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2.25.2009

Upgrading Vista Media Center to DTV/HDTV

Last week most of the local broadcasters in Fort Wayne went ahead with the DTV broadcast switch on schedule and turned off their analog transmitters.  Rather than spend money on a converter box just for the computer, I went ahead and decided to upgrade my Vista Windows Media Center PC with a new DTV tuner card.  I went to A Plus Computers here in town and picked up a Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-1600 dual tuner card.  I like the Hauppauge brand.  I've been using a MCE-150 for years with no problems, so I decided to stick with the same brand.  I researched some of the Pinnacle and other brands available at Best Buy and Radio shack and saw a lot of poor reviews and driver issues.  Hauppauge is solid and a proven name in the Windows Media Center market.  Hauppauge is also one of the few companies that includes a MPEG2 encoder on the card to keep CPU useage low.  Those little USB dongles make your computer do the compression on the video and it can eat up half your CPU cycles.  I can record TV and play games at the same time with the only performance hit being a lot of traffic on the recording drive.  I really recommend using a dedicated 2nd drive for a DVR computer. 

The upgrade went smoothly, except for a couple of issues.  
Vista Media Center can't correctly setup or retrieve program guide info for DTV subchannels.  We get 2-4 channels on a lot of the DTV channels here, so that wasn't going to work for me.  Upgrading to the Microsoft TV Pack 2008 fixed this.  This upgrade isn't supposed to be available to end users, and is only supposed to be done on a fresh install of Vista, but it worked fine as an "in place" upgrade for me.  Once I applied the update, my tuner set up all the subchannels and pulled in correct guide info for them.

I also didn't read the specs closely enough on the HVR-1600, I thought having dual analog / ATSC tuners was going to allow me to tune analog and digital over the air, but the analog tuner in the card only works for Cable channels.  I was expecting it to be switchable in software like the MCE-150.  It turned out to not be a big deal, as only FOX is still on analog in Fort Wayne.  I just popped my MCE-150 back in the lower PCI slot and am running both tuners at the same time.  I just had to go into setup in Vista Media Center and untick all the analog channels except for 55.  I wish Fox would get their crap together and get their DTV transmitter online.  Way to plan ahead guys. 

Now I'm all set up, two tuners, I get 12-15 channels or so for free via rabbit ear antennae.  I get all the major local network shows.  I'm going to have to upgrade my hard drive though.  I have a dedicated 120GB drive for the DVR.  I was getting about 96 hrs of standard def  using the MCE150, but now I can only get 12 hours or so of HD programming with the new tuner.  Looks like I'll have to grab a 1TB drive soon, or clear some space off my 500GB external drive. 

2.24.2009

Medusa 5.1 Surround Gaming Headphone Mini Review

I've been using my Medusa 5.1's Home Edition headphones for over a month now and wanted to relay my impressions.

I think these are great headphones for the price.  They sound very nice, and come with a great cable and preamp package.  I'm loving having real surround audio while gaming, and it's really added to my multiplayer game experience.  I've been playing Left 4 Dead a lot lately, and I've frequently found myself being able to turn and shoot a flanking or leaping enemy because of the positional audio clues.

The build quality of these 'phones is good.  I have no complaints there.  Everything feels solid, the ear pads are nice and comfortable.  They're not too heavy, and they adjust well.
The integrated mic sounds good and is clear and rejects background noise well. 

I only have one hesitation about recommending these headphones.  You need a good sound card to drive them.  You need something with bass redirection or a crossover in the drivers.  I had problems getting the rear channels and bass to sound good until I upgraded from an integrated Realtek HD to a X-Fi. 

People often complain of the rear channels sounding tinny on these headphones, and they need to realize that the drivers in this headset are very small, and the rear channels are even smaller than the side and front ones.  To get good sound from the Medusa 5.1's you need to:

  • Set your sound card output to 5.1 Surround.
  • Set speaker size to small instead of large / full range. (this stops heavy bass from being sent to the "satellite" speakers)
  • Turn Bass Redirection on.
  • Set up your Bass Crossover point to 200Hz or whatever you feel appropriate.  The goal being to send highs and mids to the surround channels, and almost all the bass to the subwoofer/vibration channel.
  • Now set the volume on the preamp up about 50% or so.  This gets a good level of bass to the drivers.  Now adjust the volume on the individual channels on the headset down to taste.  I leave Bass/Vib on about 7 or 8 and the other channels on 4 or 5.  Sometimes I turn the rear channels up 1 notch.

