media, xbox comments edit

I got my Windows XP Media Center 2005 virtual machine to stream a movie stored in VIDEO_TS format to my Xbox 360 last night. The picture was sort of choppy due to the virtual machine overhead and limitations, but I saw it work, proving the concept.

Here’s what I had to do:

  1. Install Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005.
  2. Activate Windows XP. You have to do this to get all the updates you need.
  3. Hit Microsoft Update to get all the available patches.
  4. Install .NET 1.1 and SP1.
  5. Install MCE 2005 Update 2. (You might be able to get this from Windows Update; I got it from a separate download.)
  6. Install My Movies.
  7. Install Transcode360.
  8. Hit Microsoft Update again to make sure all the patches are in place. (I did this twice because the first time I missed getting Windows Media Player 11 - I might have been able to skip it had I done everything the first time. I also had tried to avoid activating my MSDN copy of media center because I knew I’d only need it for a few days… but you have to be activated to get everything up to date.)
  9. Start up Windows Media Player and configure it.
  10. Install FFDShow to get the MPEG2 codec. Set it to be the default decoder for MPEG2. (I’m given to understand that if you install some DVD player software you don’t need to do this. I was looking to do a proof of concept for free, so I went this route; I think if I do it for real I’ll get TheaterTek.)
  11. Install DVD Decrypter for the movie ripping.
  12. Rip a DVD to a known location. (I ended up ripping on a different machine and transferring the files to the virtual machine - there was some weirdness getting the ripping to work inside the VM.)
  13. Run the My Movies collection editor and add the ripped movie to the collection.
  14. Start Windows Media Center.
  15. Turn on the Xbox 360. Navigate to the “Media” tab and select the “Media Center” option. After you read a couple of screens, you’ll be given an eight-digit number that you need to write down.
  16. Windows Media Center automatically detects the Xbox 360 and asks you to connect to it.
  17. Follow the Windows Media Center extender setup on the Windows Media Center. It will ask you to install some software to allow streaming to extenders.
  18. When the extender setup is done, it’ll finally ask you for that eight digit number. Enter that, and you’ll be connected.
  19. On the Xbox 360, you’ll be in a Media Center screen once the connection is complete. Navigate to the My Movies section, select the movie, and select the “Watch Stream” option. Transcode360 will do its job and transcode the VIDEO_TS directly to your Xbox 360.

The downside to this is that you don’t get the option of setting up sound or other options. If you have foreign language movies, you won’t get the ability to decide whether you watch it overdubbed or in the original language (or whether you see subtitles). You also don’t get to choose which feature you watch, so if you have, say, an episodic TV DVD, you’ll only really be able to watch the first episode on the disc. But for the 80% case, you should be set.

Now I have some decisions to make. It turns out my wife isn’t quite as hot on the media center idea as I am, but since she only saw the proof of concept and it was jumpy and sort of sucked, I don’t think she’s fully realized the coolness (sort of how the coolness of DVR is still setting in - we still end up watching “appointment TV” even though we know things are getting recorded). That means I need to be super frugal about how I go about this.

I can start getting storage together and using the standard Windows XP UPnP file sharing deal to get movies to my Xbox, storing two copies - the VIDEO_TS and a compressed Xbox version. Not optimal, but it would get us in the habit of using the Xbox for movies and would be a cheap way to see if we like it.

If we do like it, the question will be whether we have a single media center and several extenders or whether we have a network attached storage/file server setup with several full media centers. I think that, too, will have to be in stages. I’ll be getting a copy of Windows Vista Ultimate from MIX and I could upgrade our existing PC to use that and be a more “central” media center to stream to extenders. It doesn’t have a TV-out on it, so it wouldn’t do for a full media center. If we get to a point where we want the full menus or the streaming just isn’t enough, we can get a cheap media center PC for the living room and have it get movies over the network.

Anyway, I’m glad to see it works. Time to determine next steps.

comics comments edit

I went to my local comic shop to pick up some back issues I was missing and noticed the selection wasn’t quite what it used to be. I’m not normally picking up a lot of back issues, so I talked to the clerk about it and it turns out that back issues (unless they’re rare/expensive) really don’t get a lot of business. The best value-per-square-foot-of-floor-space they can get is on new merchandise, so they reduced their stock of back issues to make room.

Not wanting the inconsistency of price, selection, and quality that is generally offered at eBay, I chose instead to take my search to some of the online suppliers. To that end, I bring you the Comic Back Issue Showdown: Midtown Comics vs. Mile High Comics!

Criteria Midtown Comics Mile High Comics Verdict
Web Site - Search, checkout, and overall usability. Looks like many other online storefronts and the checkout process was fairly simple. Was harder to find back issues by title than it was to find a specific numbered issue. Search results can be difficult/overwhelming to navigate. Very cluttered. I had a difficult time figuring out what had been added to my shopping cart and determining how to check out. Really could stand some UI help. Decent search, and results get grouped by title/volume before breaking down into issue, which was helpful in browsing. Unfortunately, my frustration with the cluttered UI overshadowed my enjoyment of the search feature. Midtown
Price - Comparison of pricing on several random issues in stock in both places. Seems to have a decent, low everyday price on items. Not sure how often things go on sale. Higher everyday prices, but a distinct reliance on sale pricing to bring things down to a more competitive range. I’ve been told there’s a mailing list you can join that sends out frequent sale codes. I’m not sure I like having to join a mailing list or wait for a sale for low prices. Midtown
Selection - Comparison of what’s in stock for randomly selected popular titles. Recent back issues are usually in stock and in good quality. Older back issues aren’t as available. Much of this seems to depend on the popularity of the comic as well. Both recent and older back issues are in stock. Doesn’t seem to be based on comic popularity or how old the issue is. Mile High
In-Process Order Information - How much information you’re given as your order gets processed. When you place your order you get an email notification it’s been received. When it ships, you get a notification of the shipment. You can check order status on the web site. You get an email when you place the order, when it’s received by the store, when they start fulfilling it, when it’s packaged, and when it’s shipped. You can get additional order status by emailing them. Mile High
Shipping - Methods of getting your package to you. UPS UPS Tie
Packaging - How the comics arrive at your door. Package arrives in a large, flat cardboard envelope. Inside the envelope your comics are in a Midtown paper bag and each one is bagged and boarded. There is an additional board inside the bag for added reinforcement. The invoice is nicely printed and easy to read. Comics were not damaged. Package arrives in a thin cardboard box that exactly fits the size of the order. All comics are bagged but not boarded. The invoice is itemized, but printed on a line printer and not the most appealing. Comics were not damaged. Midtown
Overall I really like the web site, the packaging and the prices. I wish they had a little bigger selection, but what they do have is good and complements the Mile High selection. The packaging on my order was great. The search could use a little help, but generally this was a pleasant experience. Aside from the search, I can’t stand the web site. I can’t tell you how much this irritated me. I talked to a friend of mine who has also used the site and he knew exactly what I was talking about with all the little “gotchas” and quirks in the ordering process. Awesome selection, but the pricing… not thrilled with having to wait for a sale. Also wasn’t as impressed with the packaging - I’d have felt better about it if each comic was both bagged and boarded. Midtown

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.