My current HTPC setup comprises of a custom built machine that dual boots Windows XP (with both MCE 2005 and Media Portal installed) and Windows 7 MCE – build 7022 (the latest available build at the time of writing). I did foray into the world of Vista Media Center but just couldn’t get on with poor stability, performance and some illogical design decisions such as library management, so soon reverted back to 2005 and/or media portal. I do, however, have a natural tendency to tinker with my machine – try to get more and more out of its capabilities and I’m always keen to try the latest and greatest to curb my hunger for technological satisfaction. As soon as windows 7 was announced I became instantly excited at the best of both worlds. An updated interface with lots of lovely new features like Media Portal currently offers, coupled with the stability and reliability of XP MCE. I can honestly say that not once have I ever had a crash or stability problem with MCE2005. Given this is our ONLY source of TV or media playback in the house (something I’m keen to address when finances permit), its an incredible feat and testament to the product Microsoft delivered. However, it is looking its age now so I was keen to move on.
My hardware consists of a dual core 2.8Ghz CPU, 4GB Ram, Intel 780G motherboard, Creative X-Fi 7.1 audio card, 2TB of internal storage and a Hauppauge Nova T 500 dual DVB-T tuner card. As owners of this TV card will no doubt be aware, a bug introduced in the Windows 7 public beta means this card only gets identified as a single tuner card and thus you only have single tuner capabilities. This presented a problem. After only a few short weeks of using 7MC and becoming accustomed to the gorgeous interface, amazing 3rd party tools (TunerFreeMCE, SecondRun.tv, MediaBrowser to name just three) and subtle functionality improvements, my girlfriend and I really struggle to revert back to XP. Indeed, we’ve committed the change by setting the machine to boot into 7MC be default.
To bridge this gap then, I decided that I needed to invest in some more hardware. When we bought our current house the previous owners left behind their satellite dish. All I needed then to add Freesat capabilities to my HTPC would be a Freesat card and a length of satellite cable. I promptly purchased a Pinnacle 7010ix Freesat card from a well known online auction site, costing around £40 along with a length of satellite cable (and pack of connectors) for £12 from an online store. Both arrived and it was time to get going. The 7010ix contains both DVB-T (Freeview to UK users) and DVB-S (FreeSat) on board. In fact, it has SIX tuners in total – two DVB-T, two DVB-S and two Analogue. However, to begin with I was simply concerned with getting a DVB-S feed into the card and getting this working in 7MC.
I connected the cable to the dish – a very simple process that took approximately fifteen minutes – and installed the card. This was immediately picked up by Windows 7 and the slick installation procedure promptly downloaded drivers automatically (recognising the card as a 3010ix) and installed them. Within about 60 seconds of the machine hitting the desktop, the card was installed and ready to use. Very impressive.
As soon as I fired up 7MC I got an on-screen prompt informing me new tuners had been detected and asking if I wanted to run the tuner configuration. I duly clicked yes and I was presented with a list of tuners installed – 3xDVB-T (the Nova-T 500 was still only recognised one tuner), 2x DVB-S and 2xAnalogue. Having only a single LNB on the installed dish, I only connected the one cable so would only make use of a single Satellite feed, so the final tuner config would read:
Giving me four concurrent tuners – more than enough for my needs.
The next stage involved a channel scan, with media centre performing the familiar scan and listing all recognised channels in a scroll box. I did notice some anomalies with the process, as 7MC would find the bulk of the Freeview channels, hit about 85 channels found then the counter would jump up and down continually. The channel count would go up into the 90’s then drop back to 85. I am still unsure whether this was due to a bug in the beta software or if it was locating the same channels on the satellite feed as the aerial feed and only counting distinct channels? (e.g. there are about fifteen incarnations of BBC One on the DVB-S feed, so maybe this process involved merging them into one?). Either way the process completed with 85 channels found, which alarmed me as I was anticipating significantly more. I forced a refresh of the guide data and dared hit the Guide button on the MCE remote. To much glee, I was presented with an enormous list of channels ranging from the Freeview channels in positions 1-99 and the Satellite channels 101 up to around 1440, with some mix-and-matching in between.
