Yet More On Media Center

Here I am again, now, talking about my Windows Media Center and the challenges I’ve been having.

The last post said I was happy about the Blu-Ray player, but that’s not quite true. Watching a few Blu-Ray disks has revealed a problem with playback: stuttering. Occasionally, the disk would pause or hesitate, or just generally not play smoothly.

Now, ArcSoft has release an update to Total Media Theater that is supposed to solve a whole host of issues. Of course, I think my problem was broader than just that and related to hardware and drive issues with the drive itself. Funny thing: the manufacturer of the drive just released a firmware update relating to “smoothness of play”.

Hmmm… Maybe I wasn’t the only one having issues?

I haven’t watched a disk yet with both updates, but I’ll have to do that soon.

New Look And Feel

Some of you may have noticed that things are looking different here. Well, they are. But not just “looking” different, are we. We are actually “feeling” different. Under all this visible change are other major changes – changes that will not only make my life easier, but will make the site a bit more stable, reliable, and faster.

What I’ve done is actually migrate [finally] all my sites/blogs/galleries to a single server. I’ve eliminated the old photo gallery server that was an “interim” box and moved that function to the main server. I’ve removed all instances of MySQL and am instead utilizing a single Microsoft SQL Server 2008 instance, which will soon be upgraded to SQL Server 2008 R2 for those that care.

This was harder to do than to write about and much pain and link adjustment/correction was required after migration to make sure everything was working.

In the past, running WordPress required MySQL since the Microsoft database was considered “enterprise” and not “open source”. However, in recent months, some enterprising individuals wrote a WordPress plugin that allows a connection directly to MS SQL instead of MySQL.

Now, all my blog are belong to MSSQL. [Grammatical incorrectness intentional for those not “in the know”, and if you don’t know where that reference comes from, I’m not explaining it to you.]

Yet Another Media Center Upgrade

Yes, I’m at it again. I’ve added something to my Windows Media Center. When I said it was “complete,” I suppose I was wrong.

Last month, we rented a Blu-Ray disk from Red Box and it wouldn’t play on our stand-alone Sony Blu-Ray player. We thought it was the disk and sent it back. Then, I got a copy of the latest Narnia movie on Blu-Ray… which also didn’t play. Hmm. That was frustrating, but the package included a DVD version which we watched. I thought a system update might correct whatever problem there was. We talked to technical support and they were most unhelpful

We then tried it gain earlier this week with yet another movie, which we didn’t have a DVD version for. It failed. Hmm. I thought I’d try to re-flash it. It wouldn’t work. I tried an old Blu-Ray that used to play and has played before on that player. It didn’t work. Very bad.

Now, I had justification to invest in a Blu-Ray player for the Media Center. I bought a cheap player, installed it and the included PowerDVD software and it worked. Mostly.

I wasn’t happy with the way that the stripped-down OEM version of PowerDVD worked, especially when it came to sound. The sound was supposed to be Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. Instead, it was simple 2-channel stereo and that was way uncool. So, I tried the latest and greatest version of PowerDVD. Funny thing, though: it did the exact same thing. I then downloaded an evaluation copy of Arcsoft Total Medea Theatre 5, which worked WONDERFULLY and was fully integrated as a plug-in into Windows Media Center instead of a pop-up stand-alone program. All the sound was now channeled digitally though my system.

I had thought to save some money by using the included software, but that doesn’t look possible anymore – especially since the full version of PowerDVD is the same price as Total Media Theatre with much fewer features.

All this took place a week after I had a hard drive failure on the machine which meant I had to replace the data storage drives with new ones. I now have 1.5TB of DVR storage. 🙂

So: barring a RAM upgrade which may happen in the future, maybe this time I really am done with the system.

Geeking Out

If you’re not interested in technology or other geeky stuff, you can probably skip this entry as I’m going to be describing some of the technical endeavors I’ve been undertaking over the last couple of weeks.

