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 Windows Media Center part 6: A New Beginning    
 Dated:  Wednesday, September 02 2009 @ 04:53 PM PDT
 Viewed:  1,038 times  

I take the plunge and upgrade the media center to Windows 7 Ultimate

Ok, you KNOW Iím not a Micro$oft shill. Really. But last weekend I installed Windows 7 Ultimate on the media center, and it was actually a pleasant experience.

Installing Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 was a nightmare. I wrote five articles about it on my blog. It was a true test of wills to get the stupid thing working, and a huge feeling of achievement when it finally did. XP didnít support hardly anything in the box, not the chipset, the dual core proc, the video card, the HDTV card, nothing. One had to hunt down and laboriously install drivers for everything. Sometimes they didnít work, or didnít install right the first time, or had to be installed in a certain order. The media didnít contain all the files necessary to do a full install, and required you to borrow files from service pack 1. It was horrible.

The idea of installing Windows 7 on the thing was truly frightening. I got a new 1TB disk to do the install, so I could back out if necessary. I also gave myself about six hours to do the install, at which time if I couldnít play video I would have to back out, because the girls wanted to watch a movie that night and it better the hell work.

Windows 7 Ultimate distribution is over 2 gigabytes large. Gone are the days of an OS on a CD. The good news is that everything is on the DVD including every driver youíre likely to need. The only driver lacking was for my HDTV card, which was available on Windows Update. I installed from the DVD, it rebooted once, I ran Windows Update, it rebooted once more, and I was done. Shocking.

I had to transfer gigabytes of data from the old disk (movies and music) and I was again shocked at how fast the transfer is. Windows 7 supports SATA3 natively, and disk access is blazingly fast. Probably not quite an order of magnitude faster. Iím told that transfer over Ethernet is faster also, due to an improved tcp stack, but havenít had time to check that yet. These are the issues that absolutely killed Vista, so they really had to get it right, at least in the betaÖ

Windows 7 found my dual core processor, (xp needed a driver) and appears to do a better job of load balancing.

I really expected it to be slower. Every other ďupgradeĒ has been slower than the previous. But performance was noticeably snappier. Applications come up faster, probably due to the faster disk access. I didnít upgrade the box Ė itís still a dual core ď5200+Ē AMD with 2 gigs memory.

Windows 7 Media Center is garish and complicated, but usable. I had to dink with it a bit for it to find my movies folder (which is called ďvideosĒ in this version Ė ďmoviesĒ is for something else Ė I never did find out what) and to configure the TV card, but I can play my videos and watch live TV. The ďguideĒ works, as do the DVR features, which work a *lot* smoother than the XP version did. The old beat-up Winders remote works fine.

Note, Windows 7 will not play *any* videos until you separately run Media Player and go through the setup screens. This is annoying Ė Media Center will just fail with some lame error when you try to play any video. Bring up Media Player and try to play anything, which causes it to go into itís setup screen, follow the directions, close it, and Media Center will play videos after that. I wonder how many tech calls theyíre going to get on that.

What about the GUI? Enh. Itís Windows. Itís got some cute transparency effects, the corners are rounder, and itís got a new batch of icons, but itís still the same interface that every other version of Windows has had since Win95, and getting anything done is the same maze of twisty little passages. The only useful new thing Iíve found so far is that you can get a preview of an iconified app by hovering over it on the taskbar, a feature that may get irritating with time. All in all, if youíre planning to spend $200 -- $300 to upgrade expecting a great new whizzy interface, youíre wasting your money.

All XP apps (Spore, AVG, DiVX, CCCP, etc etc) installed and ran fine. I wonít be installing many apps on this box, but itís good to see that the things I need work unmodified.

DVDs play right out of the box. Previous versions of Windows did not include a DVD codec Ė you had to buy one or use the one that was bundled with your DVD player. Windows 7 apparently includes this codec.

Things not working:

Although Windows 7 says it found the digital sound hardware, thereís nary a peep out of the S/PDIF port. Analog sound works fine. This may be a configuration issue.

For some reason, it wonít play videos in MKV containers. XP would play them fine. Iím still investigating this.

For some reason, I canít share the C drive on the media center, which makes transferring files from my workstation very difficult. Iím working around that for now by burning them to DVD and using ďsneaker netĒ to transfer. I really need to get this fixed.

But in the meantime, itís usable, and since we use the media center literally every day, being able to provide a basic functionality on the first day was truly excellent.

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