TheONbutton Durham Computer Services

Remote IT Support and Computer & Technology Help in Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh NC

Windows Media Center 7 crashing on Recorded TV scrolling?

Minor freak-out at theONbutton HQ today when Windows 7 Media Center insisted on crashing when trying to scroll through recorded TV.  A quick System Restore to a few hours earlier failed to resolve the issue and panic ensued.  Fortunately this thread at The Green Button suggested simply finding where the scrolling crashes and deleting the offending file.  Problem solved and calm restored :-)

Neil Berman

Oct 3, 2010 Posted by | Home Theater, Photo & Video, Microsoft | , , , | 2 Comments

Google TV: Out of control?

GoogleThe announcement of Google TV yesterday is exciting, both for TV addicts and those who want a full living room internet experience without using a dedicated computer.  After following an impressive press conference, the question in my mind is how a regular person will control this thing.

It looks like Google TV seeks to aggregate content from various delivery channels and offers the end user multiple options for viewing said content.  For example during the presentation a portal page for House was shown offering episodes from Fox HD, USA HD, Bravo HD, and online from Fox, Hulu and Amazon.

While this kind of optionality is great from the point of view that the market can choose which delivery mechanism it wants, I’d say that most people want to flop in front of their TV, press a button and watch their favorite show.  The idea of presenting a regular viewer with so many viewing options, might just end up being too much choice for a simple end user decision.  I think the platform will ultimately need to prioritize certain delivery channels, either through configuration by the user or through agreements between Google and its content partners.

Of course we have all of this choice today and power users would probably love what Google TV looks like today by offering these myriad options through one remote control and one interface.  Windows Media Center provides a similar service but without a usable TV interface for browsing the internet, unless you have a wireless keyboard and a large screen for viewing small text at a distance.

So definitely five stars to Google on this one from the likes of me, I just hope that it’s straightforward enough for the average consumer to control when it hits Best Buy on Main Street.

Neil Berman

May 21, 2010 Posted by | Analysis, Home Theater, Photo & Video | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Building a Windows Media Center HTPC

In January 2009 I started running the Windows 7 Beta followed later in the year by the Release Candidate on my trusty old Pentium 4 living room PC.  In October to coincide with the Windows 7 launch I brought that computer into the modern age but decided to wait a few months to collect my thoughts before sharing the experience. Continue reading about building a Windows Media Center HTPC…

Feb 13, 2010 Posted by | Computing, Guides, Hardware, Home Theater, Photo & Video, Microsoft | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

EFO iPassport review

iPassport backlitOh aren’t living room computers just the best idea!  There’s nothing like having a huge keyboard on the coffee table hugging that hardcover copy of ‘Finest landscape photography’, and how about that wireless mouse which can double up as a paperweight for the New York Times when the windows are open.

Hmmm…someone needs to make a cute, tiny and usable media center keyboard and mouse which can be hidden away real quick when necessary.

To be fair there’s already one solid player in this market, the Logitech diNovo Mini, which at $150 is quite pricey.

Fortunately there’s now a more affordable contender in the form of the EFO iPassport.  Available for around $40 plus shipping, this mashup of a smartphone-style thumboard and notebook trackpad aims to take two familiar input methods and turn them into a tiny wireless solution for controlling a computer…and it works.

Unboxing the EFO iPassport

iPassport front view

The EFO iPassport ships in retail friendly clear plastic (which can easily be opened without needing a saw, yay!), and includes a USB dongle and separate USB charging cable.  The main unit sits comfortably in the hand and is exceptionally light.  Some may find it lacks a quality feel, although the plastic body seems fairly sturdy.  The keys are rubber with similar travel to a typical smartphone.  The keypad also has a backlight, which is a nice touch and essential for theatre-style viewing.

The trackpad buttons have a similar feel to the keypad buttons with minimal travel, but the trackpad itself defaulted to tap-to-click upon install which improves the experience in my opinion.  The one feature lacking from the trackpad is a scrolling area, so you’ll need to call upon the arrow buttons on the keypad.  There’s no multitouch support either, so no MacBook-style two finger scrolling which is a feature every trackpad should have.

Installing and using the EFO iPassport

I installed the iPassport into my ancient living room Pentium 4 which is running Windows 7 RC, and the OS had installed a device driver in the five seconds it took me to get back to the sofa, seriously!  Everything worked just great and my previous (very nice) wireless keyboard with its built-in trackball started the process of gathering dust.  The included documentation notes that recent Windows releases and Linux are supported but according to the reseller’s website the iPassport also supports Mac, Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii.