I've found this to be a good combination and it's working well for me with all games and I'm very happy with the results.  I have noticed that Valve games tend to have more issues with tinny rear channels when compared to other developers, so there may also be some kind of issue with the way they process surround.  

Mirror's Edge (PC) with Xbox360 Controller for Windows

I picked up Mirror's Edge for Windows about a week ago and have been playing through it.
I got a little frustrated trying to do some of the tougher spots using keyboard and mouse, so I decided to go ahead and pick up an Xbox 360 controller for Windows. I was wanting one anyway for a few emulators and platformers I have anyway.

I thought I'd relay the following things that I learned:

Mirror's Edge doesn't state game pad support anywhere on the packaging. It's not certified with the "Games for Windows" mark, which usually tells if a game supports the 360 pad. I wasn't sure it would work with the controller at all, but figured it was worth a try. I found that if you start the game with a 360 controller connected, the game detects it and automatically sets it up for you. All the menus gain additional icons that show the correct buttons for "accept" and "back". The Controls menu gets a new option that allows you to choose the 360 controller layout from 3 profiles. I did not find an option to completely customize the buttons. The 360 controller works great, and it really helped me get through some parts where you need to chain a series of buttons together to make a jump. I still find myself reaching for the mouse for some of the sniping / shooting sequences, but the controller is great the rest of the time.

Any Microsoft Xbox 360 wired controller will work with Windows, (not just the ones in the 360 Controller for Windows packaging) you just have to download the drivers. I got mine for cheap from a Disc Replay store. Someone had traded it in for wireless controllers.

Some 3rd Party Xbox360 controllers will work with the Microsoft 360 controller drivers. Check the manufacturer's site first. I know MadCatz will work, they have info on their site about using the MS driver.

On my Windows Vista SP1 machine, no driver download was needed. The controller just detected and started working. I'm not sure if Windows already had the driver, or if it pulled it from Windows Update.

Xbox 360 Wirless controllers are not Bluetooth, if you want to use one with Windows, you have to buy a special Wireless kit that includes a USB radio receiver dongle.

2.06.2009

PNY 9800GT Noise Issues


I picked up a PNY 9800GT 1GB XLR-8 edition video card just after Christmas.  I was looking to upgrade my video card, and Best Buy had them on sale pretty cheap, so I grabbed on. 
Performance was great, and I was really happy with it to begin with, but it always kind of nagged me that it was so loud.  There were no fan control options in software, so I couldn't turn the fan down, it just ran at 100% all the time.  

I moved my PC to a new Antec Three Hundred this week (not because of the card...just because I wanted a nicer case).  I was kind of hoping that more airflow would help, and maybe the card would automatically slow down the fan, but no such luck. 

I contacted PNY support and they told me that I should return the card to the place of purchase or call a number they provided to swap it out.  I was able to get Best Buy to swap it even though I was 2 days outside the return period.  I got the new card, and lo and behold, this one has a better cooler on it. 

I wish I had a shot of the old cooler, because then it would be easier to explain.  
The original one was thick, and it had a translucent blue shroud down near the power connector side of the card.  It's also easily identifiable because it attaches to the card with 4 large screws that protrude into the slot directly above the graphics slot.  This means you can't fit an expansion card in that slot, and it might hit your northbridge cooler.  

The new design is very slim, and very quiet.  It seems to have a larger contact surface, and it's fitted to the card with flush mounted screws.  This one is nearly inaudible.  I launched the NVidia control panel, and this one supports full fan controls if you have the user overclock / fan utilities enabled. 

So, if you're going to buy one of these cards, you want the one with the black cooler below, not the blue cooler with the black sticker: