Windows Media Center Extender Follow-Up

It’s been over a month since I brought a Linksys-branded Windows Media Center Extender into my home. How is it holding up? Is it cutting the mustard? Was it worth the price? Maybe, but only if you bought it on sale.

Well, it’s been over a month since I set up my new Windows Media Center Extender, so now I can talk about how it works over the long term.

Keeping in mind that I bought my extender on sale for a measly $99, and that normal models can go for a lot more (I’ve seen models in stores with HDD-based DVR-capabilities running upwards of almost $500), I can’t say that I’m disappointed with it… but I can’t exactly say I’m pleased with it, either.

That’s not to say I have buyer’s remorse or anything, though. I like having it – it is handy to be able to pull up some music while I’m cleaning, for example, or to sit down and watch some movies I’ve got on my computer out in the living room (on the big – well, bigger screen) – but I guess the bottom line with Windows Media Center Extenders is that they are “not bad, but not perfect.

For example, it goes without saying that music purchased from iTunes isn’t going to play via a Media Center Extender (unless it’s the DRM-free kind). The Linksys extender comes with a software program to “import” your iTunes playlists into Media Center, which it does… but as for playing iTunes music, well, it sort of “hacks” it. The software uses a feature of many sound cards which is often called “what you hear” – basically, it’s a way of recording exactly what is playing through your sound card (without using a loopback cable or anything). And, yeah, it works… but while it’s working, your computer is playing music too!

What the software does is when you choose an iTunes DRM-protected song from the Media Center Extender, it opens up iTunes on your computer and starts playing the song – using the “what you hear” recorder to effectively “re-record” or “transcode” the music and stream it back out to the extender. As I said, it’s a bit of a hack. (And it’s kind of annoying if someone is using the computer while the extender is in use, too.)

iTunes aside, there are also a few other niggling issues which make the experience of the Media Center Extender “just OK” rather than “really nice.”

  • It’s slow – dog slow. The UI feels like it’s made of cold molasses.
  • It doesn’t play nearly as many video formats as your computer can.
  • Managing playlists (for music) is more than a bit of a pain in the neck – sometimes playlists that you can see on your computer in Media Center don’t show up on the Extender until much, much later (as in, the next day).

Now, I know there are very valid technical reasons for some of these things – the slow UI comes from the fact that it’s sort of a hybrid of a remote desktop client, and although it’s slow, it’s at least bearable. The video format problem comes from the fact that video is not streamed in raw format across the network (it’d take up too much bandwidth, I suppose), but instead the video file is streamed, and then decoded on the extender device itself (and since the extender doesn’t have a very powerful CPU, it doesn’t have the muscle for certain video formats/codecs).

The playlist thing I really don’t understand – I know that there’s a “Media Center Maintenance” task that runs every night, and after that runs my playlists will show up on the extender – but I don’t know why that is. It’s incredibly frustrating sometimes – I’ll make a new playlist on my computer (where the UI is faster), but it won’t show up on my extender right away.

As for the video format limits – there are ways around that, of course, but they are all generally video versions of the same method used by the iTunes software – something called “transcoding.” Basically, when you choose to play a file, your computer will transform it from whatever format it’s in to a format that the extender can understand – on the fly, as you’re playing it. Sounds like it’d work pretty well, if your computer has a bit of CPU power to spare (re-encoding video on-the-fly is very CPU intensive). Unfortunately, it doesn’t work very well. I’ve tried several methods to do it, and they’ve all failed, horribly. Some people claim to have much better luck with it – I guess I’m just not one of those people.

In the end, I just seem to come back to my original conclusion – Windows Media Center Extenders are “just OK” or “not bad.” They certainly do what they are supposed to… if slowly and within some rather draconian technical limitations. You’d think with competition from things like Apple’s Mac TV thing that Media Center Extenders would raise the bar or something – but sadly they do not. (And if you own a Media Center Extender, stay away from anyone with an Apple computer hooked up to their TV – you’ll become insanely jealous. As always, the Mac does things so much better, cleaner, and more elegantly.)

