IceTV (IceGuide) for MCE First Impressions


I’ve spent a weekend and a bit with IceGuide (I’m a dirty man) for Windows XP Media Centre Edition, and I think I’ll need at least another week to work out whether it’s something that’s robust enough to pay for, but so far – and this is preliminary – I’m liking it.

Installation

The installer offers the choice of “I’m a bastard with an expensive hi-res projection LCD Plasma Matrix UberMonitor”, or “I’m on a crappy telly”. Based on your response, I guess it adjusts the font size to suit (It might just be super-big all the time, but I wouldn’t know). As someone with a humble 68cm CRT telly, That’s a Nice Touch – reading regular 10-12pt fonts at 800×600 is a recipe for an interlace headache (and my TV is 100hz too – I hate to think how the Norms live).

After the installer is done, it opens a web page describing the next steps – also in a 10-foot-friendly font. Vendors take note – this is the type of usability tweak that gets you appreciative customers, even before they get your product working.

Post-Install

The post-install routine is the now-familiar Guide Setup, Channel Scan (aka unskippable channel scan), Channel Edit and Add Listings affair that I’ve come to expect. Everything worked, the channel names are attractive, and, um… everything worked. It was integrated with Media Center from the get-go.

Post-Post-Install

OK, That Was A Dumb Heading – Actually Using It

So far, so good. The quality of the guide data is higher than the regular “free free” variety, which one would expect – nay, demand – from a commercial provider.

It picked up a bunch of my series recordings (I learnt from past experience with EPGRunner that if the channel names change, you’re screwed, so I keep configuring series recordings for All Channels), which was a good start.

One Problem

I did find a problem that seems specific to my setup (or perhaps an artifact of having used other guides in the past) – sometimes, when I’m recording a show or two, I won’t be able to tag other shows to record, and it’ll fail with an Error 23, mumbling about the guide being inaccessible, and that I should restart. If I wait until later that evening, I can tag a show for recording (no restart required). A minor annoyance.

So, will you buy it?

So… I have about another week until I need to make The Big Purchase Decision. $3 a week seems just a little on the high side (like, $0.50 to $1 high), but then, that’s just me being Scottish.

MCE 2005 Australian EPG Options

Why not make a series? Excellent idea, thanks, don’t mind if I do.

After the rather wordy but well-meaning intro to building the MCE, I figured I’d look at some of the EPG options that are available.

EPGRunner seems to have suddenly decided that tonight would be a No Data Available night, so it seems like a good time to comment on my experiences so far, and see what else is out there.

NB: I don’t have (or want) Foxtel (though movies on demand are *so* appealing), so I never bother looking for Foxtel options. This stuff is purely tested on the Free To Air (FTA) Digital TV (DTV).

EPGRunner


Up until very recently – like, when BladeRunner Pro was released – EPGRunner has been the easiest guide I’ve tried to set up and run.

There have been a couple of occasions where the data has been out, or the channel names have changed, but by and large it’s a set-it-and-forget-it program.

I’ve been using the 3.0 stable release only, not the subsequent betas, so this may change.

Pros:
– Easy to set up and run
– Set and forget operation for free-to-air digital in most states

Cons:
– doesn’t seem to integrate with MCE 100% cleanly (prompted for guide download errors frequently, even with Guide downloads on manual) – MCE knows it’s unable to get the guide, and tells you so, roughly every day or two.
– channel names occasionally (say 3 times in 8 months) change without warning, which buggers up the Guide (suddenly, everything’s gone)
– updating guide data often results in programs not being “red dotted” when scheduled to record (though they tend to record anyway)
– no built-in task scheduling

BladeRunner Pro


BRP takes a client-centric approach, integrating TVHarvest and a couple of other utilities to provide a very slick one-stop update that integrates well with the MCE experience. It dumps its output into a folder on the hard drive, then convinces MCE that it wants to look at the hard drive for Guide updates, instead of the Internet. Cool idea. You can put compatible files in that folder if you want to do your own mix of channels.

