media, windows comments edit

I had the Windows Media Center DVD Library set up, I upgraded my Windows Home Server to have capacity to store my movies, so the last step was to get a home theater PC in the living room so I could play the DVD images off the network. (This is all part of my overall media center solution.)

Dell Studio Hybrid Media Center PC - sits right next to my Xbox 360.

The Dell Studio Hybrid is the little black box under the Xbox 360 HD DVD drive. [From Studio Hybrid Media Center]

After some research and pricing, I ended up getting a Dell Studio Hybrid PC from Best Buy. Dollar for dollar, I got more horsepower than if I had gone with a Mac Mini, and I didn’t have to get a separate Windows Vista license. It came with Vista Home Premium (which includes Media Center), a dual core 2.1GHz processor, 3GB RAM, wireless-N built-in, DVI and HDMI output… basically, it was set to go as a Media Center, and it was $50 less than the better of the two currently offered Mac Mini models.

Installation was a snap. There were (obviously) a few fiddly things to deal with like setting up the media center user account, connecting it to my Windows Home Server for backup, setting up Windows Media Center to find all of my media… but really no major hiccups. The Windows Media Center setup wizards are fantastic and really get you going in great shape quickly.

There are only a couple of things I need to deal with, neither of which are showstoppers so much as generally annoying.

  1. Monitor resolution. When you’ve got a home theater PC, your TV is effectively your monitor. Unfortunately, my TV only supports a certain number of resolutions, only a few of which are also supported by the out-of-the-box video card and drivers that came with the PC. To that end, I have things displaying at 1280 x 768, which is nice and crisp (and supported on my TV) but leaves a bit of a black letterbox on the right and left sides of the screen since the full resolution of the TV is 1366 x 768. I may look into an application like PowerStrip to see if I can tweak the card into displaying a full resolution, but then, the half-inch letterbox on either side of the screen really isn’t killing us, either.

    UPDATE: Several forums report PowerStrip doesn’t work with Intel integrated graphics cards, which the Hybrid has. There is a tool called DTDCalc that is supposed to do some craziness to get things to work, but it looks pretty hacky to me (or at least it doesn’t abstract me away from the hackiness much) and involves knowing about VESA standard timings and such. Yow. Anyway, for those bold enough to take that leap, there it is.

    UPDATE 2: I tested out connecting the Hybrid to the TV using an HDMI cable rather than the DVI cable I was using. When doing that, I had several new resolution options to choose from including 1920x1080i. My TV didn’t really “like” that resolution and didn’t display it properly (things stretched off the screen and flickered really bad) but the experiment proved out - the information coming in from the TV is what tells the PC the resolutions it supports. It’s an older TV and I’m planning on getting an upgrade soon, so hopefully the new TV will better support the signal.

    UPDATE 3: I got a Samsung LN52A750, hooked the PC up via HDMI, and instantly got full 1080p high-def output. No tweak required. No letterboxing along the sides. Everything looks brilliant. Whew!

  2. Remote control IR frequency conflict. The Media Center remote control and IR receiver that I bought, which is a nice yet inexpensive unit, happens to use the exact same infrared frequency as the Xbox 360 so when you turn on/off the PC with the control, it also turns on/off the Xbox 360. Since I rarely use the Xbox 360 remote (only when watching HD DVDs) I’ll probably find some sort of temporary cover for the IR receiver port on the 360 so I can cover/uncover it as needed.
  3. Windows Home Server backup and machine sleep. When you “turn the PC off” with the remote, you’re really putting it to sleep. When Windows Home Server connects to the PC to back it up, it wakes the PC up. Unfortunately, it isn’t going back to sleep after that. I need to work on the power settings so it goes back to sleep when it’s done backing up.

    UPDATE: I fixed this by changing the sleep time to a lower number (10 minutes) and switching the screen saver to one of the simpler ones like “Windows Logo.”