So if you can get a good price on an extender (as I did), and you want that kind of functionality (and you’re a Windows household, of course), I’d say go for it. It won’t be great, but you’ll still be able to do things you couldn’t before. But if you paid a lot of money for an extender… well, you have my sympathy.

Trying out a Windows Media Center Extender

I found a good deal on a Linksys DMA2200 Media Center Extender, and so I bought it. Here’s my thoughts on it after setting it up!

I’ve kind of been interested in the whole “Media Center Extender” idea, ever since XP Media Center Edition came out oh so long ago. The idea of being able to play the music, movies, and pictures on my computer way over in the livingroom was really interesting to me – it’s such a logical idea, once you think about it.

Sadly, however, during the days of Windows XP’s Media Center’s life, the number of Extenders was very small – and those that existed were rather expensive. And the whole “play movies from the computer on the TV” idea, although cool, was never a necessity – so it was never “in the budget,” so to speak.

When Vista came out, there were a whole slew of new Windows Media Center Extenders – because, of course, the interface between them had changed. So, in a way, I was glad I hadn’t bought an extender yet!

On the other hand, the new Extenders were rather advanced – and likewise, rather pricey. As in $300+ pricey. So my hopes seemed dashed yet again.

However, just about a week and a half ago, Dell had a one-day sale on a particular Extender model for just $99 – what a steal! So, I bought it – and it just arrived yesterday. So now it’s time to talk about it!

dma2200The Extender I bought is a Linksys DMA2200. Interestingly, this particular model also includes a DVD player – a good idea in theory (one less device to clutter up the space around your TV), but usless to me, since half my  DVD collection comes from Amanda – and is thus Australian – and is thus Region 4 coded – which means I need a region-free DVD player. So, I won’t be replacing my existing DVD player with this Extender, but I guess it’s kind of a cool feature to have.

Setting the thing up is as simple as could be. Just choose how (component, S-Video, HDMI, etc.) and turn it on. Then, follow a few steps (like choosing what video output you’re using, and what kind of network you have) and it gives you a number. Go to your computer and type in the number when prompted by Windows Media Center and you’re done.

Well, sort of.

I had originally thought that an Extender was basically a fancy “Remote Desktop” client, and that it simply used the Windows Remote Desktop protocol to “log on” to the host Media Center computer – using the same interface as on the host computer, just “streamed” across the network to the device, which displayed it on the TV. Sort of like using your TV as a second monitor, as it were.

As it turns out, this is not entirely the case. When you add an Extender to Media Center, it adds a new user account for the extender, and the Extender uses this account to connect to your computer and read the media. But, because it’s a separate user account, it seems to have to read the media independently of what you may have already set up in Media Center yourself. And when you first turn on the device and see the Media Center screen – get ready to wait a while. Because the device has to “scan” or “find” your media.

At first, I thought it wasn’t working, because I didn’t see my media, but then I let it do it’s thing (took a while, but I’ve got LOTS of stuff), and it showed up. So, it was a little different than I expected, but once you let it find your media, you’re pretty much set.

As for using the Extender itself – well, it’s exactly like using Media Center on the host computer, only slower.

I had read reviews about this particular Extender – some positive, some rather negative – but really, aside from the slight sluggishness it’s not bad. And you’d have to expect the sluggishness – this is, after all, a tiny little device, not a full-fledged computer.

Furthermore, you really shouldn’t be playing with the interface much at all – generally, I expect the way these were meant to be used was for you to just browse to music, put some music on, and then play a picture slideshow of some sort – or maybe just go in and start watching a movie. Generally, you wouldn’t be spending a lot of time in the UI, so the slowness isn’t a huge issue.