Now this device might not be the best choice for everyone.  If you struggle with the keys on smartphones then you may also find this thumboard tricky to handle.  Equally if you type a lot then you will probably get more words per minute with a larger keyboard on your lap.  Personally I find myself using my living room media center for watching media and surfing the net, neither of which requires a huge amount of typing.

iPassport side viewSome compromises have also been made regarding the selection of keys on the device, probably due to the size of the unit.  For example there are neither F1-F12 keys nor a Tab key, which I missed when navigating web forms.  Other keys are curiously placed, such as the Enter key which is near the middle of the keypad instead of being on the right.  The arrow buttons straddle the Space bar instead of being clustered on the right and the numeric keypad is in two rows on the left instead of being grouped in threes.  I would have preferred to see a layout closer to a typical BlackBerry thumboard, or one inch of extra width added to the iPassport to accommodate more keys.  Text selection can also be a bit finicky as the arrow keys sometimes behave erratically.

The other caveat is around the design of the iPassport.  This device is likely to live on a coffee table and get plenty of curious attention from visitors.  Put simply the Logitech diNovo Mini kills it in the looks department, so if you’re a design conscious person then the iPassport might not meet your expectations.  It does come in white or black, but it goes about its business in a more functional than designer way.

Is the EFO iPassport worth a try?

Overall I’ve been impressed with the iPassport.  Aside from a quirky key layout, for the money it’s a fun and unique controller.  The backlight and multi-platform support are the icing on the cake.

Neil Berman

Oct 12, 2009 Posted by | Computing, Hardware, Home Theater, Photo & Video, Reviews | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Now we can all install a CableCARD tuner into Windows 7 Media Center, not just OEMs

WMCIt’s widely accepted that Windows Media Center is da bomb when it comes to home media convergence if you want your HTPC setup to include live TV.  But until now, those wanting to view encrypted cable channels have needed to buy a pre-configured HTPC from an OEM with a CableCARD tuner already built-in.

That all changed a few minutes ago when Microsoft announced at CEDIA that “Integrators and enthusiasts can now add Digital Cable Tuners with CableCARD to their PC”.  For now you’re going to need Windows 7 in your HTPC for this, unless Microsoft publishes an update for previous versions.

We didn’t see that one coming Microsoft, but you just made the Media Center HTPC faithful waaaaay happy.

CES 2010 update: Check out our video discussion with Microsoft about the Ceton CableCARD quad tuner.

Neil Berman

Sep 9, 2009 Posted by | Computing, Home Theater, Photo & Video, Microsoft, News | , , , , | Leave a comment

Windows 7 Beta Review

windows-7-media-center-viral-videosI’ve been eager to give the Windows 7 Beta a workout following the demos I saw at CES.

My living room Media Center PC was an ideal candidate.  It’s a three year old Pentium 4 which takes care of all our viewing, media and browsing needs on Windows XP Media Center 2005.  Microsoft has claimed that Windows 7 is a streamlined OS capable of running on lower spec hardware than Vista, it’s time to see if that’s really true…

Test environment

windows-7-performance-indexFor reference my PC is running a 2.93GHz P4 with 3GB DDR400 RAM, 500GB hard disk and a low end Geforce 7200GS.  Not the most scintillating system by modern standards and probably equivalent to a $250 purchase these days from the refurbished inventory of e-tailers.  The version of Windows 7 Beta I have is Build 7000.  I’ll refer to it as W7B in this article.

Installations never go smoothly…or do they?

Installation was initially nerveracking but ultimately painless.  Nerveracking because I had to split a live primary partition into two, to create a boot partition for the new OS.  Painless because once Linux GParted had done its partitioning stuff, Windows 7 Beta installed in superfast time, restarting a couple of times and then it was done.  I had backed up my XP partition to another drive just in case, but fortunately all went according to the masterplan and W7B automatically created a dual-boot environment for me.  XP booted just like before and I so was all set for my W7B test.

windows-7-desktopStopwatch at the ready

The first thing I noticed was a faster boot time.  This could have been due to having a fresh install so I initially reserved judgement on that one.  However now that three weeks has passed and I’ve installed everything I’m likely to for a while, the swift boot-up lives on.  It’s not a life changing improvement but in the region of ten seconds faster than my XP boot sequence once all startup items have completed.

