More Fun With PC Hardware

In my last entry, I wrote about how I’d built a new Home Theater PC (HTPC). Well, it’s been about a month since that event, and much has happened to me with respect to this project that you may find interesting–or at the very least informational.

I was trying to encode the high-definition video and audio content streams from National Treasure 2 into a WMV/WMA stream file. My next article will contain details on this process, but I will warn you in advance–encoding Blu-ray content to high-definition streams takes a while. It’s taken me an average of about 26 hours per title, so far. I’ve only got a few, so I haven’t been too worried about it. But it does bother me when something terminates the process after it’s 89 percent completed–several times in a row!

First we had a power outage. Okay. Restart and go away for another day. Then (again at 89 percent), Windows blue-screened and rebooted. Vista reported it as a USB problem. Hmmm… Okay, start it up again. Another blue-screen. This time it was a memory problem. Okay, now this was starting to get on my nerves. I was beginning to believe that Disney had managed some how to add code to their content streams that would crash my machine at 89 percent! Okay, not really, but if I were the superstitious type…

But this time the system wouldn’t even boot. Thirty-one days after the invoice date on my new HTPC, the Gigabyte motherboard went kaput. Guess how many days from the invoice date until NewEgg won’t provide a Return Merchandise Authorization (RMA) number for a defective motherboard? You got it–thirty days. NewEgg’s RMA service is completely automated, so if you need an RMA number, you simply go online, select the past invoice in your account with the defective hardware, and click on it for more instructions. But after thirty days, the line item on the invoice for a motherboard becomes grey’ed out, so you can’t select it.

Luckily, Gigabyte is a reputable company, and was more than willing to talk to me about my options. They really wanted to walk me through some diagnostics before shipping motherboards back and forth. This is a good thing for both the company and the customer. Often, what appears to be a defective motherboard is really a bad processor, or a defective memory stick.

Not in this case, however. I had already performed all of the diagnostics requested by the technician by the time I spoke with him on the phone. Mostly, this involved disconnecting all of the devices from the motherboard, except the CPU, which is required in this case, and of course, the power supply connections, and then hooking up a speaker and listening for diagnostic tones when you power up the system. In my case, there were no diagnostic tones under any circumstances–a bad sign all around.

As a side note here, most motherboard manufacturers that sell directly to the end-user have already “wised up” about diagnostics. Most of them have added circuitry to their systems that will run diagnostics without requiring the CPU to be installed. This really cuts down on “No Trouble Found” (NTF) returns. I suggested through email that Gigabyte do the same with their hardware, and was informed that my suggestion would be passed on to the appropriate product groups. Frankly, I’m pretty sure they’ve already considered the idea, and are even possibly incorporating it into their newer designs.

The last thing the technician wanted me to try was swapping out the CPU. I told him I wasn’t a professional system builder. That was all I needed to say. He understood and said, “Okay then, we’ll play the board swap game.” (Basically, I’m not in the habit of keeping spare $80 CPU’s laying around, just in case I need to test a motherboard.)

Making Lemonade

After the call ended I had a thought: I’ve already wished more than once that I had originally purchased a quad processor CPU and more RAM–4GB instead of the 2GB that I started with. Each core in the CPU can be used by the TMPGEnc 4.0 Xpress batch encoder to independently transcode a video stream. With 4 CPU’s instead of 2, I can transcode 4 movies at a time. And this was the perfect opportunity to get an upgrade. So back I went to my browser, and ordered an AMD Phenom X4 9750 processor–the most advanced low-wattage processor this motherboard would handle–and a 2 x 2GB memory kit.

I couldn’t get Crucial memory from the company I used (Directron–NewEgg didn’t carry that particular CPU), but this turned out to be a good thing anyway. (This will make more sense in a few paragraphs.) By the way, I’m almost as impressed with my Directron shopping experience as I have been with my NewEgg experience.

It’s a minimum 3 week turn-around on an RMA with Gigabyte, and I didn’t want to wait that long. So I also went back to NewEgg and bought a duplicate Gigabyte motherboard. Why? Well, I like this board–I just had back luck with one of them. Stuff like this happens with computer hardware, so you have to be ready for it. This doesn’t mean you have to pay for it. You just have to be prepared to use the RMA process as part of a do-it-yourself computer project.

Another reason I bought another motherboard is to maximize the value of the loss I’d already sustained upgrading to a better CPU. I’d just use the replacement motherboard, and the original dual core CPU to upgrade the family computer. After installing the new board, I could see that the original board was indeed defective, so I felt good about having sent the old one in for replacement.

My new CPU and memory sticks hadn’t arrived yet, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t get on with the task at hand–converting my DVD’s and Blu-ray discs to stream files that I could watch on my XBox!

When It Rains…

Okay, so now I’m back in business. I restarted the encoding process for National Treasure 2, and came back the next morning to find…would you believe it!? Windows had rebooted after about 89 percent! Honestly! What is going on here?!