My pictures show up just fine – can’t complain about that. And my music library is all in there, too. There’s even an app that came with the device (on a CD of course) that tries to import your iTunes library into Media Center so it can be viewed with the extender – very cool. Of course, for iTunes music that’s protected with DRM, you’ll need a sound card that is capable of doing loopback recording – which mine was not, so although my iTunes music shows up in Media Center, only unprotected songs can be played. Oh well, at least it tried!

Videos are a bit more problematic, mostly because the Extender doesn’t just play anything that can be played by the host computer – it has its own codecs that it supports. So I guess that means that the video files are streamed to the device, which then decodes and plays them – rather than the host computer doing the decoding and just streaming the decoded output video to the Extender, as I had originally thought.

So if you have lots of movies with oddball codecs (or even some rather common codecs, like DivX), you won’t be able to play these on the Extender – which is, admittedly, rather annoying. But enough of my library does play that I’m not troubled – and I know for the future what codecs to use if I am making a video and want to make sure it can play on the Extender.

So all in all, I’m quite happy with the little device. It’s remote control is awful, but all Media Center remotes are interchangable, so I can use the one that I have for my PC in it’s place if I prefer.

Time, of course, will tell how well this little device sits with me in the long run, but for now, I’m quite happy with it. I just hope that when Windows 7 comes out, it doesn’t break backwards compatibility with existing Extenders!

UPDATE: My follow-up article after over a month of living with this device is available here.

Computer Recovery Day

An agonizing tale of computer malfunction, data recovery, and pain.

It started innocently enough – Internet Explorer 8 came out just the other day, so I figured I’d give it a try. Little did I know that this was to become the catalyst for a computer meltdown unlike any I’ve had in a long, long time.

Here’s the story, broken down into little snippets for easy consumption. Our story begins mid-morning on a Friday…

