Some years ago, it wasn’t but a handful of people who tried to connect their PCs with a TV set and turn them into “Entertainment Systems”. Where most were OK with a descent DVD player, that could also support music and pictures, others wanted to be able to watch movies and surf the web from the comfort of their sofa. Recently however, the initials HTPC are part of many people’s lives and there’s a whole branch of the industry dealing with “Media Centers”.
My own interpretation of a Media Center, has always been a spare PC next to or under my TV. Because of my line of work, I often come across pieces of hardware, so having a box or two laying around is really no bιg deal and through the years, a number of systems found their way to my TV. The latest incarnation of “Largo” is a system with the following specs:
Intel Dual Core @ 1,8GHz
ATI RADEON x1950
Not exactly top notch, but I thought I did not really need anything more than that. When I first acquired this box, I chose to install Windows 7 and use XBMC as my media center software. I am a huge fan of XBMC and I always regretted not having an XBoX to play with. My motherboard features the Intel HDA sound chip, which means it should be able to handle 7.1 digital and analog sound. At first, I would not care about that,
since I used my TV for sound, having no receiver or speakers.
Sometime ago, I came across a set of 5.1 active speakers (meant to be used with a PC), so you understand I wanted to have surround sound. For some reason that would not work at all. Feeling an urge to experiment, I decided to try out Linux for my media center.
First of all, I installed Mint, my favorite (so far) flavor of Linux. Installation was problem free and as soon as it was finished, it prompted me to install the proprietary drivers for my ATI card, which of course I did. I then did a system update to be sure I have the latest whatever. Next thing was XMBC for Linux.
According to the XBMC Wiki, all I had to do was the following four steps:
sudo add-apt-repository ppa:team-xbmc
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install xbmc
sudo apt-get update
Simple stuff, no? A few minutes later, I was finished and I eagerly sat down to try m
y new Media Center out. At first I tested it with an SD Avi file and everything was OK. But as soon as I tried to play HD content, it all went down hill. Even at 720p, playback was choppy and of course I did not have 5.1 sound.
I spent a good amount of time trying to figure out how to fix surround. I read a lot of tutorials, I tried a lot of solutions, but I could not seem to make it work. At some point, I even managed to break stereo sound!
I was beginning to feel very frustrated. If it was some other time, perhaps I would bust my ass off to try and fix it. I mean others have had no problems with machines similar to mine, so I figure if I had insisted, I might have made it. But now, I just wanted to be able to watch my movies and series on my TV, so I went to plan B:
First of all, I installed again Windows 7. There were no missing drivers, so I just installed all the recent updates. Then I followed this guide. Basically, what Kris did, was to install CoreAVC, Haali’s Media Splitter and AC3 Filter. In my case, Haali’s was installed together with CoreAVC, so I only had to download and install AC3 Filter.
If you follow Kris’s guide, you will see he’s doing some registry mambo jumbo at some point. The reason for that, is that Microsoft tried to hi-jack multimedia playback, by introducing Media Foundation. Among other things, Media Foundation locks media playback to use Microsoft’s native decoders, which in our case means that video will not be played through CoreAVC and we have a reason for installing it don’t we?
At this point, I have not yet performed the registry hack and 1080p playback is smooth. This probably means that I’m using Microsoft decoders, or the developers of CoreAVC finally found a way to circumvent Media Foundation. I am not sure which one is it, so I will have to run some tests. Finally, I no longer use XBMC, but switched to Windows Media Center, at least until I figure out a way to fix multichannel analog sound in XBMC.
Bottom line: I am able to play HD video and have sound in all 5.1 channels and I am very very pleased. I would suggest you give the Linux/XBMC solution a try, because after all, we are talking about free open source software. I will get back to it, as soon as I get my hands on a more powerful machine.