media, windows comments edit

I think my virtual machine trials for Windows Media Center may be coming to an end. The reason? I’m running into unfortunate limitations due to the video RAM that Virtual PC 2007 gives me. Virtual PC emulates an S3 Trio 64 video card with 8MB of video RAM

  • apparently not enough to get a DVD to play, at least for me.

See, I installed Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 on a Virtual PC yesterday and while I got a bit further than I did with Vista Ultimate (My Movies installed correctly, for example), I’m still unable to actually play a DVD in the virtual machine because there’s not enough video memory. Of course, that’s not the error I get - it’s usually something about files or drivers not working or some crap like that, but since I’ve got actual physical machines running Windows XP that can play DVDs fine, I have to blame it on the video RAM because everything else seems to be just fine.

Hmmm… unless it’s the whole virtualized video card that’s the problem. Eh. Regardless, there’s trouble in video town.

I can see why people go with VMware for anything beyond the most basic virtualization needs. Virtual PC is great if you’re throwing together a quick server-based, non-UI-intensive thing, but when you get to trying something like a virtual media center, it falls flat on its face. (Granted, I haven’t tried this in VMware, so it, too, might fall flat. But since I don’t have VMware and it’s not free, I can’t really do much to test that theory.)

I did get DVD Decrypter installed on the Windows XP VM, but it kept coming across errors when I tried to rip a movie. I’m guessing that, too, is virutalization problems having to do with the drive or something.

My last ditch effort with both of these VMs: I’m going to rip a movie on a non-virtual machine. I’ll transfer the movie over to each virtual machine, making the assumption that if these were on real hardware we wouldn’t be running into the ripping issues. I’ll then try to get my Xbox 360 to communicate with each virtual machine and see how that goes. Technically speaking, if it works, I won’t really be playing movies directly on the media server anyway, so I’ll just make the assumption that everything works as far as the ripped movie is concerned and see if the media server can at least serve it up to the extender.

If I can get that to work, it’ll at least give me hope that allocating actual hardware to the effort is worth it. Assuming it works, I’ll see if I can dredge up some sort of low-end spare computer from someone and try it on actual hardware.

My last-ditch e

I had this weird dream last night involving super heroes, magic, and Scarlett Johansson. I think that’s what I get for playing a lot of Marvel: Ultimate Alliance and then watching The Prestige right before bed.

Friday night Jenn and I tried out a new Mexican restaurant called Costa Vida. It’s [yet another] one of those build-your-burrito-to-order places, but they have this sweet pork that’s just fantastic, especially when coupled with their mango salsa. I’ll definitely be having that again.

Saturday we went to my parents’ house to watch Borat. They hadn’t seen it yet and somehow thought it would be, I dunno, less crazy or something if I was there. We laughed, we screamed. Good times.

Oh, my dad got his Xbox Live router configuration issues under wraps and picked up a copy of GRAW 2, so now I’m going to have to get that so I can trounce him. Not that I’m very good, I’m just better than him. And isn’t that what matters? Hehehe. He’s promised to devote at least an hour a week to get used to the controls and stuff so he can play without having to call “time out” and ask how you shoot guns or ride in vehicles or whatever.

Saturday night we went to Jenn’s friend Kristi’s 30th birthday party. It was a pretty cool party and was at Kristi’s mom’s house, which is super huge and really nice, so we not only got to attend the party but also get some home improvement ideas. (Kristi’s mom is an interior designer.)

Kristi has this really cool huge dog that’s part Chow and part Saint Bernard or horse or cow or something. I’m not a dog person, but this dog was really mellow and pretty cool. I sort of wanted to ride him around the house. Yes, he was that big.

Sunday the kitties were nice enough to let us sleep in a bit and not cry outside the door, so we woke up reasonably late (9:00a is super late for the kitties to not be crying wanting love). We intended the day to be a “preparing for Spring” day since it was supposed to be nice, so I was going to get the awning on our back deck ready (plug it in, unpin the winter cover on it, clean it, etc.). Of course, just as I got started the rain kicked in so I didn’t get much done. I think we’re going to need a pressure washer anyway because the moisture rolled up in the awning molded over the winter and now it needs a good scrubbing.

While I was outside, I noticed that over by our air conditioner there’s this hole through one of the vents under the house where the A/C pipes go in and connect to the central distribution system or whatever. Anyway, there was a piece of sheet metal that was sort of jimmied in there to make sure no animals can get under the house. “Was” is the operative word - that piece of metal wasn’t really “in place” so much when I looked.

Now, every so often - maybe once a month - we’d get this really strong pee smell going through the house. We didn’t know if it was outside, or maybe just the smell of one of the kitties not burying their business very well in the litter box, but every so often, it’d accost you and take a couple of hours to go away.

Okay, so flash forward to Sunday. I started thinking about this pee smell and realized maybe some animal was getting in there and peeing, so I put the sheet metal back in place.

It occurred to me a couple hours later that the next smell may not be “pee,” it might be “dead animal.”

I didn’t get under the house to look. Just what I need is to be bitten by some rabid squirrel or some crap. There may well not be anything under there. I guess we’ll find out in a couple of weeks, won’t we?

media comments edit

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.

media comments edit

…and in a continued run on the home theater PC thread…

The Mac Mini HTPC site has some great entries about a guy setting up a Mac Mini for his home theater. He’s using distantDVD as his front end, allowing him to connect to any drive on the network - including Windows shares - to get to movies. There’s this odd “plays up to 950 movies” restriction on it and it seems to be something systemic, like it can’t physically index more than that or something.

There’s even a podcast about how to set up a Mac Mini based home theater PC. I may have to look a little further down this avenue. You can get a Mac Mini for like $600. That’s something I could afford.

media comments edit

I’ve been locked into a way of thinking - that for my media center solution I need to get a Windows Media Center with some network attached storage and connect all of that up so I can use the Xbox 360 as a Media Center Extender to watch movies.

I’m starting to think maybe I’ve been barking up the wrong tree and it’s time to re-examine my requirements and assumptions.

There are a lot of limitations to Media Center Extender technology, not the least of which is that they don’t support playback of movies ripped in either ISO or VIDEO_TS format, which is one of my primary goals. I not only want easy access to my movies, but I want no quality lost when I put them on the server, I want no features lost (extras, audio tracks, etc.), and I want to be able to re-create a watchable DVD from it should my original die.

So I need to open myself to new possible solutions:

  • Would it be better to have a dedicated home theater PC for each room where I want to access the movies? I could just have each one talk to the network attached storage device.
  • Is Windows Media Center really the answer? Is there some other Windows product that might do the job like MediaPortal?
  • If I just go for a dedicated home theater PC, am I limiting myself with Windows? Would Mac and Front Row or iTheater be a better solution?
  • Is there some sort of hardware device that just works that I don’t already know about?

I’ll continue to search, but I think I’m going to broaden the scope. Unfortunately, I don’t have a Mac that I can try this stuff out on, so I’m going to have to do a lot of reading. I might try out MediaPortal on a virtual machine to see how that goes. If anyone knows of any other devices I should look at, let me know in comments.