  • Hmmm, IE8 is getting a lot of press. I guess I should give it a try.
  • Downloaded & Installed IE8. It said “you need to reboot and install some more Windows updates.”
  • Ok, reboot. Wait forever for startup programs to finish.
  • Try to connect to VPN for work… Windows says “I couldn’t find any connections!” Huh?
  • Notice that the network connection icon has a red “X” on it. Hovering over it gives the message “Connection status: Unknown. Access is denied.” WTF?
  • Even more strangely, the Internet connection works just fine – I can get on-line. Curious.
  • Something fishy is going on with my user account and permissions & things… certain control panel applets won’t open, like the add/remove users applet. It normally would give a UAC prompt, but now it just opens a blank window which immediately closes. Huh?
  • Try to fire up VirtualBox to look at my virtual Vista machine for comparison, but VirtualBox won’t start: “E_ACCESSDENIED” it says, quoting error number “0x80070005.” Something about COM?
  • Spend some time looking up help (thank you, Google). Tried some solutions like adding the “LocalSystem” account to the “Administrators” group. Didn’t work. (Shouldn’t be needed, anyway.)
  • At this point I’m getting rather frustrated, so I enable the Administrator account and try logging in under it, just to see what’s up. To my surprise, everything works. Hmmm.
  • So, must be a problem with my user profile… not surprising, since it was sort of half-assed migrated from XP. Maybe it’s just time to bite the bullet and make a new profile and copy my relevant data and a few program settings over.
  • At this point, I’ve basically given up on getting any work done for the day, so I fire off an email summarizing my sad story thus far, and settle in for spending some quality time with Windows.
  • First step: dismount my user profile drive so nothing gets touched.
  • Delete old account.
  • Create new account.
  • Mount user profile drive.
  • Log in under new user account… d’oh! Windows goes and makes it’s own, new directory for the profile instead of using the one I mounted. (Now I have Users\Keith and Users\Keith.ELYSION).
  • Log back in under Administrator, move drive mounting to the new user profile folder that Windows created.
  • Try to log in under that account. Nope! Windows says “I couldn’t read the user profile, so have a temporary one!” Damn.
  • Obviously, I’ve got some files to delete, probably NTUSER.DAT.
  • Let’s see if I can start again and do this right – instead of mounting the volume as a directory, I’ll use a directory junction instead.
  • Log in as Administrator.
  • Delete user account.
  • Oops, Windows Vista doesn’t just leave the user profile directory where it is if you choose not to delete the files – it “helpfully” tries to copy the profile to your desktop.
  • My user profile is huge – the whole reason it’s on a second drive, after all – so this isn’t going to work. Rather than wait around, I try to cancel it.
  • Can’t cancel it – so I shut down instead.
  • After restart, made directory junction to a new folder on the 2nd hard drive.
  • Moved the new (empty) user profile over to this new folder.
  • Logged in under the new profile – now I’ve finally got a user profile that’s correctly running on the 2nd hard drive. Now I just need to move my user data over selectively.
  • Easy stuff first – Documents, Music, Videos, Pictures, etc.
  • Hard stuff second – specific folders from Application Data and Local Settings (Firefox/Thunderbird profiles mostly).
  • Finally got stuff moved around, but… why does my Documents folder only contain files starting with the letter P or later?
  • Horrible moment of realization: the “helpful” copy that took place when I deleted the profile a few steps (and by now, a few hours) ago wasn’t just a copy – it was a “move.” And apparently shutting down wasn’t the smartest thing to do.
  • Half of my “My Documents” folder is gone. Begin slight panic.
  • Calm down, remember that I’ve got Mozy. Backups are GOOD.
  • Begin trying to recover files from Mozy. Because only half of my stuff is gone, I have to go through and select what to restore manually, by hand. Mozy is not the fastest program in the world, so this takes some time.
  • Begin the arduous process of restoring files from Mozy.
  • [Many, many hours pass.]
  • Mozy’s not super-fast at restoring files (and it doesn’t help that I had it set to throttle back its bandwidth usage during the work day – oops!) but it gets the job done. Thank goodness for backups!
  • Files restored, but of course to totally wrong folders, since now everything’s “Vista-Style.” Why, oh why did Microsoft decide to re-arrange where user’s files go???
  • Spend some time copying/moving files around. OK, documents, music, videos, pictures, etc. Back where they belong, nothing seems to be missing. Cool.
  • Fire up a few programs (Winamp, iTunes, Quicken) to make sure they work – they do… sort of. iTunes says it can’t save the iTunes library file, and Quicken says I don’t have permission to open the file. Huh?
  • Winamp also won’t save any settings – it keeps resetting to the default style. Something is not right.
  • Find out that there’s a weird permissions problem on my new profile – the CREATOR OWNER doesn’t have ANY rights! Ah, the joys of NTFS file permissions.
  • Spend some time fiddling with the permissions – setting my new user account as the “Owner” of the files, giving myself full control, etc.
  • OK, permissions set – programs working. Excellent.
  • Fire up Firefox – and it starts walking me through the “new profile/new settings” wizard. Crap.
  • Try to figure out where my Firefox (and Thunderbird) profiles are.
  • Second horrible moment of realization: my Firefox and Thunderbird profiles weren’t backed up. Apparently, they both have a “Profiles” folder under Application Data, and another one under Local Settings\Application Data. One contains the real profile – the other contains some, I don’t know, extra .xul files or something. Guess which one was part of my backup set?
  • Manage to find an old copy of the “real” profiles folder in Mozy and restore from it.
  • Spend some time re-creating the “profiles.ini” file for Firefox and Thunderbird.
  • Open up Firefox – my profiles appear!
  • Try to start my default profile – and Firefox crashes. Ditto Thunderbird. Some problem with an add-in?
  • Start Firefox and Thunderbird in “safe mode” with no add-ins or extensions. Disable them all, restart.
  • Go through extensions one-by-one until I find the troublesome ones. (Enigmail and the Calendar plugin.) Ok, fine, they’re not that important, I can always re-install them later. Uninstall them for now.
  • Success! Firefox and Thunderbird open properly. Except…
  • For some reason, Firefox has lost all of its history, saved form data, and saved passwords. Fuck. I kind of depend on them.
  • At this point, it’s well past midnight for a process that started mid-morning. I’m tired, and aside from the saved passwords thing, my computer is mostly working. Well enough that I feel OK going to sleep and picking it up in the morning.
  • [All too-few hours of sleep pass.]
  • The next morning, I fire things up again, and it’s working as well as you could expect. Actually, it’s working just fine. I feel a lot better about the whole affair now that things are back together again!
  • After a good nights sleep, I hit upon a brain-wave. I occasionally use MozBackup (not Mozy) to do complete backups of my Thunderbird and Firefox profiles! I can use these backups to restore my passwords and other settings!
  • Looking through my files, I see I did a backup not long ago – less than a month, in fact. SWEET!
  • MozBackup, restore profiles, lather, rinse, repeat.
  • Ka-ching! Profiles restored. Bookmarks, saved passwords, cookies, history, the works.