Rather than go through this 24 hour process yet again with my fingers crossed, I decided to become a bit more proactive about my troubleshooting techniques. I booted up the Vista installation CD and selected the “Repair” option, which brought up a menu containing several diagnostic and repair options. One of them was a memory checker. I ran it and Vista immediately found problems with my Crucial 1GB memory sticks. Certain values, when written to certain locations in memory, were different when read back again. This is never a good sign for memory sticks. They only have one job–to remember perfectly every value written to them.

But, to be sure, I downloaded the ISO image for MemTest86+, a freeware memory testing program, and burned a bootable CD. I then booted up the MemTest86+ CD and ran the program over night. In the morning, it had found over 230 errors in my RAM. Okay, I have bad memory also. Weird, but not unheard of. So I headed back to my browser and went to NewEgg again, taking some comfort in the fact that their memory return policy was much better than their CPU or motherboard policies.

While it’s true that NewEgg will RMA defective memory sticks for up to one year, in my case, the product had been discontinued, so the memory kit line item was also grey’ed out on my invoice. So I went to Crucial’s web site. Ah, no wonder NewEgg didn’t sell the product anymore. Crucial had discontinued it. Am I jinxed, or what!? So I called NewEgg, and they said they would gladly take the memory back and replace it with a similar product. This is why I like doing business with this company. They appear to be truly interested in retaining their customers.

But I thought I’d do some research on these memory sticks, while I was at it. After a few Google searches, I found myself staring at the customer review page for the product on (none other than) NewEgg’s website! If I had read the reviews for this memory kit, I probably would have gone with a different brand in the first place.

The trouble is, according to previous customers, Crucial and a few other companies rate their memory products based on over-clocking practices, rather than on standard motherboard settings. 240-pin DDR2 memory sticks are supposed to operate correctly on 1.8 volts, but sometimes manufacturers test their products at 1.9, 2.0 and 2.1 volts, so they can increase the apparent marketing value of their products. But what about the poor sap that doesn’t know anything about over-clocking, or worse yet–doesn’t own a motherboard designed to configure these parameters?

Gigabyte is what you might call a “progressive” motherboard company. Their motherboards are designed with over-clockers in mind. That is, the BIOS can be configured to manage all sorts of low-level voltage and clock settings. And the manual goes into great detail on how and why you might wish to use these settings–all underwritten with a major disclaimer about damage due to “improperly” using them.

I bumped the memory voltage from 1.8 to 1.9 and reloaded the memory tests. After an hour, I began to get errors again. So I went back into the BIOS and bumped the memory voltage up to 2.1 volts–the highest setting allowed by the software. Another hour of testing showed that I was still getting errors. At this point, I had to assume that the memory was just plain defective.

Upon further thought, it occured to me that these bad memory sticks may very well have been responsible for damaging the original motherboard. So I reset the BIOS settings to normal, shut down the system and waited for my new CPU and memory to arrive. While I waited, I popped out the old memory sticks and sent them back to NewEgg under RMA.

During this whole process, I’ve learned a few lessons about building PC’s. For one thing, I’ve learned about the value of burn-in tests for new systems. Had I spent a couple of days up front running memory diagnostics like MemTest86+, I’d have found out about the memory problems early–perhaps in time to have saved the original motherboard (if the Crucial memory problems did in fact destroy the motherboard, as I suspect).

Really Back in Business!

The next day, my new parts arrived in the mail. I popped in the new 9750 CPU and 2 x 2GB memory sticks, booted up the MemTest86+ CD (I have learned my lesson), and tested the memory for several hours. No defects. Incidentally, this reminded me of the days when you had to do this with new hard drives. The difference with hard drives was that you could mark the bad sectors as “bad”, and end up with just a little less space on your new hard drive. (We’ve somehow gotten past this these days with IDE and SATA drives. I believe I read somewhere that they come pre-tested with all the potentially bad sectors already marked for you!)

Next I completely reinstalled Windows Vista, which wasn’t too hard since I’d stored all my previously encoded content on a secondary 1TB hard drive. The OS drive was only 250 GB, and contained only a few programs that I’d installed for the purpose of encoding my content. After reinstalling these programs, I fired up TMPGEnc 4.0 Xpress and began the long arduous process of encoding National Treasure 2 again. I started this last night, so it’s not yet finished. Nevertheless, I have every confidence that it will complete this time (but I’m still going to cross my fingers when it gets close to 89 percent…)

As soon as the replacement motherboard arrives from Gigabyte, and the replacement memory sticks come back from NewEgg, then I’ll get to work on the family computer. The kids won’t know what happened when they boot up Windows XP home and find themselves on the login screen before they have time to run to the kitchen for a snack!


