Vista Ultimate Media Center in Virtual PC Form - Not Great

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I decided to continue my research into getting my DVDs into a network storage format for play by a home theater PC, this time by getting a Windows Vista Ultimate system up and running to try out My Movies and see how it worked. I also wanted to find out how difficult it was to get movies playing on my Xbox 360 using the Media Center Extender functionality. (Yes, I could have tried Windows Vista Home Premium, too, but figured, why not Ultimate?)

The problem is, I don’t have a system I can just flatten and dedicate to this, especially seeing as how I just wanted to try it out really quick without actually activating it, so it’d be up and running for less than 30 days. I decided this was the perfect opportunity to use Virtual PC 2007 to create a Vista Ultimate virtual machine and do all my work there - in a totally throw-away environment.

I didn’t get far.

Vista itself installed reasonably well. It was simple and straightforward, though it wasn’t super quick. I suppose you can’t really blame it for being slow since it was installing from an ISO image that was stored on the same physical drive as the VPC software and the VM image. So the disk churned a lot, and I recognize that as a vastly non-optimal setup, but I also figured I didn’t need it to be super fast, I just needed to see it basically function.

The next step I took was to try installing My Movies 2.20. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t install since it requires .NET 1.1 SP1 and Vista Ultimate only comes with 2.0 and 3.0 pre-installed. Downloaded and installed .NET 1.1 as well as SP1, then got My Movies installed. Cool. Time to fire up Windows Media Center.

Media Center started and after a few setup steps, I was into the menus. I didn’t see the My Movies options, but it turns out there’s a known defect in 2.20 that My Movies doesn’t properly add itself to the menus in Media Center. Luckily there’s a “My Movies” icon that gets installed in the Start menu and if you start Media Center from that, you go straight into My Movies. But we’ll get there in a second.

Not seeing the My Movies options anywhere in the menus, I decided to poke around Media Center a little. This is where I started seriously noticing the Virtual PC issues. Menus were slow to redraw, there was no animation to anything, the mouse cursor sometimes just disappeared… it was pretty horrible. I tried watching one of the sample videos that get installed with Vista and got a message about how some files weren’t working correctly or something. Turns out Vista really seems to want 64MB of video RAM and the max that Virtual PC will give it is 8MB. Exiting Media Center and trying the videos directly from Windows Media Player was successful (though very jumpy with several frames getting skipped at a time). I’m thinking Media Center had used up all my whopping 8MB of virtual video RAM and that was that. No more worky.

But I wasn’t going to get mired by that! There was still more to do! I figured since I wouldn’t be actually playing the movies on the VM - I’d only be streaming them to my Xbox 360 to play - that it didn’t really matter if I couldn’t get things playing right there.

Following some tips in the My Movies forums, I enabled the DVD Gallery feature in Media Center using a KB article at Microsoft. I figured this would be helpful to troubleshoot differences between how Media Center handles movies directly and how My Movies handles movies. Regardless, I didn’t figure it hurt anything, so there we go.

I downloaded and installed Transcode360 in preparation for the connection to my Xbox 360. In order to get it to work properly, I had to right-click the shortcut in the Start menu and modify the properties to tell it to Run as Administrator. If you have User Access Control enabled and you don’t do that, you only get exceptions when you try to start it up. (That’s not documented anywhere; I had to figure that out myself.)

OK! I had Vista Ultimate, My Movies, and Transcode360. Time to get a movie ripped and try this bad boy out!

I brought a DVD in today, fired up the VPC, fired up My Movies, and inserted the DVD into the drive. I told the VPC to capture the physical DVD drive as the VM drive so I could access the DVD…

…and this is where my fun ended. Media Center instantly became entirely unresponsive. Like, full seconds between putting your mouse cursor over a menu option and having the menu option highlight in preparation to be clicked. Removed the DVD from the drive and things became mildly responsive again.

To test things out, I exited Media Center and put the disc back in the drive. I wanted to see if the performance death had anything to do with Media Center. Turns out it didn’t - I inserted the DVD and got a few options on the Autoplay menu - I could install a DVD player from the disc, play the DVD with Windows Media Player, or play the DVD with Windows Media Center. I chose Windows Media Player. The player came up… and sat there doing nothing. I left it for several minutes and it never responded. I think this is, again, the video RAM issue coming back to bite me.

Regardless, I think my test of Vista Ultimate in a VPC environment is done. I believe several issues I fought with were due to the limitations of the VPC environment, but I also think there was some odd stuff going on with My Movies that needs to be fixed before I can get back into it.

In my web-based travels trying to find solutions, I found out about a lot of limitations to Media Center Extender technology (including the codecs that are supported, which is why Transcode360 is required) that make me wonder if using the Xbox 360 as an extender really is the best way to go or if maybe just getting a dedicated home theater PC might be a better idea and use some network attached storage so if I need to add more stations, I can put a PC in each room and just connect to the central storage.