    UPDATE 2: I had some issues getting the HDMI signal to come back if I put the PC to sleep while the TV was off. It looks like getting a little HDMI switchbox fixes that.

I’ll put together a network diagram soon so folks can see how the whole system came together. I’ve been looking at solutions to my media center problem for almost two years to the date, so it’s nice to finally have it solved.

media, windows comments edit

I took the plunge today and decided to do a little upgrading on my Windows Home Server. I was already going to have to add some drives, and found so many people out there who noted that a RAM upgrade was a massive improvement, I decided to do both - add RAM and drives.

The first, and trickiest, upgrade, was the RAM. I got a Corsair DDR2 667MHz 2GB stick from Fry’s. Then, following this guide, I disassembled the server, swapped out the RAM, and put it all back together. (There are a few Home Server RAM upgrade guides out there, but the one I used from Home Server Hacks seemed to be the most detailed and helpful.)

The RAM upgrade was a little fiddly, having to take so much apart to get to the RAM, and I’m not afraid to say I started sweating a little when it booted up and the “health” light on the front of it turned red for several seconds (presumably as it realized there was more RAM and adjusted things). After that, though, I was able to log in and see the upgrade had taken effect:

Home Server RAM upgrade - the readout shows 1.97GB

I also adjusted my pagefile size (there’s a guide for that, too).

The difference? I don’t have many add-ins running (just the standard stuff that came on the server and the KeepVault backup add-in), but even the basic Home Server Console comes up noticeably faster. Before the upgrade, the console took maybe 10 - 15 seconds to come up. Now it takes maybe three seconds. Definitely an upgrade that was well worth doing.

I also bought two 1TB Western Digital Caviar GreenPower drives to put in. Admittedly, the “green” aspect of the drives is nice, but the simple fact is that they were on sale for $155 each at Fry’s (limit one per customer, so I had Jenn buy one) and I didn’t have to take my chances with NewEgg’s shoddy OEM drive packaging… plus, since it’s a retail package, I get the full retail warranty.

Adding a drive to the Home Server is the easiest thing in the world. Power down the server, take one of the empty drive trays out, snap the drive into the tray, put the tray back in its slot and snap the drive in. Done. Power up the server and it sees the drive - all you have to do is, through the Home Server console, tell it if you want it to be added to the main server storage or not.

I added both drives to the main body of server storage since I’m ripping DVDs to it and ended up with a total capacity of 2.73TB (1.91TB free).

Adding two 1TB drives gave me a lot of free space for

The difference in space is due to that awesome “marketing 1KB == 1000 bytes, computer 1KB == 1024 bytes” thing. You only get about 931MB of actual usable space on a 1TB drive.

Regardless, after these upgrades, my Windows Home Server is a tiny box of awesome. Now I’m going to go set up that Dell Studio Hybrid I ordered for our home theater PC.

UPDATE 2/4/09: I’ve added an eSATA port multiplier and two more 1TB drives for a total of 4.55TB in storage. It was an easy upgrade that enables future storage upgrades without using the USB ports up.

General Ramblings comments edit

I’m not a big handyman. To be honest, I’m not even a little handyman. I have some tools, I can hang a picture, but when it comes to anything much beyond putting a couple of screws into a board or hammering a nail into a wall, I’m pretty much out of it.

We’re putting this thing together at home for our cat box to sit on. It involves cutting a board, and I noticed that I don’t really have a saw. To remedy that, when we bought the board, I got a decent mid-to-low-end circular saw. (I obviously don’t have a ton of call for such a thing, so spending more than, say, $50 would have been wasted.)