Confessions of a Video Addict

I’ve long been interested in home theater as a hobby. My family doesn’t watch much TV. This is mainly because a few years back, through an almost comical set of circumstances, I ended up cancelling my DishNetwork subscription. Since then, everyone’s been so busy with life and stuff, that we’ve never really missed “America’s Top 150”. It’s always been a bit of a joke around our house anyway that “AT/150” really should have been named “AT/15” – I just could never find enough really interesting, family-friendly content on the other 135 channels. It reminds me of that episode of the Simpsons where the pious next-door neighbor, Flanders buys a new satellite receiver. When Homer comes over to try it out, he finds all 250 channels “locked out”! “Doh!”

Regardless of my family’s attitude toward broadcast content, we do like to watch movies. I’ve had a Sanyo PLV-Z2 home theater projector for several years now. Given how much we’ve used it, the bulb should have been gone long ago, but it’s still putting out the lumens like it was new. If you like home theater and you’re considering buying a projector, then I have a tip for you: Don’t buy a spare projector bulb when you buy your projector. That way, when the bulb goes, you have a great excuse to upgrade your projector. Bulbs cost between 3 and 5 hundred dollars. With current projectors (such as the much newer PLV-Z700 [EDIT: The PLV-Z2000 has recently been discontinued in favor of the coming release of the PLV-Z700 in mid October ’08 — the specs are almost identical on these two units, and the PLV-Z700 is a couple of hundred dollars less.]) costing around $1800 dollars, it’s not a tough choice. It’s not quite as bad as the laser-printer-to-cartridge cost ratio, but it’s close enough.

Recently I read a great article on Ars Technica about building a Home Theater PC (HTPC). I’ve been aware of the concept of HTPC’s for some time now, but they’ve always been just outside my price range. This article got me all excited again about the possibility of building one for my home theater. The commercial hardware and software to make one feasible has recently become both widely available and reasonably cost-effective.

The System

What I like about Ars Technica’s HTPC system design is that it’s broad enough to be easily tailored to individual budgets, needs and tastes, and yet down to earth enough to be implemented by the average tinkerer. I enjoy building systems, and what makes this one interesting to me is that it’s not something that can be purchased outright. Very few of the mainstream system builders (Dell and Gateway, for instance) are selling PC’s today that are actually designed to be used as components in home theater systems. And yet motherboard and case manufacturers are already providing great inexpensive tools toward this very goal. When things like this begin to happen, you know it won’t be long before you’ll be able to buy components from Crutchfield that look like stereo equipment, but act like computers.

I had two goals in building my version of the one advertised in the article. First, I wanted to stay under 800 dollars. That was the limit imposed by my wife – and I agreed with her. (We actually get along pretty well when it comes to spending money on toys – we tend to stay pretty even with each other.) My system consists of the following components:

  • 1 – Antec Veris Fusion v2 Black 430 Micro ATX Media Center case.
  • 1 – Gigabyte GA-MA78GM-S2H motherboard.
  • 1 – AMD Athlon 64 X2 5200+ 2.7 Ghz 65W dual-core processor.
  • 1 – Scythe Ninja Mini CPU cooler.
  • 1 – 2 GB (2 x 1Gb) Crucial Ballistix DDR2 800 SDRAM.
  • 1 – Western Digital 250 Gb (Blue) SATA 3 Hard Drive.
  • 1 – Western Digital 1 Tb (Green) SATA 3 Hard Drive.
  • 1 – Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-1800 MCE PCI Express interface card.

Total price: 762 USD, plus 15 dollars shipping and handling. Here’s my NewEgg HTPC wishlist. (EDIT: I’ve had trouble with my NewEgg public wish lists remaining stable, as it were–they tend to modify themselves without any human intervention, so please take this NewEgg list with a grain of salt.) I added a keyboard, mouse and an old 1280 x 1024 capable monitor I had laying around the house.

I’ve never had an AMD-based system before – I’ve always just assumed that Intel had the upper hand on quality and compatibility. But I’m so impressed with its price/performance ratio that I’m seriously considering making AMD my processor of choice from now on.

Configuration Issues

The only problem I had assembling and configuring this system was that I couldn’t initially get the Vacuum Fluorescent Display (VFD) that came integrated with the Antec case to display any data. I checked and double-checked the wiring, even reversing polarity on connections that might possibly have been polarized.

When I called Antec about the problem, the technician I spoke with suggested that I ensure that the drivers were installed properly, and that the USB cable was plugged into the internal USB header correctly. I was surprised they didn’t have any other suggestions, because a quick Google search pointed me to several conversation threads in various Audio/Visual forums where other people had similar problems. I never saw a good solution, however.

Here’s what I did to get mine working – and I consider this solution to be a work-around to a bug in the Antec VFD USB circuitry: First, I had to uninstall all VFD related software. One of the problems appears to be that the driver disc that comes with the Antec case has drivers for Windows XP Media Center, not Windows Vista Media Center. The XP drivers simply won’t work under Vista, but there’s no documentation indicating this issue.