SP1
You may or may not have noticed that the site is a bit faster. This is mainly due to the fact that I have installed Service Pack 1 for Windows Server 2008 R2 on both the host and the various guest OSs that I have running. The new Dynamic Memory feature allows me to just set initial memory settings and allow the system [guest] load to either request more memory or free up unused bits so that other guests can use them. I’ve given the email server and this web server [and the firewall server] priority so that their requests for resources are serviced first.

The performance is much better – you may not notice much, but on my end when I use my virtual desktop [which is where I do all my personal computing like Quicken and personal email] is much faster since it has the RAM it needs and the other guests aren’t being hogs.

It also makes accessing all my other guest machines easier and faster. The ones not used much can idle and give back RAM. It’s supposed to be “greener” too, allowing you to save money by throttling back CPU and resource usage on the server to only what is needed.

New Virtual Box: FAIL
I tried to utilize one of my old laptops, a Toshiba Techra M5, as a new virtual host for a couple of guest machines [like a new virtual SAN host I got at TechReady]. I installed the raw, bare-bones Windows Hyper-V Server 2008 R2 – which is NOT Windows Server, for those of you not in the know. The install went fine until I got to installing SP1 [see above] on the machine. The Blue Screen of Death made a command performance.

It seems that I remember why I stopped using the laptop: it’s prone to overheating and crashing, which is exactly what it did – several times. So, scratch having another host box for my virtual machines for now. I suppose I’ll have to wait until I get a new one and take one of the other old ones and repurpose it.

Smart Cards and Certificates
I’m also playing with certificates and smart cards. I’m about halfway there – I’ve gotten one to work via logging into a laptop, but not yet with OWA [which is the goal].

I’ll soon have to upgrade the CA to 2008 R2, but not just yet.

That’s all for now. 🙂

Media Center Project: Complete!

After many months [years maybe] of working to build a Windows Media Center PC, I now have the final piece of the puzzle. I have installed a quad-tuner card from Ceton which just came in this morning after literally months of waiting. Instead of being release in May, it was released last week and only just now arrived at the house.

Since I am working from home today, I took a coffee break to install the card – and that’s about all the time it took. Power down, insert card, power up, install driver & update BIOS, restart, update Media Center tuner configuration. Start recording four shows at once! Woo Hoo!

Project: Media Center – DONE!

Next up: Project: Kitchen Backsplash… waiting on ordered tile.

Ooops – I Upgraded…

It wasn’t intentional, at least the scheduling wasn’t intentional. However, last night there was a power outage and our servers crashed and then came back on. What is different, though, is that the firewall server is now running Forefront TMG instead of the old ISA 2006. This is much better, of course, but previously I hadn’t been able to get it to work properly.

As you can see, it’s working now. This means that the configuration I had was working just fine. When the servers rebooted, the new server came up first and took over the network and became the production firewall server. I only found out because I hadn’t put the new mail certificate on the listener. The old server came up second, but because it has the same IP address, it couldn’t connect to anything.

I needed to upgrade it because it was running Windows Server 2003 and the old version of the firewall. The new version is running on Windows Server 2008 R2 and is all current and up to date.

It seems to be faster, too.

I’ve turned off the old server and deleted it’s virtual hard drive. No going back now!

Not All Coming Up Roses

The FiOS install went great, but…

After turning in my cable box yesterday and cancelling my residential cable service through Cox, they came out this morning and disconnected my business internet service as well. Argh.

And just as I was getting packed to head to Los Angeles for TEC2010.

As you can see, though, all is back up and running. I did say that Cox customer service was great, didn’t I?

Media Center and FiOS TV

Two words: Awesome.

Well, that wasn’t two, so I’ll compensate by adding a few more.

Today, we ditched Cox cable for Verizon FiOS TV. Cox, the regular local cable provider, is actually not bad. They have great [for a cable company] customer service, but I’ve been disappointed with the service itself. The signals are low and I absolutely deplore the DVR. If you’ve been reading the blog [here, here, and here], you know that I have finally put together a media center PC.

