing old kit from the loft (ie tight fisted!) and we’d been wanting a PVR for quite a while. Windows Media Centre PVR’s are often specced to be high performance pieces of kit that can handle the latest games etc… However the actual TV part of the requirement needs next no grunt at all. The spec below is more than capable of recording 2 channels simultaneously whilst playing back a third pre-receorded show – and the heart of it, was recycled from the loft…

Reused bits:

  • Soltek 75DRV2 Motherboard (circa 2002)
  • AMD Athlon XP 1600+
  • 1.0 GB Ram (can run on 512MB – but gets sluggish once you have many recordings to index)
  • NVidia Gforce FX5200 Video card (fanless) with TV output (cost £20 when new).

Additional Hardware:

  • Big Slow Spinning fan to keep it cool quietly (cost about £15 if I remember correctly).
  • Similarly, quiet PSU bought (do you really want a noisy PC in your living room? Nah!)
  • A single Seagate Barracuda drive for storage (again quiet) £50
  • Twin Black Gold TV cards to encode DVB-T (Freeview) signals £50 each.
  • A Silver fronted DVD drive (£20).
  • A nice case. To make it a simple build, the normal PC case height. A Silverstone LC17 – this wasn’t that cheap (almost £100).
  • You will also need a Remote Control and an IR receiver for MCE. These can be found on ebay.
  • If you are going to want to store (or process) the recorded files on other machines, then buy a gigabit LAN card if you don’t have one (£10) so that you can move the files around quickly (they are huge!) – if you opt to do this over wireless you may contemplate suicide.

Software:

You will need a copy of Microsoft Media Centre for XP which you probably can’t buy new anymore. Its quite likely that the Vista version may not run on a machine this low spec as Vista is rather more hungry. But the XP version can be found easily on ebay. Would be interesting to see if the equivalent Windows 7 MCE is efficient enough to run on this when that comes out though…
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