Sounding off

All navigation elements were very responsive: Aero, widgets and snap-to-edge all performed well with no lag.  But then I noticed there was no sound.  W7B had found my motherboard’s SPDIF output but did not configure it correctly.  A quick internet search revealed the latest Vista drivers which duly solved the issue.  In fact I now get proper Dolby transmission and far more signal reaching my amp, which means having to apply less gain within the amp therefore achieving a better signal-to-noise ratio than with my XP setup.

Taskbar implemented cum laude

windows-7-taskbarTaskbar, oh glorious taskbar.  So much has been written of thee already, what can I add?  This really is a great addition in W7B, I can envisage how well it could work once the touch interface gets enabled on the full release.  Seeing thumbnail representations of an application’s open windows is a fantastic browsing aid.  Being able to jump into application functions directly from thumbnail menus takes everything a step further.  Best of all, the thumbnails are dynamic representations so if you are waiting for a window to complete a certain action you can hover over its taskbar icon to view its progress in the thumbnail.

CPU and Resource Management

Having an older spec PC presented a good opportunity to see how W7B would cope with average resources.  windows-7-resource-monitorIn the initial days following installation I noticed some frantic CPU and disk activity, which I traced to Windows Media Player cataloging my music and video collection.  Once that was done, CPU activity became XP-like whilst memory allocation was definitely smarter.

Like Vista, W7B was able to address all 3GB of RAM whilst my 32-bit XP build was never capable of this.  W7B also supports ReadyBoost so I threw in a 4GB SDHC card and dedicated the whole thing to the OS.  That’s a cheap 4GB at $10, although ReadyBoost doesn’t make use of flash cards in quite the same way as conventional RAM.  However the combination keeps my paging file to a minimum and I’ve not experienced memory crunches.

Windows Firewall

The versions of Windows Firewall built into XP and Vista were never taken too seriiously by the security fraternity due their inability to block outbound traffic.  So whilst others had difficulty reaching your computer, your computer could reach others…which is a pretty big risk given the amount of nasty malware out there.  The W7B Firewall changes all that with firewall rules configurable for incoming and outgoing traffic.  This could seriously hurt the likes of ZoneAlarm and others, who have thrived to date on the weakness of Windows Firewall.  I run ZoneAlarm on my XP partition, but I haven’t needed to download it for my W7B setup so far.

Internet TV & Media Center

windows-7-media-center-internet-tv-guideEver since the touchscreen demo of W7B Media Center I saw at CES, I’ve been aching to try out the integration of Internet TV in the EPG.  Until now we’ve needed to open a browser, navigate to NBC’s website, find the news page, find the video page and then start streaming the news.  W7B changes this by putting content from (and many others) right into the EPG so it’s accessible from within Media Center with the remote control.

The demo of this looked awesome and it’s just as good in my living room.  Content takes a little while longer to access than regular TV channels, but it’s a heck of a great feature and the integration is seamless.  News, concerts, full episodes are all available and free to access with occasional advertisements for some content.


windows-7-snap-to-sideThrowing a widow to the side of the screen results in W7B automatically resizing it to fill half the screen.  This makes comparing documents or images super easy.  Throwing to the top maximizes the window.  Again it’s easy to see how these small but useful enhancements will make life easier once the touch version gets released.

What’s needs work?

Hmmm…I haven’t found anything yet inherent in W7B which consistently fails.  My sound sometimes cuts out following a video call, which could be a driver issue.  My computer wakes from standby mode much more often than it did in XP, probably due to some strange service which I might not need to be running.  Skype is not yet fully compatible.  There’s also a registry fix out there for .msi installers which fail – I had an issue installing Office 2007 and when the installer failed W7B automatically downloaded the fix article from Microsoft’s knowledge base…finally intelligent context sensitive help has arrived.  After following the instructions in the article to update the problematic registry entry the installer worked.

A game-changer for Microsoft?

Apart from that the whole experience has just worked superbly and I’m happily running W7B as my everyday environment now.  The Beta version expires on August 1st, so perhaps this hints at the possible release timing of the full version.  Remember that the release version will hopefully be touch-enabled, so that will be a whole new ball-game, and from what I’ve seen so far Microsoft could hit a home run with this one.

Neil Berman

Feb 1, 2009 Posted by | CES, Computing, Microsoft, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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