Thursday, February 6, 2014

OMG It Works! Sorta.

Yesterday, I posted on my desire to be able to watch broadcast TV in my home theater without using an HTPC or buying any new equipment (like a standalone TV tuner). My plan was to install a copy of Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 (MCE) on my former HTPC along with a USB TV tuner and use my Xbox 360 as a media center extender. It turns out my plan works (sorta)!

Analog SD TV in all it's glory!
 The short version is I am able to stream the analog standard-definition TV signal to my Xbox 360 from my MCE PC. Going into this I knew that the 2005 version of MCE required an analog tuner of some kind, even if in addition to a digital one. My USB TV tuner, the WinTV-HVR-950Q, is a hybrid tuner capable of tuning analog TV, over-the-air digital broadcasts, and clear-QAM digital cable signal. According to the TV tuner documentation, it requires at least the Windows Vista version of Media Center. Apparently, this is true, in that I haven't yet been able to get the digital tuner to work in MCE 2005, but the analog tuner is functional.

You get the Media Center Extender code from the Xbox System Settings Menu
There were a few hiccups. First of all, Microsoft does not make it easy to install the PC extender software in MCE 2005 anymore. Or if it is already installed, I couldn't find it. I was, however, able to find a link to the software from this page. After installing the software I was able to enter the 8-digit code from my Xbox and connect it as an extender. The next problem is I was unable to manually set up the tuner or the channel guide. When I tried, the Media Center program would lock up with ehrec.exe eating up 50% of the CPU. The problem with ehrec.exe eating CPU seems to be fairly common, but I haven't been able to resolve it yet. I think the next thing I'll try is to reinstall MCE rollup 2. I have a feeling that if I'm able to resolve this, I might be able to get the digital tuner to work. If it doesn't I'll start thinking if I want to do Plan B, which is to install Windows 7. I'm pretty sure this would be fairly straightforward to get working, but I'm not sure it's worth it. For what I would pay for a copy of Windows 7 (and probably an SSD so it will run on my old PC) I could probably buy a better PC with Windows 7 already installed.

So what's in store next? When my wife and I have parties, we typically put on Kinect Party for the kids before dinner then a movie afterward. I got tired of switching playback devices so I re-encoded a bunch of the kids movies into an Xbox 360 friendly format and streamed them from my network storage drive, which has built in media server capability. In order to free up some space on that drive, I'd like to move the kids' movies to the HTPC backed computer and serve it to the Xbox. I'll either use the built in Media Center capability (I don't remember if there were limitations for this) or PS3 Media Server. Along the same lines, I have encoded some of the things my wife likes to watch on her iPad in an appropriate format. I plan on setting up iTunes on this computer so she can stream them to her iPad or one of our AppleTVs.

Also, although the digital tuner isn't currently working in Media Center, it does work in other TV watching programs. Generally speaking, my wife and I mostly use various streaming services for our TV shows, but occasionally there are things I would like to record so I'd like to have that capability. In the old days, I was able to do this and strip out the commercials automatically. That would be a nice back from the dead feature. Perhaps I can re-encode them for iPad automatically too.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Installing MCE, like its 2005!

Only 52 more updates to go!

It's been a while since I posted, but a few months ago I got fed up with my HTPC and banished it from the theater. It ended up in the den, where it's my Skype and guinea pig machine. What I like about an HTPC is you can potentially  have one playback device that can do everything. On the downside, I could never get it to be as seemless as I would like. When it was time to watch a movie, my wife would send me out 20 min in advance to set everything up and fix any problems that would pop up. Eventually, it got to be too much, even for me.

The current playback devices in the theater are a Xbox 360, a Samsung network-connected blu-ray player and a WD TV Live Plus. The workhorse of the theater is the WD TV. This little guy can play back almost anything I throw at it. In my case, I stream videos to it off two NAS drives. I'm not 100% convinced this is the best way to go, but it's what I'm doing for now. I could stream to the blu-ray player, but it doesn't always play nice with MKV files (it works better with a connected USB drive) and I don't care for the user interface all that much. I like the look of the Xbox 360, but Microsoft is very particular about the files you can stream to it, and most of my files wouldn't make the cut without decoded them in an undesirable way. The downside with the WDTV is the interface isn't particularly pretty. With alternate firmware you can change this, and I played around with this back with my generation one WDTV, but I haven't done it yet with the 2nd generation WDTV Live Plus.

One deficiency I have in the current set up is I don't have a way to watch live TV. I have a 1st generation HDHomerun (HDHR) which essentially makes two over the air or unencrypted cable tuners available over the network. With the HTPC I was able to use the HDHR to watch broadcast TV, however, I couldn't stream from the HDHR to any of the other playback devices in the theater. In an impulse buy I purchased new HD Homerun Plus. This device promises to transcode video on the fly to stream to any of your devices, but I couldn't get it to work very well. Granted I didn't try very long, but for what I wanted it for, this purchase was overkill and I sent it back. I also have a USB TV tuner, WinTV-HVR-950Q. This will also work only with the PC.

I feel stupid for not thinking of it sooner, but it turns out I have everything I need watch broadcast TV in the theater. All I have to do is reinstall Windows XP on the former HTPC, specifically Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 (MCE). It so happens I have a legitimate copy of this, from back when I first got into HTPCs back in, well, 2005 or so. If I set up the PC with MCE and the USB TV tuner I should be able watch broadcast TV via the Media Center application on the Xbox 360. The key word here is "should". I'll report back when I'm done installing the 136 updates, software, drivers and rebooting 12 times. If it doesn't work, I have a few ideas about what I can do instead.