My Experience with Media Center and Vista
Posted by FredFredrickson on 02/18/08 11:21am.

I started using Vista back in the beta days before the official release. Excited by little things like aero and encouraged by the fact that it was a beta, I put aside the speed issues, and the fact that my audio drivers wouldn't load. It was a beta, it'll speed up and get better by the time it releases to manufacturing, right?

Even now, after having the final version for about a year, you'd hear me defend Vista. I mean, people are incredibly critical, and most people you'll hear bashing Vista haven't even used it that much, or at all! So being the lover that I was, I wasn't going to just hate a new operating system because it was Microsoft, and it's cool to hate on Microsoft. No, I went against the grain and installed it on all my machines at home- save my main machine.

Well, I'll be honest, I don't use my laptop that much, and my second desktop is more of a youtube device that others use in the livingroom, so I suppose that my few encounters weren't that bad, which is probably why they still have Vista on them. If I had sooner realized what a tremendously hideous operating system it actually was beneath the covers, I think I'd be using XP again by now. But since I already had XP on my main desktop, I never got as much exposure to the OS as I should've had.

As an asian guy in The Matrix once stated, "You never truely know somebody until you have fought them." That couldn't be more true than when speaking about operating systems.

A few weeks back, I decided that since my version of Vista came along with Media Center, I might as well play with it. After messing with it for an hour or two I realized that it was a darn snappy interface and I wanted it on my TV. That's when everything started going downhill.

I shelled out about one and a half big ones and got myself a new videocard with s-video out, a media center remote, and a new rf-modulator that can handle s-video, and then some long audio cables. It was time for installation.

Being a computer technician by day (and a super hero by night), I knew the ins and outs of driver installation. I didn't bother with the disc that came with the card, went straight for Nvidia's website, downloaded the newest driver, and installed that instead. Did the obligatory reboot (why do we still have this??), and then sat back to watch the magic fly!

Oh except Nvidia's drivers have a known problem in vista that hasn't been fixed. If your TV isn't automatically detected, there's a checkbox that says "automatically enable TV detection." This box is grey and doesn't work. After a few google searches which resulted in little more than a few forums of people complaining about the same problem, and no fixes, I figured it was time to tinker. Eventually I got my TV to detect. Here are the steps to take to get video on my TV. They must be completed after EVERY reboot to regain TV video.

1. Set TV's resolution to 800x600.
2. Open Nvidia's Control Panel.
3. Click the "? My Display is not shown here."
4. Don't check the "Automatic TV detection" box, since it's grey.
5. Click "Rigorous Search for Displays"
6. Click "OK" to the dialog that says "No Displays Found"
7. Wait.
8. A new dialog will pop up that says, "hey, want to enable automatic TV detection?"
9. Click Yes. No video will be on the TV at this point.
10. Reset TV's resolution to 1024x768.
(11. Set to desired resolution if final res you desire is not 1024x768)

It seemed like a lot of steps, but after the 10th or 12th time you do it, you remember.

A few set-backs, but nothing was going to get me down. I knew technology had the ability to eat hours of my time with wasted trial and error, but now it was finally time to sit back and watch the magic fly!

Media Center started, I dragged it across the first screen and onto the tv, and then maximized it. It was beautiful. It was intense. It was Media Center.

The first thing I did was load the Napster plugin, which Media Center had been advertising on their "Explore Programs" page. I had signed up for Napster's unlimited download service, and was convinced this would revolutionize my parties. Imagine passing a remote around, letting people search for any artist in Napster's Library (pretty much anything popular these days), and then letting them queue the music into the playlist! It'd be a smashing hit! Everybody's the DJ, nobody's fighting over the music, and everybody's happy! Not to mention, everybody would think I was cool to have such a neat toy.

So I sat down with my girlfriend and gave it a whirl. After I added a song or two, I passed the remote to her and had her add her favorite tunes to the mix. She added one song, and started to search for the next when suddenly a dialog popped up alerting us of a scripting error. Funny though, I couldn't use the remote to click ok. In fact, I couldn't use the mouse to click it either. No combination of alt-tabs, tabs, arrow keys, escapes or clicks would get rid of this error that usurped Media Center's focus.

