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 Windows Media Center part 5: Upgrade Madness    
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 Dated:  Thursday, December 18 2008 @ 08:56 AM PST
 Viewed:  5,373 times  
TechnicalA continuation of Windows Media Center Part 4, in which I discover that the "upgrade" actually made things worse, and the slow, painful process of discovering and correcting each issue.

If you don't want to read the entire article, there is an executive summary at the bottom. I did not sufficiently cover the decoder issue, so I will start with that:

The Intervideo decoder does not work with AMD processors. The specs do not state this, they just say "requires Pentium such-and-such or higher". Media Center will segfault when you try to play mpeg2 video with this decoder on AMD processors.

The Sonic Cinemaster decoder does not work with ATI video cards. Don't waste your time trying to get it to work. Either use an Nvidia card, or use a different decoder.

The PowerDVD decoder does work with ATI cards and also with AMD processors. This was the decoder that worked in my media center.

The original problem

The system functioned ok, but lackadaisical. In particular, navigation when playing a DVD or recorded TV was very sluggish.

So I replaced the cut-rate Sempron with a dual-core Athlon64 and added a 1 Gbyte stick to accompany the 256 meg stick already installed.

At first I was trying to fool myself that things were better, but they really weren't. In fact, they were a little worse.

So I put it to the experts at The Green Button, and we eventually got everything fixed. What follows is the germane articles from the Green Button thread.

11/30/2008

Ever have one of those days? Do an upgrade on a PC and it runs slower?

The machine started as an Asus M2NPV-VM with a Sempron 3000+, 256 Mbytes memory and a 250 gig Western Digital SATA hard drive. The video cards are one AverMedia M113 and one A180. It played DVDs and DIVX files and would play and record live off-air TV and TV from the (non-HD) satellite box adequately, with the occasional glitch and slow-down. Sometimes it would seem to get bogged down and needed to be rebooted. (Windows XP Media Center Edition.)

About a year later, I decided the machine probably didn't have enough guts for the job, so decided it was upgrade time. I added two more 250 gig SATA drives, replaced the Sempron with a dual core Athlon 64 5600+ and added a gigabyte of memory.

So now the machine has two cores running at just under 3 Ghz, 1.25 Gbytes ram, and 3/4 of a terabyte in 3 individual hard drives (no mirroring or striping). Along with the (fixed) 2 Gbyte swap file on the system disk, I've added a 1 Gbyte swap file on one of the other disks.

The machine seemed to be growing hamsters inside, so during the upgrade I pulled out all the cards and some of the cables and vacuumed. After I got everything back together, the media center no longer recognized the TV cards, but I think that's because as a test I brought it up after the CPU and Ram upgrade but before putting the cards back in. So I ran through the Media Center setup again and it found everything and I thought I was back to normal.

So what I've noticed is an improvement playing DIVX encoded files, and playing DVDs. The pauses and glitches have gone away.

However, the machine is WORSE now at recording off-air or watching live TV. It seems to barely have enough guts to record and play back an NTSC signal, and HDTV is completely unwatchable either live or recorded.

What could have happened? This machine should be more studly in every way, but performance deteriorates? What am I missing?

8/17/2008

So [per suggestion] I downloaded and installed the dual core driver and dual core optimizer. The cpuinfo tool shows the correct processor, number of cores, and speed. The machine did seem somewhat snappier (less jerky) going through the windows and stuff (entirely subjective). It still plays divx videos and dvds fine. It plays ntsc live and recorded tv fine. It still falls down playing prerecorded HD tv or watching live HD tv. In both cases there are hesitations every five or ten seconds.

I tried overclocking 10%. No noticeable difference. (Which surprised me.)

I have tried reducing the quality of the recordings, but there isn't anything scheduled to record until tomorrow, so I'll have to get back to you on that. But this wouldn't affect live tv anyway (as far as I know).

