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Moving from MCE 2005 to Vista

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…

 

The Good

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.

 

The Bad

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.

 

The Ugly

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.

Conclusion

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.

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Comments on: "Moving from MCE 2005 to Vista" (7)

  1. I agree with you on soo many of your comments.  The "new and improved" media center interface is more difficult to navigate.  The generattion of thumbnails sometimes grings the system to a halt, it seams like common sense to me – don\’t do what is essentially a manitenance activity (generating thumbnails) while I am trying to use the system!!! AHHHHHHHH! 
     
    Do you have any issues with XVID videos or Divx on the RTM?  I am getting strange video artifacts (like a static on white or shiny items – it really killed my Divx rip of Sin City) on some videos.  I have reinstalled Divx and Xvid and have tried a range of codec packs.
     
    I also think that my system needs more RAM now, it only has 512 MB, which was fine for MCE 2005, but I think that media center on Vista needs more to perform adiquatly.  The good news is that RAM is cheap.

  2. Hi James,
     
    Once they are playing, XVID seems fine, but sometimes it crashes when starting the playback. It is probably trying to create a thumbnail in parallel and I am not sure how thread safe the DIVX codec is. I am using the K-Lite Basic codec pack, which I have never used before but it got some favourable reviews.
     
    Before I started the upgrade I popped 2GB in the system as it is also running a couple of VMWare boxes in the background as well.
     
    A friend gave me a couple of DX9 compatible video cards with full pixel shader (Aero) capability so maybe once I get those installed it will work a bit better.
     
    There is hope, but still…… not convinced

  3. Thanks for the great review. I have switched from using my Sky decoder interfaced with MCE to using Sky+ HD for HD Broadcasting, and installing a dual sat freeview card from DVICO for timeshifting.
    Well the DVICO card is so bad, I am having so many problems with it (mainly guide disappearing and channels not playing) that I am now using MCE only for My Movies and My Music.
    By the way, for divx issues, uninstall all codecs and use only FFDshow, with no audio codecs, only install the video ones.
    Worked for me.

  4. Hi,
     
    I\’ve recently upgraded to Vista Ultimate 64 from XP Pro 32.
    My PC is rather high end and is connected directly to my living room TV (cloned) using an RCA cable (and 2 more rcas for sound); the primary display being an LCD in the bedroom; using my Ati graphics card (x800)
     
    I should mention that I also have a freeview box in the living room as well as a satellite feed in addition to a wireless WPA 24Mpbs internet connection.
     
    I\’ve read that most of the DVB tuners are unsupported in vista (64bit) and I would appreciate some advice as to which one to buy in order to watch digital tv and satellite through Vista MCE.
     
    I would also prefer to stream movies/tv/satellite from the computer through media center to the tv (I\’m guessing I need an xbox 360 and a 360 network adapter) instead of switching between the 3 different inputs.
     
    (I\’m assuming the MCE remote will work on the xbox360?
     
    thanks for your help
    locouis

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