Alt-Ctrl-Del was my only solution. Not discouraged yet, I decided to try again. Random errors always happen, but usually are just that - random. I was betting it wouldn't happen again.

Except it did. Again, and again.

I contacted Napster support, I contacted Microsoft. All I got back from MS was that it was Napster's plugin, they'd have to deal with it. All I got back from Napster was that they no longer supported the plugin and I should use their normal interface (oh by the way, doesn't look good on a tv screen, and hardly works well with a remote).

I felt alienated. The coolest reason to even have Napster was gone. I suspect I'll be canceling my account with them.

Over the next few days I discovered many many rough edges regarding the third-party add-ins. Comedy-Central's motherload would load videos, but when they were done Media Center would detect the plugin was no longer responding and would throw an exception. VH1's plugin never loaded. AOL's plugins were very slow. In fact, most of the plugins were very slow. The online media section of Media Center was a sore dissapointment.

Of course, I could still play some videos, right?

I loaded up a movie I had on my computer to watch. Hey- at least this didn't look too bad. Oh, and when I push "the green button" on my remote, this sleek overlay of the menu fades on top of my video. Very nice, bonus points to Microsoft for some rock design.

While I was watching the movie, somebody asked if they could use the computer. Seeing nothing wrong with that- (since I usually use winamp to play movies on my second monitor on my XP machine while I work), I went to the computer to get them started. First thing I noticed- the mouse was stuck in Media Center land. I couldn't get the mouse out of the media center window. What was the point to multiple screens if only one could be used?!

This was getting frustrating. Alt-Tab worked- so long as you have a different program open to alt-tab into. And don't make the mistake of closing that program, because Media Center will snatch that mouse right back up. But the minute you try to use the remote when Media Center doesn't have focus, it will either require focus (the green button does this), or control whatever window has focus (arrow buttons on the remote will scroll internet explorer). So, the drivers for the remote weren't made to give attention to only media center, and media center requires focus to be used with a remote. Basically, if somebody's using media center, there shouldn't be somebody using the desktop at the same time. This, I suspect, is by design, because heck- I didn't pay for no two licenses, no fair having two people benefiting from this pc at the same time.

I finally found a work-around to the mouse problem. Since alt-tabbing and regaining focus every other few minutes caused both screens to black-out for about a second each time (something about entering and exiting fullscreen mode always f'd up windows desktop for a second while it regained consciousness) and caused my media to pause/skip, I found that if I don't maximize media center, it fixes this problem (mostly). If I made my TV's resolution smaller than my computer screen, I could stretch media center's window to slightly bigger than the TV screen and make it LOOK fullscreen while not actually being fullscreen. It still required focus to be used, but this made the transition a lot less hassle, so it wouldn't be impossible to browse the net while somebody else is watching TV. But it's still a hassle, and all-in-all, not a very good design.

Media Center wasn't batting well, but I decided not to turn judgement on it, since I didn't really give it a fair chance. I mean, I reviewed a few plugins, but they weren't written by Microsoft. Let's give them a chance to redeem themselves with the core media center experience.

I didn't have music on my Media Center machine, but I had a pretty large library of WMAs (MS' favorite) on my XP machine. So I shared my music library across the network, got into media center's settings, and added a network folder to the "watch folders" list. They had a seperate section dedicated to network folders, so this was fairly easy. It gave me a list of all the network shares it found. My music library was quickly found and added... and then...


Waited about 10 minutes, and nothing appeared. No music. Nothing new. Nada.

That's odd. I removed the network folder from the watched folders list. Then I mapped the network folder as a network drive, went back to Media Center and added it as a local folder instead.

This time, a message came up saying it was scanning for new media, but I could play with media center in the mean time.

So that's weird, a new message, that means that it actually found something this time around. Inconsistent, but-hey, I got it to work, right? No complaints here.

First thing I noticed was none of the album art was appearing. After some google searches I learned that cover.jpg needed to be folder.jpg for media center to be happy. Not a problem, I wrote a quick batch script, and renamed all my cover pictures. Problem solved- after about 5 minutes of scanning, I had a library of 3,000 songs, and a couple hundred album pictures.

