Swings and Roundabouts

Almost two years ago, I wrote a blog post describing what I used to build my Home Theatre PC (HTPC). I’ve been pretty happy with the result. Over the course of that time, I’ve added a Solid State Drive (SSD) and reinstalled the Windows 7 operating system onto it. That had the result that the startup time from turning on the HTPC to seeing the Windows Media Center display on the TV was reduced to one minute. I’ve also upgraded the MyMovies and TotalMedia Theatre applications to the latest versions.

The upgrade of TotalMedia Theatre from version 3 to version 5 has proved to be a problem. On my system, TMT5 does not perform satisfactorily at all. There is some sort of interaction between TMT5 and the software drivers of the ATi Radeon graphics card going on. With the latest version of the software drivers (Catalyst 12.1), I was getting bad video stuttering in the Blu-ray playback every 40 seconds or so. When I rolled back to an older version (Catalyst 11.4), then the stuttering went away, but then after about an hour or so, video playback of a Blu-ray movie would come to a juddering halt. I’ve tried all sorts of combinations of software settings in both the graphics software drivers and in TMT5, but nothing has helped.

While I’m not the only person who is experiencing problems with TMT5, it’s clear that we are in the minority. I’ve got a support ticket open with Arcsoft’s Customer Support, and although there have been a couple of new software releases for TMT5, neither of them have helped me.

I’ve been looking at alternatives to TMT5, in order to be able to play Blu-ray movies. While there are a few, they all come with their own set of issues. Either they don’t integrate into Windows Media Center (WMC) – they compete with it in terms of functions, or they don’t integrate with MyMovies.

For example, I’ve been taking a look at the JRiver Media Center. This is a total solution, replacing Windows Media Center, TMT5 and MyMovies in their entirety. JRiver Media Center is capable of handling Blu-ray. I must admit, on my HTPC it appears to handle them flawlessly, a pleasant change to the current disaster of TMT5. But if I adopted JRiver Media Center, I would also be moving away from WMC and MyMovies, and I do like the user experience of that combination.

JRiver Media Center has been around since 1998, and is currently on version 17 (!). It looks to be a very good product, well-supported, with an extremely enthusiastic user community of more than 26,000 members, some of whom are contributing plug-ins for the main application. However, I’m not sure that I want to move to it. It’s a personal thing, I know, but as I say, I feel very comfortable with WMC and MyMovies.

An additional wrinkle is that Windows 8 is expected at the end of the year – and the Consumer Preview will be released on the 29th of this month. The WMC community, myself included, is wondering what will happen to WMC in Windows 8. Opinion was divided between those who think that we’ll see a totally new version and those who thought it would be dropped altogether. Microsoft has now promised that some form of WMC will be present in Windows 8, but it’s anybody’s guess what it will turn out to be. A related question is whether Microsoft will provide native support for Blue-ray in Windows 8 itself; either as a standard component in Windows 8, or as a downloadable plug-in available for purchase via the forthcoming Windows Store. If so, then I may be able to simply rely on Windows 8 and WMC. I’m hoping that there will be something in the Customer Preview to clarify my options. It seems to me that my options are:

  1. Roll back from TMT5 to TMT3 (to get Blu-ray playback working at least reasonably well), and hope that a future version of TMT5 will fix my current issues.
  2. Change over from WMC and MyMovies to JRiver Media Center (at a cost of $50).
  3. Hope that Windows 8 will provide a WMC that is capable of handling Blu-ray playback natively (however, I suspect that acquisition cost will be at least $100).

I’ll continue to play with JRiver Media Center for the remainder of the trial period of 30 days, but I suspect that, in the end, I’ll go with option (1) to begin with, and maybe move to option (3) in a year or so’s time.

Update: Having completed this post, I suddenly had a thought – what if I removed the ATi Radeon graphics card, and went back to using the integrated graphics on the Intel Core i3 530 processor? I originally had problems with the integrated graphics on the Intel, but Intel just released a new set of graphics driver software last month.

So I’ve just pulled the ATi graphics card, and installed the new Intel graphics drivers. They seem to have improved the situation – I no longer lose the signal from the HTPC if I switch inputs on the TV. The other issues are still there (slow HDMI handshake and losing the Denon on-screen display if I use the xvYCC colourspace), but I think I can live with them.

I’ve reinstalled TMT5, and now the Blu-ray playback is as smooth as butter; no stuttering. I’ll have to do extended tests to make sure that all is well, but it is looking good at the moment. So my option (1) has become: carry on with TMT5, using the Intel integrated graphics of the i3 processor. I don’t need to switch to JRiver Media Center, and I can explore Windows 8 at my leisure.

The moral of the story is: HTPCs are still for enthusiasts who are able to roll up their sleeves and fiddle about – that’s what they have to do. Plug and Play? Forget it.

About Geoff Coupe

I'm a British citizen, although I have lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1983. I came here on a three year assignment, but fell in love with the country, and one Dutchman in particular, and so have stayed here ever since. On the 13th December 2006 I also became a Dutch citizen.
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2 Responses to Swings and Roundabouts

  1. Pingback: Whither Next? A Media Center Journey | Geoff Coupe's Blog

  2. Pingback: Media in the Home – The Journey Continues, and Roon is Discovered | Geoff Coupe's Blog

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