October 25, 2004

HP Media Center First Impressions

My Hewlett-Packard Media Center PC arrived late Friday via UPS, was unpacked by the time the second episode of "CSI" on SpikeTV was over, and after a quick run on Saturday to Wal-Mart to pick up some additional batteries and cabling, was completely set up around 3:00pm on Saturday.

So, here is my quick pro/con review of my HP Media Center PC. (NOTE: My HP Media Center PC arrived running Windows Media Center Edition 2003, and after upgrading to SP2, I was running MCE 2004. This review does not include MCE 2005, which I won't be ordering until tonight.)

Pros:

1. The interface. Everything moved smoothly and looked like it belonged. The fonts were large enough to be legible on my 27" TV in my living room. The transition effects were subtle.

2. The remote control. This goes hand-in-hand with the interface. While not the most comfortable remote I've ever held, HP's version of the remote was intuitive. The extra blank space around the d-pad will be welcome to anyone who has large thumbs.

3. The machine. Not only is this the quietest Pentium IV I've ever heard, the design of the machine is extremely nice. The blue LED indicators on the front of the machine make it easy to tell what feature you're in, and also make it easy to switch between areas without the remote. (However, you cannot navigate the UI further than that from the front of the machine.) Additional inputs on the front for S-Video, composite, USB and Firewire were also a wonderful touch.

4. The "TiVO" functionality. Being able to pause live TV is wonderful. Telling MCE to record a series and have it work is also wonderful. Also, the data provider giving information on the TV listings is more accurate than my cable provider.

Cons:

1a. The out-of-box experience. I set this up on my TV. I wanted to set it up the way a normal everyday joe would set it up. That was my first mistake. The text on the desktop and during the initial setup were nearly illegible. The keyboard only gave a reliable signal within 6 feet of the receiver, and the mouse within 3 feet. Since I was hoping I could set everything up from my recliner, that was not very good. If Microsoft is expecting MCE to be set up on a television, Microsoft should use default font sizes that are going to look good on a television.

1b. Hewlett-Packard. This goes hand-in-hand with 1a, and is an unfortunate side effect of the agreement that Microsoft made that let OEM's have control over the desktop. My HP came loaded with so much junk, it isn't even funny. It came with BackWeb installed, which is a wonderful (heh) little spyware application. It came with an expired version of Norton Antivirus installed. (Yes, you read that correctly, an EXPIRED copy. I couldn't download a single update.) It came with a good seven gigabytes of crap installed that I'll never use on that machine. I'd wipe it out and start over, but HP decided that they didn't want to include install media. Instead, they're going to use a restore partition. I can't even create install media if I want to. It almost makes me want to use my MSDN subscription copy in a way that isn't licensed.

2. Analog-to-digital-to-analog. This one is going to get a little technical.
Broadcast television is sent as three concurrent signals. The first is luminance. That is the brightness of every pixel on your screen. This is the part of the signal that black and white televisions can see. The second and third are chroma. This is the part that tells the TV what color every other pixel is on your TV. NTSC televisions use a 2:1 color clock, meaning that your television reuses the color for every other pixel. This extended color clock is a large part of the reason that you get bleeding on certain colors on older televisions. The shorthand for this is YCrCb. Y is the luminance portion, Cr is Chroma-red (the offset along the red spectrum), Cb is Chroma-blue (the offset along the blue/indigo spectrum).

When you read an analog signal into a digital device, that signal goes through a process called ADC (analog-digital conversion). For a TV signal, there are two places where precision is lost. The first is in the signal conversion. When that signal is analog, let's assume that it's two floating point numbers between 0 and 1. They can be any decimal value between those two. When those two values are read into the computer, they are converted into a single 32-bit value: 8 bits for Y and 12 bits each for Cr and Cb.

The second area of data loss is in the conversion from YCrCb to RGB. The formulas to handle this conversion are pretty standard, so you don't lose much, but you do lose some precision here. You end up with about 12 bits of overall precision.

Now, let's go one step farther and convert this signal back to an analog signal. We lose a little more precision going back to analog. We also have to re-color-clock everything, so we lose additonal color clarity on every pixel.

Essentially, you end up with a lot of banding on flesh tones, foggy areas and gradient backgrounds. Even the blue background for the Media Center has a lot of banding.

3. dvr-ms. The format that MCE saves everything in is called DVR-MS. It's essentially a Windows Media Format wrapper around an MPEG-2 stream. It provides additional error-checking and metadata information, as well as helps get around some file-size limits of other video formats. It's also massive. I was hoping to use my Media Center as a media server, but when an hour-long show takes up 2 gigabytes of space on the lowest quality setting (fair), it makes me think twice about storing a lot of things on my Media Center.

4. Small, niggling bugs. On Sunday, I was recording "Mythbusters" while I went to go see "Team America: World Police." When I got back, "Mythbusters" was halfway done broadcasting, so I decided to rewind the show to the beginning while it was recording and watch it. When MCE was done recording the show, rather than let me finish what I was watching, it immediately time-shifted me to the present. It was a pain in the ass to have to go back to "Recorded TV," pick my program and fast-forward to where I was.

Also, MCE assumes that I have every single channel that my cable provider has. There is no way for me go to in and mask channels from appearing in the Guide, or to globally exclude series recording from channels that I do not have. For example, I have digital cable, but I set up my MCE on a signal splitter so that things wouldn't change for my technologically-challenged wife. Plus, this way I could record something on one channel while she watches "Lifetime: Television Where Men Suck." Because I don't have a second digital cable box, I am unable to record anything on my MCE above channel 99. I have "Big!" set up as a series record, but an error message popped up overnight when the MCE tried to record big on channel 663.
Anyway, I'll keep posting my impressions as I go along. I'm having fun.

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