So now I’m pretty much back up & running. I’ve still got a few niggling little things to work out (like my Outlook/Exchange email for work), but nothing terrible. I’ve also got to go through Mozy and make sure that I really did restore EVERYTHING I need before I let it start backing up the newly arranged profile – because Mozy doesn’t store differential backups; you’ve only got the most recent backup, and that’s it. So if I start backing up now, and I forgot to restore a file, it will assume I deleted the file and it’ll be removed from my backup. So I need to do some further checking, but I’m confident.

I also need to go through my backup sets and make absolutely sure that they include the entirety of my Firefox and Thunderbird profiles.

Although in the end I didn’t lose anything important (some virtual machines were lost, but they’re easy enough to re-create and I just use them for testing anyway), the whole experience was very frustrating.

When computers break down, when things go wrong like this, it totally destroys the metaphor of the computer. When you find out that your carefully arranged media libraries are gone now because you physically moved the files on disk, you really begin to curse and swear. I think Neal Stephenson described it as metaphor shear, and I think that’s a good description.

Suddenly, you’re not dealing with pictures and movies and documents anymore – you’re no longer working “in your terms.” Instead, you’re now working with the computer’s terms – folders and files and paths and ACLs and profiles and user accounts and permissions and so forth. Honestly, it’s terribly disheartening. It almost makes you want to give up on the whole “computer” thing, maybe go live “in the cloud” where you don’t have to worry about this sort of shit anymore.

But in the end, it’s all just fluff, all just levels and layers of metaphors piled on top of one another, abstractions built upon abstractions – and like any other work of man, eventually it all falls down and you’re left holding broken sticks and trying to figure out how they used to be put together to make the Internet.

It’s a humbling experience, in a way. And one I hope not to go through again for a long time!

For the future, though, I’ve learned (or re-learned) a few things:

  1. Check your backups carefully on some sort of regular schedule. Things change, and you don’t want to have something be left out!
  2. When deleting a user profile, if you want to keep the user’s data where it is, don’t use the Vista control panel applet to delete the account – use the “Computer Management” MMC console to do it instead.
  3. Hard drive space is cheap; although I used to turn off “System Restore” because I didn’t like the disk space it used, my disks are big enough these days that there’s no reason not to have it turned on now. If I had used it to create a restore point before installing IE8, I probably could have avoided this whole mess. And Vista has “Volume Shadow Copies,” too, so I probably could’ve recovered my missing files easier, too.

Ah well – always something new to learn! At least it’s over now, and I’ve learned my lessons. Now I know, and knowing is half the battle!

CPU Upgrades – Not As Easy As They Used To Be

I thought upgrading my CPU would be easy. Turns out – it’s far, far, far more complicated than you’d ever imagine!

mycomputer Lately I’ve been thinking that maybe it’s time to upgrade my computer a little bit and make the jump to a newer CPU – specifically a 64-bit Dual or Quad core CPU. My venerable old Pentium 4 (with HyperThreading!) is still working just fine – but it is starting to show its age. And of course there’s that whole 64-bit thing I’m dying to try out (4 gigs of memory just isn’t enough anymore!).