What’s not listed there is that it’s all new. Over the past several months, in order to “make it right” I’ve been working on the computer to make it behave like it’s supposed to.

The old PC just wasn’t up to the task. I had been thinking about upgrading it when an opportunity fell into my lap. I mistakenly ordered the wrong CPU for my server and was unable to return it. So – I “repurposed” it. With the addition of a new motherboard, matching 4GB of RAM and a case, I was all set to build a media center out of a Quad-Core Xeon server processor. That’s total overkill for those not geeky out there.

The first problem, though, was that I ordered the wrong motherboard – it wouldn’t fit in the case. I returned it and ordered another one only to find out that I actually had the wrong case. I replaced the case and found out that I had the wrong power supply. I quick stop by the local computer store solved that problem. I assembled all the parts and it was working. Performance-wise, it’s the fastest “desktop” I’ve ever owned. Only, it’s not a desktop: it’s a server with a server case… which sounds like a jet engine.

So: to solve that problem, I replaced the power supply and it got a smidge quieter. Hmm… the case has 3 fans. I replaced those with whisper-quiet 120mm case fans and wow… Except: it was still very loud. All that was left was the CPU fan. This tiny little thing must have been making the most noise. It was spinning at 6000 RPM and so I replaced it with a large heatsink and fan combination that is now virtually silent.

Media Center “Server”: Awesome!

It’s VERY fast, responds very quickly, and I have about 1.2TB of storage. I think I can record several weeks of TV in HD without stopping. It all works just like it’s supposed to.

But…

All the problems didn’t go away. We used to get digital artifacting [little random squares on the screen] and noise which I thought was due to performance of the machine. It was still there. Come to find out, our signal with Cox was so bad, that some channels were just plain unwatchable. I couldn’t even eliminate the cable box like I wanted to. So much for saving money.

Now, along comes my friend Jack who tells me of his experience with Media Center, CableCARD and FiOS. Now, I was hooked. See, Cox requires a “tuning resolver” to allow you to change channels on their less-watched shows. That way, they can save bandwidth by not showing stations to a neighborhood that no one is watching. Only it doesn’t work all that well. There were many times that our shows wouldn’t record because of some switching error.

No more! I called and scheduled my FiOS appointment and I’m now free from the Cox prison [except for Internet]. The media center is working as it’s supposed to and the signal is strong and clear. Life is great!

The only thing left is to get an additional tuner. I have a Ceton tuner on order which has 4 tuners in it. That will solve the recording conflict problems and should be the final upgrade of the machine for some time to come.

I took the Cox equipment in to the store today. That alone should save us $20/month or more on our cable bill.

New Web Server

I bet you didn’t even notice, but we’re now running on Windows Server 2008 R2, which is 64-bit only.

Yay!

This is has been an ongoing project which I started a while back when 2008 came out. I wanted to migrate all the sites from 2003 to 2008. I got bogged down and then R2 was release and I couldn’t just upgrade the new server, so I had to deploy a new one. Presently I have 3.

Soon, there will be only one.

There is still much work to be done, but it won’t be the onerous task I thought it would be… I hope…

40

No, not the U2 song, but Friday, I turned 40. It’s an eye-opening experience and I frequently wonder where the time has gone. I mean: I don’t FEEL 40… except after I work out too hard.

This year, after saving up lots of money by selling off old books, I was given a gift card to make up the difference and purchase a Kindle! For those who don’t know, it’s an electronic book reader which will store tons of books and even automatically download new ones.

Here’s a card Laura put together for my birthday which shows a picture of the old generation one (and a little Photoshop manipulation):

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

So, it’s been ordered and I’m eagerly awaiting the new device. I’ve even queued up some free e-books to have them downloaded when I turn it on. Book like Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea” and Doyle’s “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” are public domain now and free for downloading. If I were to just read those free books, I’d likely never finish before I turn 80…

But, I’m getting rid of my old paper books and going for the new, easier to store e-books.

Then, Laura can use my old, empty shelves like she wants…