It didn't have that unlimited free feeling of Napster, but it was working, so I didn't mind too much. I clicked play all, put it on shuffle, and sat back to relax. Something was finally working, and doing it well. Props to Microsoft! Amazingly smooth interface, and not too difficult to get working. Right?

The second track loaded. Except where did the cover art go? I skipped foward to the next song. And the next. And the next after that. No cover art. ANYWHERE.

A few google searches later I discovered that this was a known problem. Media Center will load the cover art for the first track in each album. But for the rest, there would be no cover art. And that looked ugly on the "Now Playing" screen, with a big blue music note instead of that fancy cover-art that should be there, for 95% of my library.

Luckily, there was a fix available by a few people on a forum. It consisted of quite a few steps copying files from folders that strangely were absent from my vista machine. Was it because I was using a network folder? Should I add the music directly to Media Player's Library and go from there?

I decided to copy the music locally to avoid issues that may have been caused by the network folder issue.

So the first thing I did was remove my media library from the watched folders list.

And nothing happened.

I waiting a few minutes, went back to the watched folders list and realized it was still checked. I removed it 3 times before it actually dissapeared from the list. But 10 minutes later, I still had all 3,000 songs in my library. I guess removing the folder from being watched didn't remove the folder from the library at all.

I spent the next 15 minutes trying to figure out how to remove theoretical files from my media center library. I disconnected the network drive, and turned off my xp machine. No way could these files still be in my Media Center library... right? Wrong.

Maybe restarting Media Center would clear out those files. Nope. Maybe restarting the machine would clear out those files. Nope.

Did I google search this? No. And here's why:

Too much hassle. I am used to jumping through hoops to get technology to work. I am a computer technician, and I am pretty used to it. But at a certain point you need to ask yourself whether it's worth moving foward. I've lowered my expectations numerous times because I wanted this media center to work. I was not looking for it to fail, and so I was optimistic. But too much was too much. I am one of the few people out there who is not constantly bad-mouthing Vista. I was defending it. I was even selling it! But come on, this was rediculous.

I wasted hours with Vista's file copy. I was still psychologically trying to rationalize this "upgrade" that for some reason wasn't acting like an upgrade at all. I was still rationalizing that it was ok to have to jump hoops to get my brand new hardware to work. The 8600 GT is not that new folks, the drivers should just work. Media Center was fancy, but had such rough edges that I found it to be basically un-usable.

And yes, part of Vista's failure is the fault of third parties. MS didn't write Nvidia's drivers. MS didn't write the Media Center plugins. But MS DID write the file copy, and that didn't work. MS did waste time and resources with DRM, which caused DVD43 and Handbrake not work, so I couldn't back up my movies to USE with media center.

At what point do you say enough is enough? It's my personal opinion that an upgrade needs to actually be better. Vista does not have new features. It's slower. And it cripples features that I use on a daily basis (file copy, DVD backing up).

So, I think Vista is an absolute failure. Microsoft thinks that because in the past, everybody has inevitably switched to XP, they'll do the same with Vista. I think they're wrong in assuming this. XP was an upgrade of features that you needed. Vista is an upgrade to MPAA and RIAA-mandated DRM tools that turn your PC into an over-rated DVD player that will check your email, and not a tool to get things accomplished with.

I will be upgrading to XP tonight. Thank you Media Center for fighting with me, so I could better see just how sucky everything really is.

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ThatSam @ 02/18/08
"I have vista on my computer, and I dont think it turns computer into over rated dvd players that check e-mail. I cant even play dvds!"

cherrybomb @ 02/18/08
"this is too much to read, and plus, im all about hating on microsoft so i dont care... my parents computer still has xp and it works fine so i have no need for vista. i have a mac and xp works fine at my house. problem solved."

Applegoogle @ 02/19/08
"I did read it. It just makes me happy I am too poor to buy an "extravagance" like Vista."

SpIkE @ 02/22/08
"this isn't about hating on microsoft at all. it's just pointing out downfalls."

cherrybomb @ 02/23/08
"i realize this. im just being an ass. "

tmb_ayebe @ 06/23/08
"I read the whole thing. You know, it's been fun bashing microsoft for a while but now I find myself just wishing vista was good. oh well. Have you tried mythbuntu?"

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