Instead, you need to go to the the SoundGraph support site and download the latest Vista VFD drivers – I installed the latest beta drivers. SoundGraph wrote the drivers for the Antec VFD, and has integrated them into a configuration package that provides a front-panel configuration utility. Using this utility, you can configure the VFD to display just about anything you might want to. It’s really pretty cool stuff.

Next, you have to do something really weird. After you’ve properly installed the new drivers, reboot your machine, remove the cover while it’s still running, and disconnect the three-wire VFD power connector (purple, red and black). Wait a couple of seconds and then reconnect it. The iMon software driver installer will appear on your desktop, and within seconds your VFD will begin to display information properly. The USB standard indicates that it’s supposed to do this for you, but with the Antec USB interface, you actually have to power down the VFD while the USB cable is plugged in to get it to install the proper driver.

The Operating System

My software of choice? Windows Vista Media Center Edition. Now before you get into a big huff about my chosing commercial software over freeware, let me just say that I’ve been working on this stuff for a long time now, and I really do understand the pros and the cons of using both. If you’ve got the hundred bucks for Vista WMC, the difference in user experience is well worth the money.

One thing I’ll say for the folks in Redmond – when they put their minds to something, nothing is left to chance, and this sentiment applies well to the Microsoft eHome group. They’re working frantically to beat the competition to market in this area. Features are added faster than I can keep up. And, with Windows online update service, new features are available in this version, not just the next time you upgrade.

Case in point: The XBox 360 picked up streaming DivX support just last December (07). That’s after I bought my 360 in November. Yet I have DivX support today – all it took was a 5 minute download on the 360 console, which happened automatically when I tried to play my first DivX movie, streamed from Windows Media Player.

Connecting an HTPC to a TV (or Projector)

I have a slightly older projector. The Sanyo PLV-Z2 can only accept analog input via standard component video RCA jacks, and it only displays 1080i video. I also have a somewhat dated Denon 7.1 channel Dolby Digital/DTS decoder. This amplifier is also a video switcher, but will only switch composite, s-video and component video sources, and doesn’t do any up-conversion between these formats. It’s been good for me for several years, so I’m not complaining (much). The newer systems all do HDMI video switching and will do up-conversion – all for a lesser price tag. Oh well, that’s technology for you.

The point, however, is that the Gigabyte motherboard has that sweet AMD (ATI) 780G on-board video processor (which is why I didn’t have to buy a video card). This chipset provides both analog and digital video via VGA, DVI-I and HDMI ports, available through the I/O panel. But no component video. Don’t even bother considering a video converter. They exist alright, and you can pick one up for about 130 dollars from Audio Authority, but due to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA), it’s literally illegal (at least in the United States) for these devices to convert any video that’s HDCP-encoded, which includes most Blu-ray content. Blu-ray content is only displayed on digital outputs, and encrypted with HD Content Protection (HDCP). Thus, as the man at the gas station says, “Ya can’t get there from here.”

This means that even if I did plug my new HTPC into my existing home theater system, I literally couldn’t play any of my Blu-ray discs in the BD-ROM drive. Since I can’t play anything from disc, that only leaves the option of ripping content and playing unencrypted streams from the hard drive (not counting the far less viable option of spending another 3 grand updating my amp and projector).

(EDIT: I’ve since discovered that you can, in fact, play Blu-ray disks, and have the content displayed just fine on any analog display device. Apparently the MPAA doesn’t consider analog 1080i picture quality a threat to their income.)

This isn’t as bad as you might think. Dozens of my DVDs have seen better days just because my kids don’t spend their hard-earned cash buying them. But that’s the way kids are. I try to teach them to be careful, but they really won’t become careful until they do spend their own money.

My solution is to rip everything, convert to DivX and put my discs in a closet for safe-keeping. DMCA or not, there’s nothing immoral about what I’m doing. While it may be technically illegal, the only thing I’m withholding from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is any additional cash I might spend on a new copy of a disc I’ve already purchased, but which is now too scratched up to use.

(EDIT: I’ve since discovered, through a closer examination of the DMCA wording, that it’s not actually illegal to make copies of your purchased media. What’s illegal is either selling them or giving them away, or creating and distributing tools that help other people make such copies. It’s a strange world we live in!)

I’ve contacted media sources for this very reason in the past, and I could almost hear the glee in their voices when they told me that there’s simply no recourse for a scratched disc. I have to purchase a new one. It makes me angry just thinking about it.

Since I’m going to rip and convert all my content anyway, there’s really no point in connecting the HTPC directly to the projector. Not when an XBox 360 is a perfectly good WMC extender. And the ability to use a 360 as a WMC extender is about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen Microsoft provide. It works like Windows remote desktop. It’s just as if you’re sitting at your PC screen with Windows Media Center in full-screen mode. And the PC doesn’t even have to be running WMC! There’s a media center agent that runs WMC in the background for remote extenders.

