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Windows Media Center 2005 woes

July 23, 2008 Leave a comment

I managed to acquire, for the price of a nice lunch, a brand new Elonex media center Artisan LX a couple of days back. I was initially very excited because up to then I had still been running my first media center was really just an experiment, built from scratch containing mostly old components I had around my place. A year and a bit on, I am firmly hooked on a PC based PVR system the cornerstone of my entertainment system. It contained an Athlon 2600+ processor with 512Mb of DDR coupled with a DVB-T Hauppage tuner and an 80Gb drive for recordings running the open source MediaPortal software. So as you can see, there was plenty of room for improvement.

This was the first time I have really had a tinker with the Windows Media Center range of Operating systems that Microsoft produce and I went in with few expectations, apart from wanting at least as comparable an experience in terms of functionality and flexibility as I have enjoyed with MediaPortal.

The first thing that struck me was how fickle Windows Media Center 2005 was, even with all the roll ups (essentially what Microsoft call Service Packs for Media Center OS) installed. Wikipedia sums up the ‘capabilities’ of WMC 2005:

‘Media Center originally had a limitation of 1 analog tuner, but was raised to 2 analog tuners with Media Center 2005. With Update Rollup 1 for Media Center 2005, support for a digital tuner was added, but an analog tuner must still be present for the digital tuner to function. With Rollup 2, up to 4 TV tuners can be configured (2 analog and 2 HDTV). All the tuners must use the same source, for example they must all be off an aerial or a set-top box using the same guide data, you cannot mix Sky Digital and DVB-T for example.’

XP Media Center really shows its age here – I do not watch any analogue transmissions, so for a Media Center to require a legacy piece of hardware just to be able to access DVB (digital) seems preposterous. But that was not the worst thing! Windows Media Center 2005 is not capable of pulling EPG data OTA (over-the-air) instead requiring an overly elaborate system that relies on a permanent, always on Internet connection. This also raises some privacy concerns as ‘anonymous’ data, which is not entirely anonymous as Microsoft asks for your postcode during set up, is fed back to Microsoft which can include recording / watching trends and general EPG usage. Hitherto my media center system has not been networked. Considering it is in the opposite corner of my house, and I do not stream my recordings or have formal media shares, I never felt the need to network it. It was nice to just have a static, secure system without any security programs or periodic updates – now security monitoring of my media center has been added to my list of digital chores.

None the less, I was determined to give it a fair go, so I added a wifi adaptor, added some plug-ins and configured everything. After spending eight hours getting everything working, playing around and testing… I went back to my custom build. Not all the problems can be put squarely at Microsoft’s feet however. Elonex declared bankruptcy shortly after launching this range and the malicious part of me can see why, if this mediacenter is the sum total of their expertise.

Whilst the case looked rather nice from the outside, the hardware and the design of the internals is what really lets it down. The only element Elonex got right was the noise (or lack thereof) – the media center barely gives out a murmur when idle due to only a since fan which is housed inside the power supply. It runs at 690rpm, which draws air over the CPU heatsink (which has four heat pipes) and directly out the side of the case. However, I stressed ‘at idle’ before for a reason. When the media center does anything the incredibly noisy hard drive starts very audibly clicking and crunching away and it completely lets the machine down.

However that’s not the worst thing about this mediacenter. Due to the fact that there is only one very slow fan the airflow in the case is restricted to circulating around the motherboard tray, the processor then out the power supply. The harddrive and PCI / AGP cards are completely neglected. This point was slammed home when the harddrive consistently reported temperatures of high 50s to 62 degrees Celsius!!! Worse still, when I idled the system, that heat didn’t dissipate. The hard drive is locked into place with a pretentious plastic locking mechanism which neither improves the accessibility of the drive bay nor decreases the vibrations from the drive. There is no thermal (or thermally viable) contact between the hard drive and the case and as such, the hard drive is left smouldering away with no way to cool down predictably with next to no drop in temperature. There is a valid point that maintaining electronic components at a set temperature prolongs their life by avoiding constantly repeating thermal differentials (i.e. heating and cooling) however the fact remains that 60+ degrees centigrade is far too hot for a hard drive. Although my brief research on this did not yield any definitive threshold, most sources agree that 50-55 degrees Centigrade is about the absolute maximum recommended operating temperature.

Couple this practically zero thermal conduction with a lack of airflow and you have a recipie for a very short hard drive life. Even worse, this thermal issue was not limited to HDD, the south-bridge and GFX heatsinks were equally poorly cooled and get unpleasantly hot to the touch.

