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The Media Center Experiment

So it’s back to wanting a PC under the TV. However, having seen MCE 2005 PCs in action, I new that I didn’t want to go back to my crusty old system. I wanted to use a slick interface and a remote that really worked. Now officially end users can't buy MCE 2005 but there is an easy workaround exploited by ebuyer.com. Purchase the software with a piece of hardware, either a say a graphics card or even a mouse and end users can obtain it. Ebuyer sells the software for £77.21 and a pack containing the Media Center Remote Control, receiver and two IR blasters to connect to your set top box, for £23.49.

However, I was assisted by a contact at Elonex. This is a company that really knows its Media Center onions, and is one of the few PC companies to be actually pushing the concept on the UK with its Extentia, Artisan and Lumina lines. I was sent an ATI Media Center evaluation kit containing the required hardware and software. MCE has specific hardware requirements, so I thought that this kit would provide me with everything I needed. It wasn’t quite the case however. In my haste to get that MCE goodness I neglected to do any proper research and ended up wasting quite a bit of time. I discovered that you can’t simply upgrade a machine to MCE - it has to be a clean install. Not that the installation tells you this. I put the disc into my exsiting XP install and let it do it’s thing but once it was complete I was left with just another install of Windows XP. Oh dear.

So I started again. On the way, the install suddenly asked for a Service Pack 2 disc, which I didn’t have to hand. So I just skipped this thinking I’d install it later. Oh dear. Another mistake. The install completed, but resulted in a weird nether version of Windows with vital parts such as networking completely missing. It was like it had passed through a Star Trek transporter and returned missing some vital limbs.

Take 3. I downloaded SP2, unzipped the exe and copied it to disc. When the install requested SP2 I popped in the disc. At first all was well until it said suddenly said it couldn’t find some files. Huh? It turned out that the files were on the disc but that somehow the unzipping had caused the last letter of the file extension to be truncated - CA_ rather than CAB, or DL_ instead of DLL. So I manually had to rename them and place them on a USB memory key. A slow and painful process but fortunately there weren’t too many required files affected and eventually it completed.

And then, finally I had a working MCE 2005 box. The shenanigans weren’t quite over though as I then found out that you can’t use regular drivers for your graphics cards but that specific MCE drivers are required. Luckily there were some for the card I was using.

I tried both ATI and nVidia cards, settling on the latter as it happened to be fanless, which helps keeps the noise down; important for a lounge based system. However, I found that neither brand supported widescreen resolutions though the TV-Out. The nVidia drivers let me enter custom resolutions but none correctly matched the screen. Instead I made do with 800 x 600 stretched in wide mode.

There is a way of avoiding this mess however, and that’s to get a ready built MCE 2005 system. No sooner had I finished my own box but I was able to try out just such a system from Shuttle - the pre-built, MCE 2005 ready, SB83G5M. I’ll be reviewing this soon so I don’t won’t to give too much away. Suffice to say that the box is far better than my own effort. It’s faster, better featured and much nicer to look at. It has a built-in memory card reader and after a day out I popped in a card and was able to view the images in an automatic slideshow. I must admit doing so felt just like an advert from a Microsoft video promoting the digital home, but it was undeniably useful.

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