Since the 360 will drive my projector at 1080i over component video, I can leave my noisy PC in my work room. (In point of fact, with two 120 mm fans running at low speed, the system is really very quiet – almost silent.) I can then simply stream HD video and live or recorded TV right to my 360 in high definition, letting the XBox drive the projector at 1080i. Since it’s more comfortable to sit at my desk while I’m ripping and converting, this setup works quite well for me.

The Software

While HTPC hardware is coming down in price and going up in features – literally on a daily basis – the software is still a bit rough around the edges, which is another reason I recommend using Windows Media Center. You’ll have a difficult enough time getting your media configured to play the way you want, without worrying about getting the right mix of hardware and open source or free software to work correctly on your HTPC. After much experimentation, I settled on two commercial packages – both providing at least two-week free trial periods:

AnyDVDHD will rip literally anything from DVD, HD-DVD or Blu-ray discs – encoded, encrypted, encased in kryptonite – it doesn’t really matter. And it removes all the various rediculous copy protection schemes, in the process. You’ll then have DVD or HD content from your media in a format with which you can do something useful. The cost: 100 bucks. Sorry, but you get what you pay for in this area. The free stuff is available, but it usually breaks down on the disc you want most to rip.

(EDIT: AnyDVDHD is copy protection circumvention software and as such, according to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998, is illegal contraband material. To avoid prosecution or shutdown of this blog, I’m not linking to the site directly. You’ll have to use Google or your favorite search engine to find references to AnyDVDHD or SlySoft on your own. I’m sorry, but this is what our society has come to.)

How do they get away with providing a product like this? After all, it is illegal under the DMCA. They can do it because the software is completely developed and marketed on the Internet outside the United States. (I have a similar tool, called TuneBite for decrypting music files so I can put them on my daughter’s Rio. Tunebite is developed in Romania.)

TMPGEnc 4.0 XPress is an audio/video format converter that does just as well on format conversion as AnyDVDHD does on ripping content. Pegasys advertises that it converts virtually any format to any format, and they aren’t lying. It comes with native support for DivX, but if you want to get down and dirty with your special HD camera codecs, it will allow you direct access to any installed Video for Windows codec. This includes external Xvid or DivX pro codecs. The cost: another 100 bucks…and worth every penny for the simplicity and power that it grants you to do what you want without hassle.

The trial versions of these packages are a bit crippled in various ways, but they were functional enough to tell me that the hundred-dollar costs of each weren’t going to be wasted.

Ripping and converting is a dark art. There are a lot of “tutorials” but very few instruction manuals. The only reason I can think of for this is that, as I mentioned above, it’s basically illegal to do it. Regardless of your intentions or motivations, the law is the law, and no commercial enterprise wants to get their hand slapped for providing instructions for doing something illegal.

Given the lobbying power behind the DMCA, doing so is about equivalent to providing on-line detailed instructions for creating a homemade nuclear device. Most of the information you’ll find that’s very useful will be from sources outside the US. A really good source of fairly up-to-date information is the Doom9 web site. Click on the “Guides” link sometime when you have a few hours of reading time in front of you.

The Work Flow

To get you on the fast path, I’ll explain my work flow and the options I use to get the most out of streaming video. First, here are a few links to important facts about streaming video to the XBox 360:

The XBox support site also has detailed instructions on how to connect your 360 to your WMC PC, but it’s trivial enough to do that I didn’t even need these instructions.

There are a few facts about digital media formats that you should know before you start. These are hard to find – especially if you’re not looking for them to begin with. In the first place, while you can now stream DivX and Xvid to the 360, the only format that will stream 5.1 channel audio is WMV. With all the press coverage that the December ’07 360 console update received regarding the new DivX support feature, you’d have thought it was the next best thing to sliced bread.

For my purposes, DivX video without 5.1 channel audio is useless. At least half of the home theater experience is related to audio. I find it difficult to believe that people are willing to settle for simple 2 channel stereo in a home theater system these days. Here’s the configuration that worked for me:

Blu-Ray Video Specifications

  • Windows Media Video (WMV) 9 Advanced Profile
  • 1920 x 1080, 30 frames per second, progressive
  • 2 Pass Variable Bit Rate (VBR), 10,000 kb/s (avg)

Blu-Ray Audio Specifications

  • Windows Media Audio (WMA) 10 Professional
  • 48 Hz, 5.1 Channel Audio, 24 bits
  • 2 Pass, Variable Bit Rate (VBR), 256 kb/s (avg)

DVD Video Specifications

  • Windows Media Video (WMV) 9 Advanced Profile
  • 720 x 480, 30 frames per second, progressive
  • 2 Pass Variable Bit Rate (VBR), 1500 kb/s (avg)