The hard drive folder is manually (or by Scheduled Task) “topped up”, so MCE itself won’t trigger a fresh download by looking for the guide.

Pros:
– Easy to set up
– integrates really well (not perfectly, but close) with MCE
– Relatively easy to tell when it’s going to screw up (because of the on-screen scraping output while BRPro runs).
– Task Scheduling

Cons:
– client-driven scraping – vulnerable to “interference”
no built-in task scheduling (Thanks Sissy, moved to Pros)

Others

I’m now suitably over the whole EPG client thing that I’m wondering if $3 per week is justifiable for IceTV. I’ll give the 14-day trial a try, and see if there’s any qualitative difference I can identify.

Media Centre 2005: The Experience Of Building My Own

I built a Media Centre PC earlier this year, so thought I’d share the experience. I know the Yanks call it Media Center, but I’m Australian, so please excuse my automatic “re”.

I write stream-of-coffee style (like stream of consciousness but more haphazard), so here’s a convenient ordered set of items to keep in mind as the overall plan:

Convenient Checklist

  1. PC Hardware and MCE Remote
  2. Install MCE 2005 and HW Drivers (video, networking, audio, so on)
  3. Enable and Test S3 Suspend Mode
  4. Install Tuner(s)
  5. Install DVD Decoder Software
  6. Install EPG Software

The Box
The Box!AusPCMarket had a pre-configured system available with one of those fancy brushed-metal-and-faux-wood-panelling cases that’s designed to make a PC look tasteless enough to fit in with the rest of your stereo equipment, and I couldn’t resist getting one that clashed perfectly with all my other mismatched stereo gear.

I do end up with a net reduction in clash, as I get to replace a mismatched DVD player, VCR and Set Top Box with one unit, so it can’t be all bad.

The package deal of the day came with a P4P800-VMX (trimmed motherboard with PCI riser), a 3.0 Ghz HT P4, 512MB RAM, DVD burner and a 200GB disk. All I had to do was add the video card and the tuner.

For video, I went with an ATI Radeon 9550; figured anything higher-end would probably be wasted on my 10 year old 68cm telly.

Add the Official Microsoft MCE Remote, and that’s the basics taken care of (minus the tuners).

Then-prices on the basic hardware components were about $AU1350. Now, I reckon you could do it for $1200 or less, and you could probably skimp on bits and pieces to get it even cheaper.

Installing Media Centre 2005

This is the easy bit! It’s easy if you’re building a new box.

You can’t install MCE over Windows XP – you need to install with the Media Centre media, and use the specific Media Centre CD Key (as I found when I accidentally grabbed the wrong key and ended up with standard XP Pro). When it prompts you for the “XP Service Pack 1” CD or similar, you insert your MCE2005 CD 2 instead, and you’re away. Nice and straightforward.

WindowsUpdate it when done, and you’re ready to rumble.

Suspend To RAM

I was fortunate; the Suspend To RAM hacks listed at TGB Just Worked for me.

Microsoft get fairly stern about UsbBiosHacks though.

Why’s it important? With Regular PCs, when you hit Standby, you might notice that their fans stay on. I want the computer to pretend it’s actually asleep, and turn its fans off, like a faster Hibernate.

Tuners

Simulated MCE Display
My Grand Plan was to replace an Opentel ODT4200PVR (it had started out pretty well, but successive firmware upgrades seemingly made it flakier and flakier) with the MCE box , so I needed dual tuners.

I randomly selected the AverTV A16A OEM tuners based on someone’s comment that they have “good channel change speed” (it’s about a second to switch), and I’ve been very happy with them for the most part. $147 each, two needed.

Why two tuners? Well, it’s like this: MCE has an attention span limited by the number of tuners available to it. If you have one tuner, it can only watch one show at a time, on one channel at a time. When you add a VCR to a TV, you’re actually adding a second tuner: the VCR can watch something, and the TV can watch something else completely independently of the VCR.

