Vista Media Center takes over the living room

In June, I recounted my out-of-the-box experience with a new Dell PC running Windows Vista. In July, I took the plunge and moved this system out of the office and into the living room. With a few extra bits of hardware, everything is working together perfectly. If you've considered doing the same thing, read my advice and check out the accompanying image gallery.

[Update 24-August, 2:00PM: By popular request, I've assembled a list of the parts that went into this system, including specs and prices.]  

In June, I recounted my out-of-the-box experience with a new Dell PC running Windows Vista, starting with a failed BIOS upgrade, undergoing a successful repair, and establishing that the basic hardware and software setup was rock-solid.

Vista Media Center from 10 feet

The reason I bought this PC in the first place was to use it as the hub of a home theater system, integrated with a 5.1 surround sound setup and a 50-inch Sony HDTV with Vista Media Center as the front end. So, at the beginning of July, I took the plunge and moved this system out of the office and into the living room. It took about two weeks to assemble all the pieces I needed and get everything working together correctly, but today I am thoroughly pleased with everything about this system. If you've considered doing the same thing, I have some advice in this post, and I've documented the whole thing with an image gallery so you can see what it looks like.

Image Gallery: "Using Windows Vista as a home theater hub" 
My goal with this system was to consolidate all of our digital media - photos, music, and home videos - into a single location accessible over the network. I want to be able to play back any album or song, create playlists on the fly, launch slide shows, and view home movies, all using a remote control. I had no doubt that the Media Center interface would work, because we've been happily using Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 for the past two years, with an Xbox 360 in the living room as an extender. Bringing the PC into the living room simplifies the equipment lineup, reduces the cost, and potentially offers better performance because it's not bound by network speeds.

The bottom line: It works. Spectacularly well, in fact. I originally approached this as a proof-of-concept experiment, and I was half expecting to run into at least one roadblock that would cause me to give up and go back to my old setup. Surprisingly, the only obstacles were minor ones.

Next -->

Noise and heat

Every time I've considered putting a PC in the living room previously, I've been stopped by two factors: heat, which is a problem in equipment cabinets, and noise caused by the many fans in a typical PC. The Dell C521 is the first small form factor PC I've seen that is both quiet and affordable. The case is smaller than my old Pioneer receiver, and in operation the system is impressively quiet. I have to put my ear within six inches of the rear fan to even notice that it's there. (That's a huge improvement over the Xbox 360, by the way, which makes an ungodly racket when it's running.)

A small form factor PC makes a great home theater hub
I initially set up this system alongside the AV cabinet, thinking I'd move it inside after I'd finished tweaking things. As it turns out, the system looks unobtrusive in its current location, and it gets much better ventilation than it would get inside the cabinet. So outside it stays.

Extra hardware

The C521 has onboard Intel HD Audio with support for 7.1 surround sound. There's a catch, though. The integrated sound uses discrete outputs for each speaker pair and doesn't have any digital output. That would be fine if I were using this system as a gaming rig, but it's unacceptable in the living room. Fortunately, with an hour of searching I was able to locate a Creative Sound Blaster Audigy SE card in the low-profile format this system demands. It has digital output via an oddball connector that Creative calls a Flexi Jack. I could have picked up an adapter cable at Radio Shack to connect the 3.5mm RCA jack to the digital coax input on the receiver but decided instead to spring for Creative's $16 Digital I/O Module, which offers optical (TOSLink) connections as well. Total cost, with shipping: $55.

I also picked up a low-profile AverMedia AverTV Combo PCI-e tuner card. I saw this card in action at CES last January and was impressed by the quality of its output and its ability to handle digital and analog inputs. For $88, I figured it would be worth it.

Finally, I added a Bluetooth-enabled Microsoft Wireless Entertainment 7000 keyboard to the package. I had read good reviews of this model but had never actually used one. After running the simple setup, I was able to control Windows and the Media Center interface from the couch. Whoever designed this device was clearly a Media Center fanatic, because all the buttons you find on the Media Center remote are also available on the keyboard. The nicest touch is a keypad in the upper right corner, with a sliding switch that lets you toggle from left/right/up/down remote buttons to a notebook-style touchpad. In the latter mode, you can run Windows programs and adjust settings that you'd never be able to do using a remote control.

Drivers and setup

If I had attempted this project back in February, in the first few weeks after Windows Vista's retail launch, I would have failed spectacularly, because neither the audio nor the video drivers available at the time wold have been up to the challenge. Fortunately, both ATI and Creative released major driver updates at the same time I was putting this project together. I had heard terrible things about Creative drivers, but in this case they just worked. After downloading and installing the two driver packs, I was able to configure the HDTV display in about two minutes and play a DVD with surround sound.