DVD Audio Specifications

  • Windows Media Audio (WMA) 10 Professional
  • 44 Hz, 5.1 Channel Audio, 16 bits
  • 2 Pass, Variable Bit Rate (VBR), 128 kb/s (avg)

These are the only streamable audio/video configurations I could find that would stream HD video and 5.1 channel audio while using the 360 as a WMC extender. If you don’t mind popping out of extender mode into the 360 dashboard to watch Divx movies, then you can also stream similiar video and audio using Divx/avi files. On this issue, I have to agree with many a forum participant (read, “complainer”) regarding Microsoft’s decision not to support 5.1 channel audio in Divx streams through the extender interface. They hate it, and so do I. It’s just plain lame that the 360 can handle divx with 5.1 channel audio, but not through the WMC extender interface. Oh, well. When that functionality is finally added, I’ll just re-encode to Divx.

Now, you may have a few questions about this configuration. For instance, why did I go to all the trouble of encoding 5.1 channel, 16 bit audio, only to limit my bit rate to 128 kb/s? Well, frankly I defy anyone to tell the difference between 128 kb/s and 256 kb/s. Most of the mp3 audio files we download from iTunes or Amazon these days are 160 kb/s data files. iTunes recently came out with their iTunes Plus program, which makes some music available unencrypted, and at a higher, 256 kb/s bit rate. I’ve upgraded some of the music in my library to iTunes Plus – mainly so I could get it in an unencrypted format, but I can’t tell the difference between 168 kb/s and 256 kb/s. I simply can’t. Some may be able to, but the difference is nearly indistinguishable to the human ear. If you’re worried about it, use 256 kb/s instead of 128. The audio stream size difference is negligible compared to the video stream in the data file anyway.

Another question you might ask me is why I’m using 1920 x 1080 in my blu-ray video streams, when the native size of my projector is 1280 x 720. The reason is that the projector has some very sophisticated video scaling circuitry that can easily convert a 1080 line picture to 720 lines of native resolution. At some point, I’ll upgrade my PLV-Z2 projector to a PLV-Z700, which has a native 1080 scan lines of resolution. When I do that, I’ll see a noticable improvement in video quality from my HD video files.

The same question could be asked in reverse of the DVD-quality video streams. I’m encoding 720 x 480 video streams, so my projector has to upscale the picture to 1280 x 720. In this case, 720 x 480 is the best I can get from DVD video. The projector will do a better job of scaling than will my software encoder, so I see no reason to make my video files larger than I have to.

Unanswered Questions…

Could someone please tell me how to discern the difference between 1000 kb/s video and 10,000 kb/s video? I encoded The Waterhorse at 10,000 kb/s, but I encoded a 50 second sample from the beginning at 1000 kb/s, and I simply can’t see any discernible difference. The difference in file size is enormous. The entire movie, encoded at 10,000 kb/s is about 8.5 Gb, which isn’t bad, given that the original mpeg-2 Blu-ray encoding was 29 Gb. If I encode the entire film at 1000 kb/s, however, it drops to an amazing 1 Gb – I can fit that onto a normal DVD, along with 4 other movies!

Despite my apparent enthusiasm at these compression ratios, I’m still a purist at heart. I’d like to say I’m watching better quality video. Perhaps it’s just the fact that I’m watching on a 1080i projector that down-converts to a native resolution equivalent to 720p. Perhaps a native 1080p projector or a native 1080p LCD or plasma display would make all the difference. Oh well. I’ll have to find out later, when I can afford the upgrade.

Incidentally, I also compared these samples on a regular monitor. I still can’t see a difference. Both pictures look sharp and clear. Neither one looks quite as good as watching the movie right from the Blu-ray disc using PowerDVD-HD. I attribute that mostly to the fact that I encoded the samples at a lower resolution, not a lower bit-rate.

Stay tuned, because I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this topic later.

Installing Windows XP on a SATA Drive

This is probably the 1000th article on the Internet about how to install Windows XP on a SATA drive; believe me, I’ve read most of them. The trouble is that most of them tell you about 80 percent of what you need to know, and leave the rest for you to figure out on your own. I hope this one is different – better, that is.

I have several computers in my home. One of them is a family computer that the kids use to play games and write school papers. It’s in the library, which is basically an unused room in the center of our house that is open enough to be watched by my wife and me when the kids are on the Internet, and yet private enough to give them the peace they need when doing an undesirable homework assignment (of which they indicate they have too many).

A few months ago, my son complained to me that he couldn’t install a game because the computer was “out of space”. I checked it out, thinking that I could just delete some other unwanted things. As I went through the “Add/Remove Programs” menu with him, it quickly became apparent that everything there was “too important to delete”. You see, I’d already used this trick several months earlier for the same reason, and apparently the hard drive really was full this time – not surprising since it was a only 16 GB hard drive. This always amazes me, since my first computer had a whopping 40 MB hard drive – I thought I’d died and gone to computer heaven at the time. However, I really do know better. While some complain that software has simply gotten out of control these days, the real problem is the content; multimedia-rich data files take up most of our hard drive space. On top of that, my daughter stores her iTunes music files on that drive: Need I elaborate?