The first thing I did was find BBC HD in the guide and fire it up. This worked first time, out of the box and a nice HD stream was mine to behold. I then spent the subsequent hour fiddling around in the guide, re-organising channels and merging channels from various sources. When you mix DVB-t and DVB-s you have a tremendous amount of duplication. Impressively, 7MC recognises this and allows you to merge channels from multiple sources. You can then restrict and/or prioritise which tuners can be used for this channel. This means media centre can make a more intelligent choice of tuner utilisation. Once I’d merged dozens of Freeview and Freesat channels in the guide, I was left with 513 channels – the vast majority will never ever be watched and some of which remain scrambled – I haven’t had time to go through in detail yet and disable those I am unable to decrypt (e.g. Sky’s own channels which also broadcast on the Astra 28.5E satellite), so that number will come down to a more manageable number in the coming days.
Next up was ITV HD. This channel is something of an anomaly as it is broadcast as a red button service. However, the beauty of 7MC and some small tweaks means that this can be inserted into the guide as its own channel. Sky users in the UK still cannot receive this channel as the Sky hardware doesn’t offer this functionality, so one-up for media centre there! ITV HD isn’t picked up by default, so I needed to go into the TV settings where a new option is listed – ‘Satellite Transponder Scan’. Selecting this gave me two options – to scan a specific frequency or do a complete satellite scan. Selecting the former and scanning 11428 / 27500Khz / Horizontal found a further twelve channels, one of which was obscurely named 10510…ITV HD in disguise. I added this channel, went into the guide and renamed it to ITV HD. Repositioned it in the guide (another feature which is effortless in 7MC), but one step remained to get the channel working. Nipping into the registry and under HKLM\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Media Center\Settings\TVConfig I changed the value of the key fAllowDvbsMHEG from 0 to 1 was the final process needed. A quick reboot and we have ITV HD in all its glory (or lack of, depending upon your view of ITV). The channel remains a bit of an oddity though, sometimes when you select it in the guide you are presented with a blank screen. To get the channel to work you need to tune BBC HD then change back to ITV HD. Other times it works perfectly. This again is something I hope is down to 7MC being in beta and hopefully will be addressed in the release candidate to avert the process described above. Also, there is no guide data supplied for ITV HD (as technically, it isn’t a channel but rather a red button service) which is a pain but not a deal breaker.
Firing up the excellent ‘my channel logos’ and doing another automatic logo insert generated 51 new logos in the guide. All that remained was for me to re-order the channels to suit.
Overall I was very pleased with the experience. Windows 7 has vastly improved in almost every area of the media centre experience. From hardware detection right through to configuration and operation. 7MC seamlessly switches between DVB-T and DVB-S, gives excellent granularity of control (such as allowing you to specify which sources can be used for which channels if you need to be this explicit) and the day-to-day viewing experience is also fantastic. With four working tuners right now, there’s no need to miss a repeat of the Simpsons or CSI ever again due to schedule clashes. With the proliferation of the +1 channels across the Freeview and Freesat platforms, the ever improving IPTV add-ons and hopefully the pending fix of the dual-tuner bug in Aprils release candidate I’m hoping this upgrade will fulfil my need to tinker for some time yet. What is clear is that MS have invested significant time and effort into the TV functionality of 7MC – building on the groundwork of Vista’s TV pack to the point where we have a very usable and stable TV platform for the British and international markets.
My remaining to-do list includes finding some solution to commercial skipping (native WTV commercial skipping is something that we all want to happen soon) and get guide data into ALL the channels I receive. This is a perennial bug-bear of media centre users but things have improved in 7MC (the colour coded guide is nice aswell, I might add) but it seems third party plug-ins may come to our rescue again with this one (TVxb perhaps?)!
In terms of Windows7, the stability, for a beta product is absolutely amazing. Its the default OS on all of my machines at home and we cannot bare to go back to MCE 2005 now due to all the features that are missing and little traits of 7MC that make it an infinitely more pleasurable experience. If you haven’t checked it out them you may want to wait until next months Release Candidate version hits the web, but whether you’re on Vista or XP, 7MC is one upgrade any media centre enthusiast should at least be thinking about and budgeting for.
- Mediabrowser (http://www.mediabrowser.tv/)
- Secondrun.tv (http://secondrun.tv/ )
- Tunerfreemce (http://www.milliesoft.co.uk/)
- My Channel logos (http://mychannellogos.com/default.aspx)
- TVxb (http://www.tvxb.com/ )