The second tuner on an MCE lets the computer watch (and record) something else, while the first tuner is busy watching whatever it is watching. My MCE is frequently used to record two tv programs while watching a recorded tv show. It’s great; I’m amazed it works so well (especially after that last PVR), but it works really well. I know other MCE owners that have told me that they never watch live TV any more – they only watch things that have already been recorded (and get away with a single tuner that way).

I went with twin digital tuners; I’ve been digital for a while now, and I’m not going back to grainy receptionsville (I’d rather have big blocky rendering artifacts at DVD-quality, thanks).

The Channel 9 And SBS Problem

While talking about tuners, it seems like a good time to mention that uhm, there’s a problem.

MCE 2005 in Australia doesn’t officially support digital television, only analog (or analogue if you’re into ue’s). So while it works out of the box for the most part, it wasn’t particularly well-tested with the Aussie digital TV market.

The upshot of this is, if you get a couple of vanilla TV Tuners, and they don’t implement hacks in the driver specifically for Australia that let them detect Channel 9 and SBS… you’ll need to edit PSISDECD.DLL, or find a ready-made version that’s been edited for you.

Hauppage’s MCE digital tuners reportedly implement this in their drivers for Australia, which is nice (if it’s true).

That is the suckiest part of the setup. Er, short of the EPG problem. More on that after a word about DVD decoders…

It’s Not Just A DVD Decoder

If you buy an off-the-shelf MCE machine, chances are the OEM will have preinstalled a DVD decoder package for you. If you build your own, it’s something you’ll have to buy.

Calling it a DVD Decoder is a little misleading, because it’s also used by MCE to view live and recorded TV. Without the DVD decoder, you can still record TV, because it records the data to disk in the same format it’s received, but you can’t watch it – the DVD decoder acts as a “stream interpreter” for the raw data.

Popular choices are Nvidia Purevideo, Intervideo WinDVD and Cyberlink PowerDVD. ATI have one too, but it’s not clear which cards it ships with (All In Wonders are a pretty good bet). Each have strengths, each have probably caused trouble in some iteration or another; find one you’re happy with, and stick with it. As a note, installing more than one at a time can cause weirdness, so don’t do it.

All I Want For Christmas: A Working EPG

Good grief. Australian TV networks’ recalcitrance to license data for EPGs is legendary. They know it would benefit consumers: they just won’t do it. So, the only solutions are lacklustre at best, broken horribly in places at worst. Hopefully Microsoft Australia work out a licensing deal to get reliable EPG data into the online guide, and enable the online service for Australia.

Still, these days, everyone and their dog has a solution, all of which work to varying extents:

We have, in no particular order: IceGuide (commercial guide data provider), EPG Runner (all in one), and most recently, Bladerunner Pro.

There’s been talk of a Media Center 2005 Update due sometime soonish; hopefully, it’ll be sooner rather than later. Hopefully, they’ll announce a working – free – EPG. And hopefully it’ll fix – at the least – the Channel 9 and SBS bugs.

Next Time Around

What would I do differently next time?

  • I’d get a case with more space and capability for expansion. The case I have looks pretty good, and works reasonably well, but the fans aren’t particularly quiet, and the PCI slots are all used up now. If I wanted to add a third tuner (does such a thing even work?), I couldn’t. Pity me now, please. While People seem to like the idea of putting something that doesn’t look like a PC in the living room, I don’t care. I’ll take functionality over Feng Shui.
  • I’d consider getting a dual-tuner card with an inbuilt antenna loop. My tuners don’t have a tuner loop output (eg, an In and Out aerial connection), so I have to use an aerial splitter and a couple of longish wires.
  • I’d get a case with a slightly less bright LED for the hard disk, but I’m reasonably comfortable with the current one, even if it does light up the living room at night.
  • Go Dual Core X64 with Cool’nQuiet. The CPU spends virtually no time maxed out, but when it does, I’d like the experience to be pleasant. And when the CPU is doing nothing, I’d like my power bill reduced, please!
  • Research which tuners actively fix the SBS/Channel 9 issues with MCE, and buy two of them, rather than futz around with DLL editing.