First stage of HTPC project proves tricky


Replacing the TiVo still isn't easy
— 11:02 AM on October 18, 2005

EVER SINCE WE first reviewed an early version of Snapstream's Beyond TV, I have had some form of Shuttle box or the like running this program in Damage Labs, ready to stream video over the local network to any box in the house. This setup's existence has been suspended for many months between my intentions—to build a real HTPC for use in the living room to replace the TiVo—and various realities involving the relative difficulty of building a truly adequate TiVo replacement and my own available time. Then my HTPC project got a jolt over the weekend when, out of nowhere, the Toshiba DVD player in my living room gave up the ghost.

Now, I had already pretty much decided that BeyondTV wouldn't make a suitable replacement for the TiVo, because its interface is a little too clunky for the whole family to use, and it's not integrated with DVD and music player applications. More likely, I'd buy Windows XP Media Center Edition for use as the foundation for my final HTPC. However, I decided to go ahead with a first stage of the project using Beyond TV and the various applications included with ATI's All-In-Wonder video cards. That would get us basic DVD playback capabilities, and we could test out how it all worked in the living room. I could change to Windows XP MCE and fancy wireless keyboards later.

My first step was to rebuild this existing Beyond TV box with better hardware and a newer version of Beyond TV. I cracked open the Shuttle SB75S and ripped out the old Personal Cinema card and the pitiful 20GB hard drive, among other things. When all was said and done, I had installed a Pentium 4 3GHz, two 512MB DDR400 DIMMs, a Seagate Barracuda V 120GB hard drive, a Pioneer DVD player, an All-in-Wonder X800 XT, and a Theater 500 tuner card. The hard drive was still a little small, but it would suffice. I also upgraded Beyond TV to the latest version and installed ATI's full suite of Catalyst and Multimedia Center goodies. Then I made things easier for myself by installing ATI's older Remote Wonder rather than one of the newer models, because Beyond TV doesn't have built-in support for the newer ones.

To my surprise, the software installations all went smoothly, and adding the two new tuners as video sources for Beyond TV was fairly painless. Obviously, Beyond TV's upgrade process has improved. In no time, the box was running BTV with hardware-accelerated deinterlacing and the proper overlays, and playing DVDs with an almost ridiculous 2-4% CPU utilization. Now came the easy part: hooking it up to the TV in the living room.

I really should have known better given my past experiences, but I guess I'd listened to the constant drumbeat of improvements in HDTV support in driver release notes from ATI and NVIDIA for too long. The TV isn't a living-room-swallowing monster; it's just a Samsung 27" flat CRT with component inputs and support for 480p and 1080i display modes. I hooked up the rat's nest of cables and breakout boxes to the appropriate places, powered up the HTPC, and everything seemed to work. The video card was in 800x600 mode, and by default, ATI's software scrolled to allow viewing of the whole screen. I pulled up Catalyst Control Center to do some tweaking.

My first mistake was pressing the wrong button in the component display properties sheet. I selected 720p, which I'd forgotten this TV doesn't support. By the time I hit "apply," it was over—no "Can you see this?" dialog with a countdown, no fail-safes of any kind. The picture was garbled, and no amount of rebooting into VGA mode or the like would allow me to fix it. I dragged a computer monitor into the room and hooked it up to the AIW card, as well, but the component display properties wouldn't show up in CCC and couldn't be adjusted when a second display was connected. After fumbling around in the registry with no luck, I finally uninstalled and reinstalled the display drivers, which did the trick.

Still a little shell-shocked, I stepped carefully into my next task, which was to set the resolution to something more closely matching my TV's 480p display. 640x480 seemed like the right choice, so that's what I chose. Here's a fun one for you: the Catalyst Control Center window itself is larger than 640x480, making it practically unusable at that resolution. What's more, I still needed to tweak the display, because the desktop ran off the edges of the screen in every direction, and the aspect ratio wasn't quite right. What followed was an intricate dance of CCC window resizing, guessing keyboard shortcuts, and quiet cursing.

Things got even more complicated from there, but the bottom line is that I couldn't fix the overscan and aspect ratio problems at 480p. Although they can do it for other HDTV modes, ATI's drivers offer the user no means of pulling in the edges of a 480p display to fit. I suppose my next step is to try S-Video. Flicker, flicker!

Beyond that, I've confirmed my fears that the generally-quiet Shuttle box is still much too loud for a living room environment, and that you'd darn well better have a good wireless keyboard and mouse combo before you attempt to use an HTPC, especially in the setup stages. A remote won't cut it. Stage two of this project may have to involve all-new hardware as well as software, including a better enclosure, a quieter hard drive, a Pentium M, and perhaps an NVIDIA graphics card, if that's any better with a 480p display. 

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