I really want to start using the new version of Windows Vista Media Center. In my house, MCE is king. I have a Sony Vaio Media Center PC sitting next to my Toshiba 52″ DLP in my living room. My wife (not computer savvy) finds the interface easy to use and loves the convenience of the whole thing. My kids are blissfully living in a world of recorded TV and digital lossless music. They may never know what it is like to not have 10 episodes of “JoJo’s Circus” at their fingertips. For these reasons, I need to be sure that whatever changes I make to the Media Center PC do not affect the quality of service that my family is accustomed to.
So, I decided to install the new operating system as a dual boot: Windows MCE 2005 and Windows Vista Ultimate RC 1. I bought an external 250Gb SATA drive and enclosure (hooked up via eSATA), and installed Windows Vista on that drive. I should mention that this is the THIRD time I have tried to make the switch to Vista. The first two times (Beta 1 and Beta 2) didn’t work out either.
Here are some things I liked:
1. Ease of installation. Wow, I think this is the easiest and nicest install of a Microsoft OS that I have ever seen. It asked me all of the questions up front in a nice GUI (no more blue screen junk) and performed an almost unattended install of the OS. When it was finished, EVERYTHING had drivers installed. In previous versions I tried (Beta 2), everything would install except my network and my tuners; they fixed it. In under two hours, the OS was installed and every driver was installed and working. Nice.
2. Mini-guide. This is pretty minor, but the new MCE comes with a mini-guide which allows you to see the title and short description of what is playing on other channels without pulling up the entire guide. This is a nice addition because most PC tuner cards are VERY slow to change channels. My digital cable box had this feature five years ago, and I forgot how much I missed it. I might even watch more live TV because of this thing.
3. New “Play Slide Show” button while playing music. This is pretty minor, too. One of the common things that my family does with Media Center is queue up a music playlist and then play a slideshow of our family pictures. This is great for parties and entertaining, and my kids love to watch the slideshow and yell out who they see in the pictures. The new version of Media Center has a button in the My Music area that lets you start a slideshow. This was a nice touch that makes my usage a couple of remote-control-clicks easier.
4. New User Interface. I like the new interface in Media Center. When I first saw screenshots on the web, I was disgusted with the new design. However, after seeing it on my own display and moving around within the interface, I think it is very nice.
Here are some things I did not like:
1. Performance. I understand that it is a new operating system and it is probably expected to be run on machines that don’t exist yet. I still thought that since I only use this PC for Media Center, that the performance requirements of the OS wouldn’t affect me too much. WRONG! Here are the specs on my machine:
Processor – Hyperthreaded 3.2 P4 Processor w/ 800MHz FSB
Memory – 1GB PC-3200 400MHz DDR
Graphics – ATI Radeon X300 w/ 128MB Video Memory
My machine has been given a “3″ for the performance rating, and it was obvious that this performance rating might be the root of many of the problems with my experience. That’s why I am mentioning it first. I guess I have some upgrading to do…
2. No animation in Media Center. Okay, so this is a really minor thing… Did you ever notice in MCE2005 that the background moves? It’s gone in Vista. Maybe they will bring it back in a later build, but I noticed the lack of animation immediately.
3. Choppiness during HD playback. This goes back to performance, I’m sure. While just watching an HD channel, the display of the video was choppy. In MCE 2005, HD content displayed just like it would if I hooked my TV up to an HD source, which was great. With Vista Media Center, the choppiness was almost as if I was watching a streaming video over the internet.
4. Display problems. This was the deal-killer for me. My Media Center PC is connected to my 52″ DLP display. I always leave MCE running and simply turn off the TV and my amplifier when I am finished using it. This has always worked fine w/ MCE 2005, but no longer works w/ Vista. When I turn the display back on, the picture never comes in; it is just a black screen. I figured out that if I press Alt-F4 on the keyboard, this will close Media Center and my picture comes in displaying my desktop. I can then restart Media Center and everything is fine. Since I don’t usually keep a keyboard handy, this is not an adequate workaround and this problem is enough to make me abandon the whole thing.
5. Sound problems. I think this is a problem with RealTek sound card that I have in my machine. I cannot get a “secondary lock” on my digital optical connection. This usually means there is more than a 5Hz variance in the transport’s internal clock. Whatever the problem with the driver is, it is causing poor, choppy sound quality through my digital optical connection.
6. Sharing problems. I normally perform nightly backups of the media stored on my Media Center PC to a large network storage device. With MCE 2005, this meant setting up an open share on the MCE box so that I could pull the media over the network using an automated backup process. I wanted to set up the same open share with Vista so that I could push the media from my backup device to the Media Center. Sounds simple, right? HA! After over an hour of messing with it, I finally gave up. I was able to share the Users\Public directory as an open share, but I couldn’t get write access to the share from my other machine. I tried setting permissions on the share, setting security on the folder, etc. but to no avail. I’d be willing to invest some more time into this one if it weren’t for the display problems…
7. Extender problems. I run the Xbox360 extender in my bedroom, which is awesome. The extender setup has improved in a lot of ways. It was much simpler and faster to get the extender up and running. My Xbox360 didn’t have the latest dashboard update, so it ran into a minor glitch during the setup, but recovered flawlessly. However, I can’t seem to get any music to show up on the extender. Selecting “Add Music” allows me to browse for a folder to add music from. When I browse to my music folder, the folder is already checked and there is nothing I can do to make it “reload” the music from that folder. Also, some of the screens in Media Center do not fit nicely on my TV that is attached to the extender. I am using a 32″ CRT TV which is attached to the extender via s-video. I know that part of the reason the UI in Vista Media Center was redesigned was to take advantage of the wide screens, but I thought my 4:3 display would still be supported??
I’ve mentioned several things that I did not like about Windows Vista, but here is the worst part. I’d be more than happy to submit these problems using some kind of feedback application that raped my computer for hardware/software specs and sent them off to the powers that be. I COULDN’T FIGURE OUT HOW TO DO THIS!! Come on, Microsoft, with a Release Candidate or Beta version there should be an icon on the desktop for this use case. I’ve since learned that there is a web-based tool that allows users to do this, but I’ve already lost interest.
Overall, I think that Microsoft is on the right track with Windows Vista, but it’s just not ready for me to switch.