Copyright 2009-2012 by djg. All Rights Reserved.

Wonky Gibbon Ramblings



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! 🙂



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