12/1/2008

So I stole a 1G stick out of another box, now running 2 matched 1G sticks in the box. [instead of one 1 gig and one 256 Meg] Marginal improvement. I may have forgotten to mention, I have the video aperature set to maximum which for this motherboard is 256 Mbytes. Setting it on anything less makes the situation much worse. Set it on 32 Mbytes and HD content shows a black screen.

Now, when I play live HDTV, rather than random jitter I see a small hesitation about once a second. It looks like a buffer filling and emptying, filling and emptying. It looks like the next thing is a new video card.

12/2/2008

(Someone pointed out that the Nvidia 6150 on the motherboard doesn't have the guts for HD content. The suggestion was to install an ATI 4550.)

A quick note... Replaced the onboard Nvidia 6150 with a Sapphire Radeon HD4550 last night. Quickly ran a few tests. Divx encoded content -- perfect playback, even files running at 1080P. No hesitations. I didn't have enough time to test a DVD, will do that tonight.

The hesitation on live tv and tv I had recorded are completely gone. That's the good news. Now the bad news. Although the picture is beautiful when playing Divx encoded content, it's really... strange when playing either live tv or shows I had recorded before putting in the new card. Predominantly big green splotches. For very still pictures, the image will gradually resolve into it's natural colors but any movement is psychedelic. Looks like some kind of decoding problem. I'll run through the media center tv setup tonight and see if that helps. Will also try a dvd and see if this problem is confined to TV or to anything in mpeg2. Have you ever seen this before?

12/4/2008

This evening I switched from HDMI to component, via the card's native component output. (The HD4550 has vga, dvi/hdmi and component outs.) I had to struggle a bit with the settings to get it to play through the component out. I was initially getting a black screen when trying to play HD off air, but after adding a 1080i mode for the component out (why doesn't it default to that?) I started getting a picture.

Unfortuantely, it's showing the same error mode. I'm a bit at a loss at this point. I'm thinking I should try using the avermedia utility to watch tv just as a sanity check. But it seems to have disappeared from the start menu. I'll reinstall that, check the output from the cards themselves, and then get back to you again.

Meanwhile, if you can think of any setting changes I should make to the 4550, please let me know.

12/4/2008

Forgot to add, I played a DVD to make sure that still works, and it does. So to summarize everything thus far:

Initial condition: System runs sluggish.

Installed dual core processor and extra memory, system ran slower!

From advice on this forum, installed AMD dual core and process scheduling drivers, and put in matched 1gig sticks, and bingo! system runs like a speed deamon, except for some remaining playback issues with HD TV content. This was diagnosed as a video card (well, onboard video) issue.

So, the video issue:

Old: Nvidia 6150:
Plays AVIs
Plays DVDs
Plays off-air and recorded TV, both HD and NTSC, but HD video had many fits and starts.

We decided the 6150 didn't have enough guts, so bought and installed a Radeon HD4550 card. Installed drivers directly off AMD site. (The drivers specifically for Windows Media Center 2005.)

New: Radeon HD4550:
Plays AVIs
Plays DVDs
Plays off-air and recorded TV, but looks like viewer accidentally got into the lysergic acid diethylamide instead of sugar in his coffee. Big green blotches trailing motion and other wierd video effects. Looks like a decoding problem, but curiously, DVDs play fine.

Since then, tried switching to component video out, updating TV card drivers, going through Windows Media setup, and none of these steps have affected the problem, either for better or worse.

Sigh. So what next?

12/6/2008 I get a little frustrated

Additional information. I took some photos of the system playing live tv, both hd (earlier photos) and ntsc (later photos). The gallery is here:

http://www.christianfamilywebsite.com/G2Bridge/index.php?&g2_itemId=12638

Just wanted to make it clear, talking about big green blotches, not little green trails. I'm wondering if we should start a new thread -- green blotches with ATI cards.

Someone mentioned trying to play recorded tv with media player, will try that. Not sure where the files reside, as I've not tried that before, but will look for them.