A New Hard Drive

So I moved over to my laptop at the desk in the same room, opened a browser and logged into one of my favorite hardware sites: ZipZoomFly. Picking up a new hard drive was child’s play, and choosing a fast SATA drive to replace the old slow IDE drive was a no-brainer. I haven’t done this in a while, and so I was surprised that I could pick up a Western Digital 250 GB SATA II drive for only 69 bucks – with free shipping, no less!

The first thing I did was was to ensure that my library computer’s motherboard had a SATA connector; it did, but only SATA I connector. SATA I has a 1.5 Gb/s transfer rate, as opposed to the 3 Gb/s transfer rate of the SATA II interface. So I did a little more research to see if the drive could be configured for the lower transfer rate. Western Digital indicates that the drive is “self-regulating”, which means it’s supposed to be backward compatible – automatically. I’ve heard statements like this before, so I didn’t trust this one any farther than I could toss it. However, a little more research showed that WD drives also have a jumper setting to force it to 1.5 Gb/s transfer rate – that’s better.

I could have just spent a little less money and bought a SATA I drive, but hey, I figure the kids are going to want a motherboard upgrade pretty soon anyway, at which point I can just remove the jumper, and upgrade my hard drive at the same time for free.

Installing Windows – Almost

The drive came in the mail yesterday, and I happened to be working at home. So I thought I’d just allow the Windows XP install to run while I worked on my laptop. I popped the new drive into a spare bay, plugged in the SATA cable and the power connector, and booted up the Windows XP installation CD. I left the old hard drive in place so I could copy my kids’ data files after the installation, but I disabled the primary IDE channel in the BIOS so it wouldn’t get in the way during Windows setup. I’ve been burned by this scenario before. Windows will assign drive letters (on a rather permanent basis) to devices based on the order in which they are found during a hardware probe.

When I built my main home computer, I inadvertently had my Zip drive plugged into to a USB port during the installation, and Windows configured it as drive C, of all things! After a little research on Microsoft’s support site, I found I had to reinstall from scratch just to get C: reassigned to the hard drive. Now, you might think I was a little “Type-A” here in “needing” the hard drive to be C: rather the F: it was actually assigned. Well, I’ll tell you, I’m leaving out some details in this story. You see, I actually left it the way it was for about 4 months before reinstalling, and I ran into several software packages during that period that had trouble with the concept of F: being the primary hard drive. Dumb programs (read “programmers”), I know, but it was my pain in the neck, not theirs.

Back to my story: The installation CD whirred and hummed for a minute loading various device drivers in preparation for installing Windows. While this was happening, I sat thinking to myself that it’s always been amazing to me that Microsoft could find just the right set of drivers for the installer to be able to interact with all the hardware in the world… When it finally finished, it popped up a message indicating that no hard drives were found. Hmmm, I guess I thought too soon; SATA drives are apparently not supported by the Windows XP installer.

Oh well. I already knew about the “Press F6 to load additional drivers…” trick. This message is displayed near the beginning of the installation process – just before the installer loads all of the pre-configured drivers on the CD. My family computer’s motherboard is made by MSI, so I went to MSI’s tech-support web site and found that they have a really nifty web-based hardware probe utility (beware: Explorer 5+ and ActiveX are required) that will tell you exactly what driver upgrades are available for your hardware. There are only two problems with this approach. First, you need to access the site from the machine you want to probe – this is understandable. But the second problem is that Windows XP installation drivers are not provided in this service, and quite frankly, the rest of MSI’s support site is a bit of a nightmare.

I booted up Windows from the old IDE hard drive, downloaded a probe utility from MSI and found the manufacturer and model number of the on-board SATA interface. Turns out it’s a VIA VT8237 SATA RAID controller – a fairly popular on-board device in today’s motherboards, although this one is probably a little out of date, as it’s only a SATA I device. But VIA Technologies has a web site dedicated to VIA hardware support. The latest Windows XP SATA RAID drivers for my VT8237 were easily located on this site. In addition, it has some really interesting articles on cutting-edge hardware on the front page.

Floppy Troubles

I opened the zip file and found a utility that creates an XP installation driver floppy image. I popped a blank floppy into drive A and pressed the go button. And nothing happened. After a bit of debugging, I found that the floppy drive in the machine was defective. In fact, I have several computers in my home, but there’s not a working floppy drive in the entire house. Back to the Internet. This time, I downloaded a freeware utility (open source, in fact) that installs a device driver on XP that emulates a floppy drive in either RAM or a disk file. Cool. I’m back in business – at least until I needed to “Press F6 to load additional drivers…” from my non-existent floppy drive. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Setting up this floppy emulator is a bit tricky, as there are several steps involved in getting it to finally show up in your system as drive A:.

