About five months ago, I completed building a media center PC. Since its inception, it has served its purpose well, and has been a remarkably useful DVR/TiVo for us. But what plagued the media center was an inability to play HD content from sources other than recorded TV. Video files stored on my server could be played in the Media Center interface, as long as they did not exceed 2 GB in size. And although files larger than that could be played separately in Media Player Classic, the stuttering video, out-of-sync audio, and shearing picture issues made the experience inconvenient and unpleasant to watch.
So three weekends ago, I set out to completely overhaul the system and find a way to resolve the outstanding issues. The timing was mostly designed to coincide with a weekend my wife would be out of town and wouldn’t need access to the media center PC. The goal was to enable hardware aceleration of high-definition content, which until recently was handled by software – and not very well. So I did some research and found this excellent guide to setting up Vista Media Center for high-definition playback.
My first modification involved a complete reformat of the system. Apparently, there are a lot of issues with high-definition video codecs in Vista 64-bit. There are a lot of missing 32-bit binaries in the 64-bit version of Vista that hamper video playback using standard video codecs. So I reformatted with Vista Home Premium 32-bit. Home Premium is pretty much all you need, as it has the Media Center functionality that is necessary for what I was after. Sure, it can’t address more than 3GB of memory, but video playback isn’t really all that memory intensive anyway.
The second modification I made was to install a Phenom II X4 920 with four cores at 2.8 GHz each. For the record, that’s a more powerful processor than the one in my server, which does all the Folding@Home work when idle. Since it would be such a shame to waste such computing power on mere video playback, I plan to set that computer up to do Folding@Home as well. The main reason for the CPU upgrade was to speed up the Media Center functionality and add some brute computational force to the problem of handling 10 GB BluRay movie rips.
The third modification was to update the motherboard’s BIOS, which listed the installed Phenom II processor as “Unknown Processor Type.” I was about 5 motherboard updates behind, so this was long overdue anyway. Never underestimate the importance of a motherboard BIOS update. I did the same shortly after with my Hackintosh, and so far seemed to have removed a very erratic and frustrating lock-up problem.
The fourth modification was to enable AHCI for the SATA hard drives (before installing Vista Home Premium 32-bit). The advantages of AHCI over “Native” SATA or “Legacy IDE” SATA are supposed to be advanced queuing and other performance enhancements. But so far, all I’ve noticed is a disadvantage: the system hangs for about 10 seconds on startup where the hard drive appears to stop functioning, but then resumes shortly thereafter. The problem only occurs on startup, so it doesn’t really affect the performance much. Still, that’s a worrying characteristic that I’d like to research further.
Finally, the last modification I made was to remove the 1 TB hard drive (used for TV recording) and replace it with a 250 GB hard drive I had lying around. The reason was that my wife tended to watch TV shows about as fast as she recorded them, negating the need for a large amount of storage space. It really wasn’t necessary to remove the 1 TB drive, but I could make use of the extra space anyway.
On the server side, I’m currently upgrading my collection of movies from standard definition DVD-rips to BluRay rips at 720p resolution. I honestly can’t see a major difference in quality between 720p and 1080p that justifies an almost quadrupling of file size per movie. Hard drive storage isn’t THAT cheap yet.
So far, the upgrade has been a success. I still need to setup Folding@Home and see if running 3 of 4 cores in that program will hamper Vista Media Center functionality, but I can scale that as needed. Overall, the upgrade was well-worth it. We can now play 1080p movies with 10% – 15% CPU utilization with no stutter, shearing, or audio-sync issues.