Worst of all, it is just slow. CpuID and the BIOS disagreed with each other about the exact Intel processor that powers the system. I believe it to be either an Intel Pentium 4 530 (at 3.06Ghz) or a Celeron D 345. There is no way the much older Athlon 2600+ processor with the same RAM should be out performing this setup and yet it does so without breaking a sweat.

All in all, very disappointing. A remarkable demonstration of technical ignorance on the part of Elonex. But hey, I didn’t pay for it and now I have an extra DVB-T tuner back in my original, self built machine.

Design (cosmetic) : 8/10 – Pleasing, with a nice Hi-fi look.

Design (technical) : 2/10 – Poor components poorly arranged.

Cooling : 6/10 – Great CPU and powersupply cooling, but everything else is woefully neglected.

Acoustics : 6/10 – Silent until it has to touch the harddrive, still a good effort though

Connectivity : 8/10 – Lots of connectors for digital Audio and Video

Capacity : 5/10 – 200Gb harddrive with a portion taken for recovery. I wouldn’t trust it though and by modern standards it is rather anemic.

Overall : 2/10 – Great for free, if I paid anything for it I would have been annoyed.

Battlestar Galactica – Season 4 Act 2

July 1, 2008 Leave a comment

I can’t believe SciFi / Sky One went ahead with their plans to shelve the second part of the final season until 2009! Bah! Like a crazed junky, I am left clamoring for my BSG-fix – especially with the way the mid-season finale left things!

Anyway, despite being quite frustrated – here is a trailer for the final part of season four which goes a long way to rebuilding my excitement for the last segment, although interestingly, there is talk of another feature length film being considered.

Previously, on The Unit…

May 20, 2008 Leave a comment

Fantastic news! It appears the Unit has been taken up for another season by CBS! I must admit, I was getting a little worried having not heard anything coupled with the less than graceful season finale due to the writer strike over in the States. Still, if handled properly, this show has a lot of potential with a number of story arcs that can each be made into something special. Lets hope we do not have to wait too long…

Fellow fans, rejoice!

Categories: News, TV Tags: , ,

Jaw-dropping Galactica!

April 22, 2008 Leave a comment

Battlestar Galactica exploded back onto our TVs a few days ago! I must say parts of the first two episodes left me with a mouth wide open – it has been a long while since a show has done this, especially on a season opener! I have been watching this Battlestar Galactica, totally transfixed since it’s debut on Sky One four years ago, it has gone through troubles and amazing triumphs, and although this is the last season, I have never been more excited about a show. I simply can not wait to see where we are taken from here.

The religious and political overtones are hard to miss in this show, I get the feeling the producers go out of their way to be cryptic and leave little clues in their shows which only adds to the excitement. Perhaps one of the most famous religious riddles recently highlighted was in “The Da Vinci Code“, in that vain, the producers and writers have released the ‘last supper’ image of Battle Star Galactica purportedly containing a cryptic message telling us what will happen in Season 4. I can already see it is going to be an amazing ride, the only thing that could ruin it would be if the season is spilt into two halves with the latter being shown in 2009.

Categories: News, TV Tags: , , , ,

American Inventor

March 3, 2008 Leave a comment

Recently Virgin 1 starting airing American Inventor season 2 over here in the UK. Being a sucker for anything American I decided to PVR it and see what all the fuss was about. I have to say, I am both excited and disappointed in equal measure. Having seen Peter Jones on the British program Dragon’s Den, I had high hopes for what I assumed would be an American version of the same program like The Apprentice (except in reverse.)

What almost immediately annoyed me (and this is unrelated to the actual show) was the was in which the program is presented. The overexcited commentator spends FIVE painful minutes setting the scene with lots needless posturing. I am going to sound very British here, but I had to restrain myself from yelling “Get to the bloody point!” several times. I have noticed from whenever I have been in the States that this, unfortunately, is largely the case network programming. On the other hand, shows like Mythbusters, FEAR Factor (etc) have the same format but are a lot less obtrusive.

The show itself is exciting but a little too dumbed down. What I mean by this, is that rather that looking at the considered merits of each invention it seems to be a glorified popularity contest with the likes of George Forman giving carte blanche to almost everything. It feels like Peter Jones is very much playing the role he normally would on the Dragon’s Den and as a result receives a lot of unnecessary hostility. Enthusiasm is important, enthusiasm is – I would go as far as say , enthusiasm is not a substitute for substance. I hope that the show gets more serious and more considered as the list of candidates is narrowed down, but so far I am far from impressed.

If I am being overly critical here then feel free to put me right, but at the moment it feels like Simon Cowell’s influence is far too prevalent.

Categories: TV Tags: , , , ,
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