  1. Run the vfdwin.exe program. Click on “Install”. You’ll see a message in the output status box at the bottom of the dialog, “The VFD driver is installed.”
  2. Click “Start”. You’ll see another message added to the output box, “The VFD driver is started.”
  3. Click on the “Drive0” tab at the top and press the “Change…” button in the upper right corner to change the drive letter assigned to your virtual floppy drive. By default, no drive letter is assigned, so while you have properly installed the driver and started it, you won’t be able to access the virtual floppy drive until you’ve assigned it a drive letter. Select A:, and another message will be added to the list at the bottom of the dialog, “Drive 0: A drive letter is assigned.”
  4. Now you have to back up your RAM disk with a file. Select the “Open…” button (also found on the “Drive 0” tab). Browse to a location on your hard drive, and enter the file name, “drive_a.bin” (or whatever you want). One more message will be added to the list at the bottom, “Drive 0: A virtual floppy image is opened.”
  5. Click the “Format” button to format the image. You’ll get the usual “Warning…” dialog that you always get when you attempt to format a disk of any kind. Click “OK”, and you’ll get another dialog almost immediately that says formatting is complete. A final message is added to the list, “Formatted the current image.”

This is all a bit pedantic, I know, but it gives you the most flexibility at the expense of a degree or two of simplicity. You can check your final results by opening a command window and typing, “A:<enter>”, or open an explorer window and choose the “3-1/2 Floppy (A:)” entry under “My Computer”. If everything worked properly, you should be looking into your virtual floppy drive. What’s more, no program that’s written properly should be able to tell the difference between your virtual floppy and a real floppy drive.

I went back to my VIA utility to create a floppy image of my installation drivers and sure enough, it wrote a bunch of files to my virtual A drive, which I then copied off into a folder on my desktop – after all, I only needed the files, not the floppy disk!

Installing XP Without a Floppy Drive

Remember that this all started because I needed a way of installing Windows XP onto a SATA drive. And now I had the added problem of not having a working floppy drive in which to add the drivers during the installation process. My virtual floppy driver won’t work – it requires Windows! But there is a way. I downloaded another freeware utility called nLite, which allows you to configure a Windows XP installation image with whatever drivers you want, as well as provides some other really cool features.

You’ll need to ensure that the machine you’re using has .NET framework 1.1 installed. But the nLite installer will tell you if you need it, and even ask if you want to get it and install it before it continues. Just select “Yes” if you need to, but you’ll have to restart the nLite installation after installing .NET. Since I keep my Windows machines pretty much up to date using Windows Update, I didn’t have to worry about this part – I already had it.

nLite comes up as a dialog which allows you to select a Windows XP installation image source. Select “Browse” and navigate to the root of your Win XP install CD. Then – slightly confusingly – another file selection dialog immediately opens asking for the location in which to WRITE the image. Select a location on your hard drive. You ought to have at least 1 GB free to do this because it’s going to copy the entire Windows XP CD image to your hard drive.

Once it completes the copy process, press the “Next >>” button and then skip the pre-install options screen by pressing it again. Now you can select which portions of the installation image you wish to modify. For my purposes, I selected “Bootable Image” and “Add Drivers”, then pressed “Next >>” again. With these options selected, the first screen is the “Add drivers” screen. I pressed the “Insert” button at the bottom, and browsed to the folder on my Desktop containing the VIA SATA drivers that I copied from the virtual floppy image.

Now, the most important thing to realize here is that there’s a difference between regular Windows XP drivers and the “text mode” drivers used by the Windows installation program. Make sure you select the text mode drivers, or you will generate an image that does exactly the same thing as your original XP installation CD – nothing. If you properly select text mode drivers, nLite will open a second dialog window that asks you whether you want text mode or regular drivers. Again, select the text mode drivers, and press “OK” to continue. If you don’t get this additional dialog, then you’ve selected the wrong type of drivers. Select the “Next >>” button again, and you’ll be prompted to choose how you want your image generated. nLite is so cool it will even burn a CD for you. I just popped a blank CD into my CD burner and selected “Burn CD” from the drop-down menu in the upper left. Then pressed the “Burn” button.

Really Installing Windows

When the burn finished, I just rebooted, disabled the primary IDE controller again in the BIOS setup, and then rebooted to the new CD I’d just created. This time I was able to install Windows XP on my new SATA drive – without a floppy drive.

Other cool things you can do with nLite include preconfiguring administrator password and additional user accounts and passwords, pre-configuring the timezone you’ll need, and answering other questions that the XP installation process normally asks you during a typical installation. If you choose carefully, you can create an installation image that will run by itself with no prompting. I can’t even conceive of the amount of information you would need to know about the Windows installation process in order to write such a utility, but I’m sure glad someone else cared enough about it to learn it and write nLite.