So, I started to look around – but keep in mind it’s been quite a while since I last built my own computer. My computers tend to last for many, many years, so I don’t build them often – and as you’ll recall my current computer was pre-built.

Suffice to say, I was a little bit lost. The last time I built a computer from scratch (nearly 10 years ago now), the CPU choices were basically either Intel (Pentium III) or AMD (Athlon or Duron). There was a socket/slot for the Intel (socket 370 or Slot 1), and a socket for the AMD (socket A). Your motherboard was made for one or the other – and that was it.

Things are far more complicated these days.

We’ve still got sockets, of course – but a bewildering array of them, and some of them even have multiple names!

And if the number of sockets wasn’t confusing enough, now you have to pay far more attention to the particular chipset which accompanies your socket. To get an idea of what I’m talking about, just look at this list of Intel chipsets.

When I started looking around, I made the initial mistake of not paying attention to chipsets. I thought that since my current CPU socket was a LGA 775 (or “Socket T”) – the same one that was used for Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Quad processors – I could just take out my old CPU out and pop in a new one.

Sadly, this is not the case. My current chipset is the Intel 945P, which sadly does not support any of the new Core 2 processors. The best it can do for multi-core is the Pentium D, which in my experience is not that great. (The Pentium D runs much hotter and has less on-board cache.)

Since chipsets are not a replaceable component, the only option is a new motherboard. Again, in the “old days” this would not have been a big deal – but again, these days there is a bewildering array of choices.

What makes the whole experience even more maddening is the additional factor of… well, form factors. My current motherboard is a BTX form factor – a new-ish form factor that never really caught on.

BTX Motherboard for the Dell XPS 400Of course, the BTX form factor is totally incompatible with the far-more-common ATX form factor. Which means I’m basically SOL when it comes to upgrading. 

The handful of BTX form factor motherboards I’ve been able to find thus far are all of the same type as the one I have now – in other words, similar chipsets that don’t support Core 2 Duo or Quad.

So now I’m facing the reality that, in order to upgrade my CPU, I need to upgrade my motherboard, and in order to upgrade my motherboard I need to upgrade my case and power supply. And once all that is done, I’ll need to re-install Windows from scratch (this many hardware changes would make Windows throw a fit).

I don’t know about you, but this is starting to sound a lot less like “CPU upgrade” and a whole lot more like “whole new computer.” Which, of course, is exactly what I didn’t want to do.

See, I like my current computer – it’s been very good to me – and it’s design is very good. The cooling is excellent and it’s nice and quiet. It’s got plenty of USB ports (both front and back), which is important because I have lots of USB devices hanging off my computer. And I’m rather fond of the extra set of front-mounted microphone and headphone jacks – especially since plugging something into the headphone jack automatically cuts the sound to the rear speaker jack (very handy for using headphones). Say what you will about Dell computers, but mine is very good at what it does (being part of Dell’s higher-end XPS line doesn’t hurt either).

The thought of having to get rid of the case and buy all that new stuff is, frankly, rather depressing – mostly because it’s more work (and more money!) than I had planned for. But, it looks like I don’t have much choice. It’s either upgrade, or buy a whole new computer. All this confusion is one of the reasons why I didn’t build my last computer – but I guess I’m paying the price for that now.

I guess I just have to face the fact that upgrading my CPU just isn’t as easy as it used to be!

Computer icon courtesy of the Crystal Icon Set. Motherboard image courtesy Dell.

So Much for my “Upgrade” Path

There’s been a major change in my plans to eventually “upgrade” to a 64-bit OS (probably the 64-bit version of Windows 7). Namely, the idea that it could be an “upgrade” at all.

There apparently is no upgrade path from any Windows 32-bit edition to any Windows 64-bit edition. If you’re going to make the jump, you have to do a clean install.

Major bummer.