Coaxing digital sound out of Windows Vista required one undocumented trick
For some reason, however, I couldn't get any sound out of the speakers when I used the Media Center interface. I double-checked all the connections and looked at every dialog box I could find, with no luck. Finally, a random post on a forum for digital media enthusiasts steered me in the right direction. The Sound Control Panel has two outputs, labeled Digital Audio Interface and Speakers, respectively. It turned out that Media Center was trying to send sound to the Speakers output instead of the digital output. You have to double-click the Speakers option, click the Custom tab, and select the Digital Output Only check box to force sounds to go out over the optical cable. (This, by the way, is a perfect example of the "tribal knowledge" about Windows that I referred to the other day. It usually springs up in community sites long before it appears in official documentation. I'm just glad someone else had discovered it before me.)

Next -->

Cabling and connections

I had read horror stories about flaky, inconsistent HDMI connections, so I was prepared for the worst when it came to connecting the video outputs. I have a DirecTV HD-DVR with HDMI output, and the ATI Radeon 1300 Pro card that came with this Dell included a DVI-to-HDMI cable. I ran both those cables to the HDMI inputs on the Onkyo SR-505 receiver and then connected the HDMI output from the receiver to the TV. And ...

It worked. No hassles, no lost connectivity when switching between signal sources, perfect quality images. It typically takes a second or two for the signal to re-sync after I switch inputs, but that doesn't even rise to the level of annoying.

Logitech's Harmony remote control is close to magic
And the single most important piece of hardware, the glue that ties it all together, is the Logitech Harmony 680 remote control. We've been using this remote (alas, now discontinued) for a year or two now, and it only took about 20 minutes at Logitech's website to enter the model numbers of my equipment, pick the activities I wanted the remote to offer, and download the saved settings via a USB cable. This is the only all-in-one remote I have ever been completely happy with (and I've tried them all).

Stability and reliability

What can I say? This thing just keeps running and running. The Windows Reliability Monitor index would be a perfect 10 except for a couple of power outages, one my fault and the other caused by our local electric company. (Note to self: The living room could use an uninterruptible power supply.) In six weeks of every activity, it hasn't hung, slowed down, or refused to appear when commanded.

The only glitch I've seen is an odd one: Twice in the last month the audio has stopped working for no apparent reason. The first time it occurred, I thought a power surge had blown out the sound card, but after troubleshooting every physical connection and coming up empty I was able to fix it by reinstalling the Creative drivers. The second time it happened, I was able to restore audio in a few seconds by switching to the analog connection and then switching back to the default digital connection. If it happens again I'll talk with Creative and Microsoft and see if they have any clues.

The bottom line

This will drive the Vista-haters crazy, but it has to be said anyway: When people see this system in operation, they actually say "Wow." They're especially impressed by themed slide shows from Photo Gallery, which are much more visually appealing than the default Media Center options. Without exception, everyone who sees it asks what software I'm using. They're invariably surprised when I tell them it's Windows Vista Home Premium, with no extras.

It's surprising how much you can do with the 10-foot interface as well. When I plug a digital camera into the front-panel USB jacks, a Media Center dialog box pops up so I can import the pictures and view them immediately. At a gathering of family and friends a few weeks ago, four people were shooting photos during the course of the party. At the end of the evening I imported everyone's photos to a Media Center folder and then put on an impromptu "instant replay" slide show.

Although I put a TV tuner card in this system, I hadn't originally intended to use this feature right away. But just for fun I decided to hook up a tiny indoor HD antenna to see what kind of reception I could get. I was shocked to find that the antenna successfully pulled in all but one local digital station. The tuner, in fact, was much more sensitive than the over-the-air tuner in our old DirecTiVo or the new HD-DVR. This coming weekend, I'm adding an outdoor antenna and connecting an SD DirecTV box to the other tuner input.

All of the media files on the 500GB drive are shared over the network. On my office PC, I've set up Windows Photo Gallery to connect directly to the shared photos folder so I can tag, sort, crop, and repair images from the more comfortable two-foot interface. The music collection is shared with every PC in the house as well, which means I no longer have to struggle to keep each of these collections in sync.

And everything is backed up perfectly, thanks to a Windows Home Server box that I'll be writing about next. The system backs itself up automatically every night, and I've tested its restore capabilities to confirm that it really is working.

I haven't spent any time at all benchmarking this system. It gets a 4.2 on the Windows Experience Index and it's impressively fast in every operation I've tried so far, but anyone who's ever put together a home theater system knows that speeds and feeds pale in comparison to the only metric that matters: Spousal Acceptance Factor (SAF). I asked my wife, Judy, to rate this system on a scale of 1 to 10. She gave it a solid 8.

That's good enough for me.