So I took the plunge and converted the most important system in my house to Vista RTM. Is it my laptop, my development workstation or my file server? …. nop, the most important system in my house is the one that runs my television.
Why is it so important? Simple, my girlfriend uses it to watch television (read: Eastenders, Coronation street etc). Although I may put up with the occasional crash or hiccup, she will simply tear my head off if things don’t work as expected.
Some history first, I threw out my digital cable connection about 2 years ago after my friend Mike reported great success when he installed Media Center (MCE) on a spare system with a Freeview card. Until that moment I considered MCE a toy, a typical Microsoft 1.0 product that was almost certainly flawed. How wrong was I! Although not perfect by any means, MCE was waaaaay better than I expected. I cannot imagine going back to the old days without an integrated TV Guide, pausing live television or an intregated movie player.
When Microsoft announced plans to integrate MCE into Vista and overhaul it at the same time, I became very excited, maybe even a little bit too much.
Much to my disappointed the reviews of the beta versions of Vista MCE were very bad. The final release version is better, yet still flawed in many places.
My experiences so far…
Probably the most important benefit of the new version is that Vista MCE is build on top of Vista. Although to the casual eye Vista’s main improvements are cosmetic, quite a few changes have been made ‘under the hood’ that MCE benefits from.
One of my main gripes with XP is that running applications are ‘swapped out’ when there has been a lot of disk activity, e.g. a scheduled virus scan or a simple 1GB file copy. In XP MCE this problem was very obvious, switching to the guide or any other screen after such an event has taken place caused a lot of disk activity and sometimes a 10 second wait.
Windows Vista introduces a number of performance enhancing technologies, most notably SuperFetch & ReadyBoost. I won’t go into details other than that these technologies ensure that the most important and most frequently accessed parts of an application always stay in memory… the way god intended it before XP messed this all up.
The result, switching between screens in Vista MCE is always nice and snappy.
Although I am not sure if the main navigation system, see screenshot above, is an improvement with its horizontal and vertical navigation, what I do like is the visually pleasing overlay effect that combines the current video feed with the menu.
For me, one of the key reasons for buying an XBOX 360 was not the groundbreaking new next generation video game experience, but rather the fact that you can use it as an MCE extender. It makes it possible to use the same MCE Remote control and user interface that I use in my living room, to watch live tv and recorded programs on the XBOX in the bedroom.
Using XP MCE it worked, but navigation was always slow and I was experiencing frequent connectivity problems during the initial startup. Vista MCE solves these problems. Navigation is much faster, although not as fast as on the main MCE machine, and I have yet to experience any connectivity problems.
Finally, another good addition is the so called Mini Guide, which allows navigation between channels to see what is on, without actually switching away from the current channel. I may actully use this feature.
Many changes have been made to Vista MCE that I am not too happy about, although few are complete showstoppers.
The main menu, see one of the previous screenshots, is visually pleasing, though not as easy and functional as the simple, text only, list in XP MCE.
The list of recorded TV shows in XP MCE was also an easy to access list showing just the names of the recorded show. Quick and easy. The new view, again visually pleasing, is not nearly as quick to navigate. You have to horizontally scroll through a list of big thumbnails that really don’t add anything to the experience (See screenshot).
Fortunately, Vista MCE suggests switching to another view (see screenshot) when it notices there is a lot of content on the list. This secondary view is a lot better, though still not as easy to navigate as the list displayed by XP MCE.
Another ‘improvement’ is the view of available movies. I have ripped my entire DVD collection and converted it to DIVX so I use this view a lot. For each movie I had already created a thumbnail of the DVD box or movie poster.
Unfortunately the orientation of these thumbnails have changed in Vista MCE from portrait to some useless wide screen landscape kind of view. All thumbnails I have painstakingly created have become almost useless.
Then there is the downright ugly. I can live with most of the new quirks and changes that have been introduced in Vista MCE, but what I, and more importantly my girlfriend, cannot live with are the frequent crashes and error messages.
The problems are probably mainly driver related, but my old XP MCE system was able to deal with that, so I would expect at least the same level of resiliency from the all new and improved version.
Main problems are:
- When navigating to the video library, the system attempts to make thumbnails for video files it doesn’t have a thumbnail for. This seems to cause a lot of MCE crashes and restarts.
- Previously recorded TV shows, I hope this is only related to shows recorded on my previous XP MCE system, sometimes don’t want to play until I restart MCE.
- A similar problem occurs when switching channels. Sometimes MCE refuses to play a TV channel until I exit MCE and try again.
If, and this is a big IF, Microsoft improves the stability of Vista MCE then this new versions is a slight improvement over the old one.
However, until this happens, my old HD with a full XP MCE installation is on standby so I can switch back if I cannot bear this anymore.
I can’t really recommend anyone to upgrade their system at this moment unless you are lucky and it all magically works. If your family depends on your existing XP MCE then be very very careful when upgrading without a roll back plan.