As someone else pointed out, TV broadcast is in mpeg2, but so are DVDs, and they play fine. You'd think that if media center had a screwed mpeg2 codec (entirely possible) it'd screw up dvds also.

(I understand that even "live tv" isn't really live -- it's encoded to disk and then decoded to play, so that live pause and rewind work.)

I don't think the TV Pack applies -- I haven't installed it, my understanding is that it improves non-US reception and I'm in Oregon, and anyway, I think it's Vista only, and I'm running XP.

Additional information: I have the Windows XP Video Decoder Checkup Utility installed, and it shows only one (1) decoder -- the Sonic Cinemaster DS Video Decoder with two green checkmarks. Is the combination of the Sonic decoder and the ATI board a known problem? There are so many factors, it's difficult for even a knowledgeable person to know what to do next. I'd like to know, of the people who have working setups with the 4550, what decoder are you using?

Thanks again for everyone's response. I am frustrated, but I don't want to sound unappreciative.

12/14/2008

So the question was, do the green blotches show up in Media Player. The answer is yes.

Photo here:

http://www.christianfamilywebsite.com/G2Bridge/index.php?&g2_itemId=12742

Playing the same file over a SMB share to my PC and the file plays fine.

Interestingly enough, if I remotely log into the media center and then play the file on the media center PC using Media Player, the video plays correctly:

http://www.christianfamilywebsite.com/G2Bridge/index.php?&g2_itemId=12745

So in summary, the problem is not in the recording process. Playing the video file via Media Center or Media Player on the Media Center PC directly attached to the TV, either with HDMI or component video (see previous tests) played through the 4550, yields the problem.

Playing the file on Media Player on my PC (Nvidia 6800) works fine. Even using remote desktop to log into the media center, playing the file on the media center but displaying it on my pc, worked fine. This would seem to rule out the decoder.

The issue only manifests itself when displaying with the ATI card.

So, now what? Replace the card? Or is there something else I can try?

Or, is everyone bored with this topic now?

12/14/2008 Wish you'd said something...

Sonic Cinemaster Decoder??? I'd say thats your problem. Those green blotches sure look like a video card/codec interaction to me. Try downloading the 30 day trial of purevideo or powerDVD and see if that helps things out.

Um, yeah. So I installed powerDVD and the problem has gone away. I don't know how mere mortals are supposed to make this stuff work. I bought the Intervideo decoder (highly recommended) and found out it did not work with AMD processors. So I bought the Sonic decoder (also highly recommended) and it doesn't work with ATI cards. Not inclined to try the PureVideo (Nvidia) drivers on a competitor's card, so that left powerDVD. There is no trial of the decoder itself, so ended up blowing another $15 ($45 total now) on the decoder on the off chance that I could stop screwing around with the stupid media center and actually, you know, watch it.

After install, the Windows decoder applet showed both the Sonic and powerDVD decoders, with the powerDVD decoder preferred. A quick run through the media center's capabilities and it looks like I haven't broken anything. So, on to the acid test -- playing the copy of Heroes I'd time-shifted last week. And it played beautifully. No hitches (the original problem) and no green trails. And the 5.1 channel surround even worked correctly! (Another previous problem, solved by AC3filter.)

So it looks like, at least for now, I'm good to go.

Thanks to everyone for their help getting this working. To summarize:

Original problem: Video glitches when playing live or time-shifted TV, especially with HD content (unwatchable).

Installed dual core processor, system ran slower. Solution: Install dual core drivers and process scheduler. Very noticeable speed-up.

Added more memory, didn't help. Solution: Pull out the 256 Mbyte stick and put in a 1G stick that matches the other one. Noticeable speed-up.

Still video glitches at this point, but less often. Replaced the Nvidia on-board 6150 with an ATI 4550 recommended by one responder.

This got rid of the video glitches but created green blotches and trails. Solution: Installed powerDVD decoder, problem has vanished.

System now flawlessly plays live and recorded TV, both SD and HD.

Hope this helps someone else. Thanks again.




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