During my first-ever-in-my-lifetime use of a circular saw, I learned a few things I thought I’d share to help out the other less-than-handy people out there:

  • Don’t stand on the cord or the saw won’t go.
  • Don’t pinch the cord between your leg and the table or the saw won’t go.
  • If the saw doesn’t go, the cut doesn’t come out as clean as you might hope.
  • Stop over-thinking it and move the saw faster than a snail’s pace or the cut won’t be smooth.
  • Sandpaper can go a long way in cleaning up a messy cut on MDF.
  • MDF generates more sawdust than you will ever be able to clean up.

traffic comments edit

Took my car in to the shop this morning to get it fixed from my one-way-grid collision. The estimate is that it’ll be done and back to me on Friday, but until then, I’m stuck in a rental - a Kia Rondo. My usual car is a 2002 Acura RSX Type-S, so moving over to an odd SUV-identity-crisis with an automatic transmission has me sort of weirded out. I don’t really want to try parking it in my garage because I can’t figure out where the front and back on the thing are yet.

It’s Wednesday, but Friday is comin’…

media comments edit

UPDATE 3/18/2014: I’ve re-analyzed my needs and the available technology and I’ve switched to MP4 movie storage.

I blogged a bit ago about setting up a Windows Media Center DVD Library

  • where to store, how to handle metadata, etc. What I didn’t cover was how to choose a format to rip your movies into.

When I created my DVD Library, I had three primary goals:

  • No loss of quality.
  • Menus, etc. intact.
  • Backup of movie that can be re-ripped to DVD if the original gets damaged.

I ended up selecting VIDEO_TS format for my movies. Based on your requirements, you may choose a different format. The following table outlines some common format choices and their relative pros/cons.








Full-disc image, sector for sector. [Wikipedia]

The files ripped from the disc’s filesystem. [Wikipedia]

Windows Media Video. [Wikipedia]

Moving Picture Experts Group video codec. [Wikipedia]

Codec using lossing MPEG-4 compression. [Wikipedia]

Playable in Windows Media Center

Requires a plugin like MyMovies in conjunction with Daemon Tools.

Yes, by enabling the DVD Library.



Requires a plugin like Media Control with FFDShow.

Streams to Media Center Extender (e.g., Xbox 360)

Requires Media Center with Transcode360. You won’t get FF/RW/Chapters.

Requires Media Center with Transcode360. You won’t get FF/RW/Chapters.



No. (Can play on Xbox360 through file sharing, but not through Media Center Extender.)

Same quality as original DVD






Menus, extra features, etc. intact






All of these can be re-ripped, in some form or another, to a DVD that will play in a standard player, but you can obviously only burn back to disc the data you have. For example, if you rip your movie to WMV, you’ve lost the menus and quality - you aren’t going to get those back by burning the WMV back to a video disc.

File size was omitted because for the lossy formats, you can adjust the amount of size the movie takes on disk by compromising quality. The ISO and VIDEO_TS formats will take between 4GB and 8GB per disc, regardless of movie length, because they’re basically the whole kit-and-kaboodle. I’ve found some discs only use 3GB, but most are between 4 and 8.

A note on quality: When I say there’s a quality difference between ISO/VIDEO_TS and WMV/MPEG-2/DivX, it’s not just a little bit. You will immediately notice that there are more video artifacts and lower quality sound than if you’d ripped the full movie without additional compression. The more you try to keep the quality, the larger the file size gets until you almost may as well have ripped the full ISO/VIDEO_TS… and even then, you still may notice quality issues. In some cases, you may not care - as long as it’s “watchable” it may be good enough for you. I’m a quality freak so I have a really difficult time with compressed video in my home theater, and my wife, who is far less picky than I am, even notices a difference. YMMV.

Given that…

The quick recommendations:

  • VIDEO_TS: If you want a backup with menus, no lost quality, and don’t mind watching your movies through a Windows Media Center (or Front Row, for you Mac people), then VIDEO_TS is the way to go. It’s the easiest of the two full-rip formats to set up and is most compatible with media center style software.
  • MPEG-2: If you want just the main movie, don’t mind losing a little quality, and/or have lots of different devices (PS3, Xbox360, etc.) that you want to watch on, go with MPEG-2. It’s a pretty common format that almost everything will play.